This year’s symposium was held at the University of Nottingham on Saturday 23rd April 2016. Its theme was “Interpreting the Viking Age”, and as such it offered a varied and tantalising programme, so it was with eager anticipation that I arrived at the venue.
The introduction was given by Judith Jesch, and then we moved straight into the first paper of the day: Ryder Patzuk-Russell, from the University of Birmingham. Ryder presented the Icelandic Breta sögur documents, which describe the mythic origins of the peoples of Western Europe through translations and interpretations of texts including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He discussed the changes apparent in the translation, which shift its focus more closely onto the Scandinavian lands, as well as indicating the sympathies of the translator through subtle changes in
language and tone from Geoffrey’s original. Next up was Stephen Harding from the University of Nottingham who outlined the terrible deterioration which has occurred to the wooden objects found with the Oseberg Viking ship burial, through the interaction of their iron fixtures, moisture in the air, and the alum used to preserve them when they were first excavated in 1904. Stephen is involved in a project to try and find a remedy for this damage and ensure the survival of the artefacts for future generation – and the substance which makes up crab shells may hold the key! The final paper of the morning session was given by Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey. She outlined the programme of isotope analysis which she has undertaken on the teeth of a group of late 10th-early 11th century skeletons found in an execution burial pit near Weymouth. By leading us through the various analyses, and mapping which geographical areas they excluded as origins for the people in the grave, Jane built up a convincing case to suggest that most of the beheaded men grew up in the coastal areas of Poland.
Lunch was next on the schedule, with the opportunity to chat to other delegates and digest both the tasty catering and the fascinating papers we’d heard in the morning. There was also the chance to meet the knowledgeable and talented living history enthusiasts from Bernicia Crafts, and to browse the book stall and the stall selling t-shirts produced by the Viking Minds company. I succumbed to temptation and bought a t-shirt; this was pretty much a foregone conclusion since some of the shirts showed one of my favourite coins – a raven penny of Anlaf Guthfrithson of the Viking Kingdom of York. As an Early Medieval numismatist there was no way I could resist!
The afternoon session kicked off with two papers looking at place names. Rebecca Gregory from the University of Nottingham was first, highlighting Scandinavian elements in the minor place-names of Nottinghamshire (those being the names of fields, streams and small settlements, rather than large towns). She suggested that some of these may be indicative of Scandinavian settlement patterns in the area. Rebecca was followed by Lesley Abrams of the University of Oxford who presented a very revealing paper looking at the differing scholarly attitudes towards the potential of place name studies in different parts of the Scandinavian diaspora. She particularly focused on the contrasting situation in England and Normandy, and traced the history of place name research in those two regions in order to make suggestions for the reasons behind this difference of regard for the discipline. Following on from this, Richard Jones of the University of Leicester presented a research project which included elements of place name study in Normandy: Richard has been involved in sampling the DNA of residents of the Cotentin peninsula to search for markers of ancestry which may relate to migration into the area in the Early Medieval period, be it Norse, Danish, Irish, or Germanic. He has compared the results of this analysis to other elements, including place names, to draw some tentative conclusions about the movement of peoples into the area in the Viking period.
These three papers were followed by a teabreak, and then the final session of the day started with Wendy Scott of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Wendy showed an intriguing, and gorgeous, selection of artefacts which have been found in the Midlands by members of the public and reported through the PAS. These are objects which have stylistic or cultural association with the Vikings, and as such included items of Scandinavian manufacture, pieces with Scandinavian styling but probable English manufacture, and items such as arabic coins and chopped up pieces of metalwork which offer evidence of raiding and pillaging. The resulting collation of these finds hints at the widespread influence of the Vikings in this area. Our final talk took us up to York; Gareth Dean of the University of Nottingham presented an archaeological and topographic study of Early Medieval activity in the area of the old Roman fortress. He took an interesting approach, considering the variety of functions, and the flexibility of meanings, of spaces within an urban setting, in particular in relation to the role of the church within those spaces. Gareth’s paper suggested that the fortress area was actually delineated within the city for far longer than has been traditionally assumed, and that this may have been related to its function as a sacred space and a site of ‘cultural memory’ of the power of Northumbria.
This was my first experience of the Midlands Viking Symposium, and I was hugely impressed! The topic isn’t directly related to my doctoral research, so I had the luxury of attending purely for my personal interest. The main thing which struck me was the great variety of disciplines represented by the speakers. I had previously had a vague notion that this would be a historians’ conference but the papers included literature, place names, science, archaeology, conservation and even marine biology too! Similarly the audience was diverse and varied, and it was an excellent chance to catch up with old friends as well as meet new and interesting people. It was a fun and stimulating day, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event in Birmingham!
Anja Rohde is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities consortium. Her doctoral research is entitled “The Coinages of William I (1066-1087) and William II (1087-1100) and their Implications for our Understanding and Public Representation of the Norman Conquest”.
Images: ‘Oseberg vikingship’ © Eivind Lindseth, all other photographs © Judith Jesch