The Medieval Review 11.09.02

Hall, Richard. Viking Age Archaeology. Shire Archaeology. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2010. Pp. 64. . . $13.95. 978-0-74780-063-7.

Reviewed by:

Lilla Kopár
The Catholic University of America
KOPAR@cua.edu

The Viking raids of the late eighth and early ninth centuries and the subsequent settlement of the Scandinavians in the ninth and tenth centuries had a deep impact on many aspects of the history and culture of the British Isles. Although the so-called Viking Age is traditionally defined as a period from the first recorded raids on England in the 790s to the appearance of the next group of intruders, the Normans, in the mid-eleventh century, the Scandinavian impact on the British Isles extended well beyond the latter boundary. The Western Isles and the Isle of Man remained under Scandinavian rule until 1266, Orkney and Shetland until 1468. Scandinavian influence on English art outlasted Viking political dominance, Scandinavian runes continued to be used into the twelfth century, and the impact of Old Norse is still visible in the English language today. While the historical records of the Viking period are sometimes patchy and most often one-sided, the wide variety of material remains offers us rare glimpses into the life and culture of the Scandinavian settlement areas throughout the British Isles. The objectives of Richard Hall's concise work are to give a brief but comprehensive overview of the different types of material evidence from Viking Age Britain and Ireland and to offer an informed introduction to the field, both to its methodologies and its main discoveries.

Richard Hall is one of the leading experts of Viking Age archaeology in Britain and the author of numerous publications, both scholarly and of general interest. He was part of the two most famous archaeological digs of the past decades: the excavations of Viking Dublin and the famous Viking Dig of York, a five-year excavation campaign (1976-81) at Coppergate, which resulted not only in spectacular finds but ultimately in the establishment of the Jorvik Viking Centre at the same site in 1984. Hall is now Director of Archaeology of the York Archaeological Trust.

Viking Age Archaeology in Britain and Ireland is part of the Shire Archaeology series (popular museum shop books in the UK), which offers concise and affordable expert guides to a variety of subjects for a non-specialist audience. [1] As with most Shire publications, the present volume is confined to about sixty pages, including a list of museums and relevant sites to visit, a very brief bibliography, an index, as well as over thirty photographs and illustrations, of which only one is in color (the cover). Considering its length, the book is remarkably detailed and highly informative.

The material remains that the Vikings left behind range from swords, brooches, coins, and carved stones to boat burials, silver hoards, and remains of complex settlements. In his book Hall surveys the various types of archaeological evidence (often with a specific geographical focus on Dublin and York, two important but very different centers of Viking settlement). The story of the Viking Age is told through the material evidence, but a narrative of historical events is skillfully interwoven in the discussion of the archaeological finds. In the first few chapters Hall offers an introduction not only to the Viking period but also to the early study of the Vikings in the British Isles and the difficulties caused by the lack of systematic and scientific excavations and fieldwork prior to the 1950s. The methodological challenges of the field and the uncertainties of interpretation are brought to the attention of the reader throughout the book, as the author carefully avoids the oversimplifications and overgeneralizations that often characterize concise introductions.

Hall's focus is on those archaeological remains that are "distinctively Scandinavian" (5), largely bypassing (if at all possible, as often noted by the author himself) evidence for the adoption and adaptation of those local elements that bear witness to interaction between the native population and the newcomers, and ultimately to the gradual assimilation of the Scandinavian settlers. Such an approach is justifiable for this brief overview, but it fails to highlight this important aspect of Viking colonization in the British Isles.

Hall covers a remarkable array of finds. Long sections in the book are devoted to settlement structures, including fortifications, Irish longphorts, house sites, house building techniques, rural and urban settlements, and the impact of the Vikings on urbanization. Coins, the most dateable artifacts of the period, also feature prominently, together with various types of weaponry, jewelry (brooches, pins, and rings), and stone sculpture. No survey of Viking Age archaeology would be complete without a discussion of burial types, presented here in the last and longest chapter, with numerous examples from various Scandinavian settlement areas of the British Isles. Inevitably, one may well have wished to have more detailed presentations of certain topics (wood carvings, the diversity of stone sculpture, the array of isolated finds, or the significance of DNA testing) but all in all, the book is well balanced in its presentation of the scope of the surviving material and the evaluation of the evidence-value of the different finds.

Viking-age archaeology is a vibrant and rapidly developing field of study in which new discoveries are being made on a regular basis, discoveries which often require scholars to reinterpret previous finds and rethink earlier theories. It is in this respect that this otherwise excellent book is found wanting. It was first published in 1990, reprinted with amendments in 1995, and the present 2010 publication is simply a reprint. As a result, it fails to shed light on the latest finds and developments of nearly the past two decades. This deficiency is also true of the bibliography, which only includes publications only up to 1994. (One minor update to the new edition was a change in the cover image. Oddly, the main text (56) still references the old cover illustration, the photograph of a ship burial.) In spite of these minor points of criticism, this affordable and nicely illustrated book could well serve as a reading in academic courses on early medieval England or the Vikings, or as a useful guide and entry point to the field for the non-specialist.

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Notes:

1. Other similar titles regarding the early medieval period and its material remains include J. Lang, Anglo-Saxon Sculpture, 1999; M. Seaborne, Celtic Crosses of Britain and Ireland, 2009; J. Haslam, Early Medieval Towns in Britain, c.700-1140, 2010; R. & W. Megaw, Early Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland, 2005; L. Laing, Later Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland, 1997.