Being a so-called “medievalist” living in America, not everybody can really relate to the niche of my academic background, and that requires me to resort to a few simplifications beyond what was required of me back home. Though prone to yapping, I keep it as my mantra to try to avoid what Nassim Taleb might call nerdery, that is information without charm. If people ask me what I "do" I usually just tell them I write about “Vikings”, and that’s usually enough to gauge their interest. To some the Viking is just a word in the dictionary, or a face on a TV-screen.
If you don’t know and don’t care too much about the prehistories of exotic nations, you can well be excused for finding it all a little too abstract. Scandinavia isn’t exactly the navel of the world. But I made an interesting observation that I’ll pretend surprised me more than it did, about the go-to image Americans tend to evoke when reminded that the Viking Age exists: The so-called Viking funeral.
Chuck another on the fire
You probably already know what I’m talking about: A dragon ship bobbing in the open ocean. The cold body of a chieftain resting atop a stack of treasure, dressed in his finest garments. Armed, armored even. A carefully meditated shot sends a single flaming arrow hurling towards it in an elegant arch, setting the scene ablaze. A delicately planned stage drama in its essence.
It will generally pop up in introductory social chit-chat situations. What’s new is that I never really reflected on how big of a meme this is, having surrendered it to the big pile of peculiar notions people have about Early Norse society that I stopped thinking about years ago. I don’t know how this became the distinguishing mark of Old Norse culture, but let’s entertain how this pop-culture saturated scenario would work in real life: To the untrained eye, it might appear to be off to an exciting start as the more combustible parts of the funeral vessel catches fire. Fabrics, straw, and other plant materials may give off intense, but short lived flames. Presuming the cremation platform was constructed by an expert, that it is ventilated, dry, the fire may well continue burning for a while.
The emerging issue is that there is a great likelihood that the vessel would begin taking in water long before the body is finished cremating. Especially if the vessel in question is a boat rather than a full ship, which seems statistically likely and economically reasonable, if not exactly pyrotechnically sound.
Imagine the horrified faces of loved ones and old allies as the magnificent vessel begins to heel starboard, spewing smoke as the proud warrior's bloated body rolls off the pyre. The ballast might pull parts of the ship to the bottom of the ocean, while scattered pieces of wreckage, coal, charred straw, and indeed most if not all of the dead guy himself, would be bobbing in the surf soon after. I think it's safe to say that water does not provide ideal crematory conditions.
But the idea isn’t half bad. Though the mental image of the floating funeral pyre is an awkard one, we find most of its elements in Old Norse funerary practice and beliefs. Ship burials were in vogue in Early Norse culture, and by “Early Norse” I mean the Viking Era, the final stage of the Nordic Iron Age, before the start of the Nordic Middle Ages. They also practiced cremation, among other things. Sometimes in combination with boat and ship burials, but physically at sea? Beyond mythological sources, the evidence ain’t too inclined.
What is a “burial” anyway?
The ship was but one of many symbols associated with the afterlife in pre-Christian Scandinavia. And though this makes sense for a seafaring culture, boat and ship burials were still comparatively rare. In reality, Scandinavian burial practices were amazingly diverse. Some people were afforded expensive burials with lavish grave goods, and complex, laboriously constructed monuments. This was partly dependent on social status, presumably, but but there must also have been other conditions and circumstances governing how a the dead were treated in any given year or location.
By the Viking Era, Scandinavians had already been building burial mounds for thousands of years, yielding innumerable burial mounds scattered across Scandinavia. A counterpoint to the international myth of the Viking buried at sea is the popular Scandinavian misconception that barrows typified how the dead were treated in the Viking Era, forgetting that these represent an accumulation of dead aristocrats across thousands of years. In reality, burial mounds are tremendously hard work, and only few important individuals were afforded such an honor, though old burial mounds were often reused, sometimes several times across everything from a few generations to thousands of years.
