Conversion to Christianity in Viking Age Scandinavia

Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen Ansgar the preaching Christianity to the heathen Swedes, via Wikimedia

Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen Ansgar the preaching Christianity to the heathen Swedes, via Wikimedia

Examining religion is a tricky thing to do, especially in societies that are over a thousand years gone and have lost large amounts of their archaeological record. First, it can be difficult to tell what religion someone is based solely on their burial and body. There are many indicators of religion like the church one attends, what day of the week one goes to a religious service, the types of items in one’s house such as crosses or stars, the number of times one prays, the direction of prayer, the types of clothing one wears, and the other people someone is associated with. However, few of these end up in the archaeological record specifically associated with an individual. We may find some remnants of clothing, perhaps an artifact or two that are specifically tied to a religion, which cemetery they were buried in and maybe the grave marker will have some indicators. Second, things are further complicated by the fact that the dead don’t bury themselves. In a changing world, it is highly possible that the spouse or someone else will take it upon themselves to bury their loved ones in the manner of their own religion not of the deceased in order to protect the remains. An individual may also be buried with religious items simply because they were exotic or precious, not because they were associated with a particular deity.

Determining religion of the deceased is can be very complicated, which means that interpreting conversion cemeteries can be even harder. In a new article by Lund (2013) conversion is examined in Scandinavia from 800 to 1050 CE. Previous interpretations have been made assuming that burial manner is a direct reflection of religious belief. Early studies also took written historic texts as a base for archaeological interpretation, using artifacts and burials as support to the text. Further, there is a predisposition to see Christianity in this area as a complete “European package” replacing traditional religious ways, rather than becoming integrated into Norse tradition. Conversion is not replacement, it is transition and usually involves syncretism (mixing and remixing of old and new traditions). In this article, Lund (2013) aims to challenge this one dimensional viewpoint, and instead proposes investigating the multiple ways that bodies and artifacts were handled in a conversion era cemetery.

Viking boat funeral, via the Good Funeral Guide

Viking boat funeral, via the Good Funeral Guide

Lund (2013) argues that Viking era burials in Scandinavia can be characterized by their lack of homogeneity and diversity of practices. There were different trends regionally, but also different choices within single cemeteries. Some individuals were cremated and buried at the pyre, others were cremated and buried at a different site, and some were buried as if they were cremated as a pile of clean bone but without any sign of burning. Burial containers are fairly diverse as well, ranging from cauldrons to coffins to boats. Some of the burial rituals involve reopening the graves and destroying either portions of the body or artifacts. Lund (2013: 49) argues that this diversity can be interpreted as different conceptions of the afterlife being present within the same communities and same cultural groups. It also indicates that there were different strategies for dealing with the deceased, indicative of different ways of reconstructing the identity of the dead and mourning community.

While variation is often attributed to social identity or demography (age, sex, clan, profession, ethnicity), this doesn’t explain the full range of Viking burial traditions. Lund instead argues this variation is due to different perceptions of the relationship between body, identity, and afterlife. The introduction of Christianity meant that these diverse strategies needed to be amended with Christian traditions, the new burial strategies with religious change were part of conversion, not a consequence of it. The problem of the Christian transition is that it conceptualized as a monolithic well-understood entity. Lund (2013) argues that diversity continued in Scandinavian burial traditions despite conversion.

First, there was variation in the coffins, both material either stone or wood, shape or way it was made, and whether they were present at all. Second, birch bark continued to be used as a covering for the body as it was once used in cremation burials to hold the bones. It came in a variety of colors and could be wrapped around the body in different manners. Further, spreading charcoal throughout the bottom of the grave continued from Viking to Christian times, potentially a carry over from cremation practices. Fourth, artifacts continue to be found with the remains, though smaller and less frequent, and can include smaller personal items to combs to coins.

Lund (2013) concludes that what changes with conversion is not diversity in burial practices, but rather a change in treatment of the body to match the new conception of the afterlife. The one major shift seen throughout is the change from disarticulating and cremating individuals to complete inhumation burials. Christianity portrayed hell as a place where bodies were fragmented, and this change in perception of afterlife meant a concurrent change in treatment of the deceased. This is an important piece of the argument. The treatment of the body was dictated by the perceptions of death, body and afterlife. As this perception is altered, there is a slow change in burial practices to reflect this rather than an abrupt switch from one form to another simply due to conversion. It isn’t acceptance of religion, but the acceptance of a new afterlife that is important.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgLund, J. (2013). Fragments of a conversion: handling bodies and objects in pagan and Christian Scandinavia 800–1100 World Archaeology, 45 (1), 46-63 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2012.759511

4 responses to “Conversion to Christianity in Viking Age Scandinavia

  1. I’m not sure how far beyond the funeral practices that your interests in this subject goes, but if you are interested I would recommend a book called “The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation” by James C. Russell. Excellent coverage of the main elements of conversion in European regions.

  2. Pingback: Cremation: The Hot Burial Trend | Bones Don't Lie·

  3. Pingback: The dead don’t bury themselves | The Object Agency·

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