Monumental grave markers speak of power. Archaeologists assume that burial mounds followed times of conflict and political assertion. Iron Age burial mounds came with and without seafaring vessels, some were buried in wagons, or just the wagon box. Many were laid in flat ground, with or without (surviving) funerary monuments, while some were buried by or between standing stones. Some were even placed in small wooden structures, or laid under cliff overhangs. Some sat upright in their burial chambers, other lay down in their coffins. Some on their back, some prone. Some graves face east-west, others north-south. Some dead were laid down whole, others burned to ashes and scooped into a serving bowl. There are instances where people have been posthumously decapitated, crushed by heavy stones, or had their jaw removed and swapped for that of an animal. Due to the oftentimes extreme variation in burial practices in prehistoric Scandinavia, some archaeologists have argued whether we can talk about “typical” burials at all.
Its not uncommon to see neopagans fantasizing about elaborately furnished burials, but there’s every reason to believe that most people enjoyed simple burials that left few (if any) material traces for the distant future to observe. Through much of Scandinavian prehistory, cremation was practiced alongside inhumation (the more conventional meaning of “burial”). We know very little about how these cremations were organized and how they actually happened, but charred human remains in funerary contexts reveal that Iron Age, and even Bronze Age Scandinavians certainly weren’t one-trick ponies in that department. Evidence suggests they could choose between a range of different cremation techniques, which finally leads us to the main focus of this article.
Before the second half of the first millennium, the dead were usually cremated before their bones deposited somewhere else, while in the Viking Age, pyre and burial are often in the very same spot. Cremation may have been a practical way of dealing with the remains of people who died abroad, but they were also commonplace locally. It could be as simple as being cremated in some designated public or ritual space before being movied to a local cemetery or appropriate burial site, sometimes only a few yards away. In the first half of the Iron Age, they were often buried in an urn, pot or some other kind of vessel. As with all archaeological contexts, burials leave a lot to the imagination. But this is even more so the case with cremations. First and foremost because prehistoric Scandinavian cremation graves hardly contain any bones at all. What the fuck?
A modern cremation yields, on average, 3037 grams of bones (3375 grams for men, 2625 grams for women), amounting to a volume of 7,8 liters before they are ground to ashes. But these are not the figures we see in archaeological contexts. In Scandinavian cremation burials, the total weight of remains usually ranges between a few grams up to 100. One study of 1082 separate cremation contexts recovered only a handful of burials where the total mass of bones exceeded 1000 grams, which is still less than a third of the post-cremation bone weight of an average grown man. In only two cases did the bones amount to more than 3000 grams (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 77).
This appears to have been fairly consistent feature of Scandinavian burial practice back to the Late Bronze Age. In excavations of a cult and burial site in Ringeby in Östegötland, Sweden, active from 1000 BCE up until 350 BCE, archaeologists identified the remains of 44 separate individuals. The excavation yielded a total of 7000 grams of bones, but only 823 grams of these bones were human. Less than one third the weight of one complete, average male skeleton divided among 44 different people (Kaliff & Østigård 2013: 78). Migration Era funerary urns in Norway hold about 1,5 liters on average, so if these were made with a funerary purpose, they were intentionally made to only fit a fragment of a person’s skeleton (Østigård 2007: 52)
In contrast to inhumations, where the complete body is buried, it must have been extremely rare to bury the full remains of any given cremated individual. That the burial formed only one symbolic piece in a bigger eschatological puzzle. In other words, something else was consistently happening in the middle phase between cremation and burial, since only a small fragment of the actual bones usually made it into the burials, so where the hell did the rest go? To offer a possible answer to this riddle need to take a deeper look at cremation itself.
To burn a body
Who were given the task of cremating the dead in Iron Age Scandinavia, and how did they do it? These are some of the questions the Norwegian archaeologist Terje Østigård has asked in his comparative work on fire, ritual, and transformation in prehistoric Scandinavia, who is also the main source and inspiration for this article.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that there’s much more to burning a body than lighting it on fire. It’s actually quite hard. There is a range of factors the budding crematory worker must consider, temperature obviously being the most important. Modern cremation ovens are usually preheated to around 650-700 °C, and this temperature may often rise to 1000-1200 °C once the body catches fire. Temperatures in the latter range are generally not possible on an open air funeral pyre due to heat loss. Furthermore, the temperature of any given fire is never completely evenly distributed (Østigård 2007: 33). If a pyre burns cold and unevenly, the body may only be partially cremated.
On a pyre, fat people are harder to burn than skinny people, while the opposite is true if you are cremating in an oven, since the closed environment allows for a greater build up of temperatures to the point where an obese corpse essentially fuels itself. In an outside environment, the struggle is not only about getting the fire burning (and people generally don't burn very well), but also maintaining temperature. If you didn’t guess it already, if you are being roasted on a DIY pyre built and tended by inexperienced cremators (read: family members) the results can be both messy and inefficient. A modern oven cremation can be over in as soon as an hour. In modern Nepal, a professional pyre cremator can get the job done in two or three hours, while families doing it themselves may spend up 5 hours (Østigård 2007 : 21).
Bones subjected to lower temperatures look different from bones treated to higher ones, and hence be qualitatively graded. Østigård refers to four distinct qualities of cremated remains:
Grade 0: Unburnt bones without visible traces of fire, but have been affected by heat. Maximum temperature probably didn't exceed 200 °C.
Grade 1: Sooty bones. Maximum exposed temperature probably didn't exceed 400 °C.
Grade 2: Lightly burnt bones. Maximum temperature probably no higher than 700-800 °C.
Grade 3: Moderately burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1000-1100 °C.
Grade 4: Heavily burnt bones that have been exposed to temperatures in the range of 1200-1300 °C.
Mind you, different fragments from a single cremation may yield varying grades because the temperature distribution in any given fire is never even. Remains in the scale of 3,73 would reflect a job well done, while 0,70 would probably have been very sloppy. The grading of the bones allows us to say something about the skill and experience level of whoever performed the cremation.
As you probably realize, there are many good reasons for getting professional help: During cremation, fat and flesh will be sizzling and roasting. Tendons and muscles contract, causing limbs to move and twist, and even make the body sit up or raise its arms and legs, and heads tend to explode with an audible bang above a certain temperature. A specialist would know how to spare onlookers from such grim displays, the family may not even be aware of the issue. But there are also reasons why a family might choose to do it themselves: They may not have the financial resources to hire a specialist, or desire to do it themselves under a sense of social obligation, and so on. In the Indian subcontinent, many cremations are handled this way, or under the supervision of a specialist.
In these cases, if we presume that the cremation is overseen by a male member of the family, such as a brother, uncle, or the oldest son, there is a limit to the experience this person will normally have when it comes to dealing with the dead. Hindu priest specializing in cremations may oversee thousands of cremations within the first ten years of his career. As Østigård says, an amateur cremates differently than someone who has cremated 15000 people.
Who cremated the dead?
Simply judging from Germanic and Old Norse social norms, we might expect that Scandinavians relied heavily on family members to perform funerals. Reasonably the main heir, the oldest son, might have been responsible for burying his parents, which is the case in contemporary Hindu tradition. On average, it is unusual to have any previous experience cremating people before the death of either parent. This means only one son would have first hand experience doing so, and only the really unfortunate would be required to cremate more than two people in the course of their lives (Østigård 2007: 14). Most would certainly have witnessed more cremations before then, and be familiar with some of the more obvious principles and religious symbolism associated with building a pyre, such as its proportions and general construction, roughly how much wood is needed, and so on. Even though some Nepalese families may choose to do much or all of the work themselves, specialist and overseers are readily available for those who can afford it.
The question is, did pre-Christian Scandinavian society have local access to such specialists? There is no evidence pointing directly to the existence of a specific priestly caste in Scandinavian Germanic society. Priesthood was a role performed in specific situations, rather than a full time job, delegated in accordance with social, economical and political status. It is also probable that specific vocations opened for specialized ritual functions.
But is there even any evidence they utilized or needed such specialists? If we can determine the quality of burnt bones in archaeological contexts, we would certainly know, and we do. So how effective were Scandinavian cremation practices, exactly? Barring a few exceptions where we might imagine a burnt lasagna sort of situation, the botched final journey as conducted by a mourning son completely without prior experience, it turns out that quite often, Scandinavian Iron Age cremation methods were extremely effective.
By “effective” I don’t just mean that the bodies were evenly and neatly burned. Østigård coughs up some fascinating numbers that point towards a possibility few of us, and certainly myself, would once have imagined. On account of previously addressed grading system for cremated bones, the majority of bones in Scandinavian Iron Age contexts meet the grades 3 and 4, on the very top of the scale. That means they were subjected to temperatures between 1000-1300 °C, well within the standard of modern crematoriums, or higher, which suggests that people had access to specialists mastering the element of fire. The obvious candidate at this time, in this culture, is the smith.
These temperatures can only be achieved with a very large and properly constructed pyre, but while remains of such pyres are also represented in the archaeological material, these temperature ranges are also consistent with smelting ovens and furnaces, opening for the very real possibility that ancient Scandinavian smiths doubled as ritual specialists whose workshops doubled as crematoriums, human bone fragments in Bronze Age smelting ovens seem to confirm this purpose (Østigård 54:). It is also worth pointing out, as Østigård does, what a strange and marginal figure the smith is in many pre-urban societies, including Scandinavia. Sometimes an untouchable, impure or sacred. In Scandinavia he was often a dangerous, sorcerous figure who tended to an immense variety of local tasks, from shoeing horses to performing surgery, to judging local courts and, not insignificantly, tending the dead. Essential, and simultaneously exiled to the margins, either for the sake of fire-safety or superstition, or even enslaved (consider the myth of Vǫlundr). A mediator between Earth, Heaven, and Hell.
The riddle of steel
Not only did the Iron Age smith possess the means, know-how, and probably also the religious authority to properly cremate the dead, he had a wealth of esoteric technical knowledge out of reach to many members of society (Østigård 2007: 42), and among the wonders at his fingertips we find the transformation of iron into steel. A process beginning at 720 °C with molecular changes to the structure of iron when a source of carbon is added. In the Iron Age, coal produced from animal bones were probably an indispensable source, and with all of the above considered, it seems more than likely that blacksmiths made use of human bones for the same purpose, a resource they would have had ample access to, allowing him to transfer not only the carbon contents — but perhaps the properties or the spirit, or identity of animals and humans into the metal itself, imbuing objects with supernatural properties.
But there are key differences between cremating bodies and turning bones into coal. Coal is produced at lower temperatures in oxygen deprived environments. This could be achieved in ways that might yield quantities of lower grade cremated bones, which can easily be misinterpreted as badly executed cremations, some of which are possible to reinterpret as parts of a complex technological process in a workshop context. It is also possible that smiths dismembered the dead, cremated certain body parts, and turned the rest into coal. This may explain why human remains have also been found in earth ovens, which are normally understood as cooking pits (Østigård 2007: 55)
Where did the rest of the bones go?
If cremations were just burial rituals we could have expected more complete sets of bones. As Østigård points out, we must consider the extant fragments “complete” in the sense that people only buried trace amounts of the cremated dead on purpose. But this doesn’t explain where the rest of the bones went. While some bones might have ended up as raw materials for the mystical transformation of iron into steel in blacksmiths workshops, it seems unlikely that this fate was shared by the majority of the bones absent from prehistoric Scandinavian cremation burials.
In pre-Christian Scandinavia, death was never just an ending, but a transfer. An affirmation of continuity, of up- and re-rooting, of breaking apart and building anew. It might make sense, then, why the end of a life would be followed by the obliteration of the body, and the reassembling of constituents into something new. A motif that echoes into Old Norse and Indo-European symbolism and religiosity on too many levels to touch upon here, but that you will find several other examples of on this blog.
Human bone fragments pop up in a wide array contexts. Østigård lists ceramics, post holes, fire pits, earth ovens, deposits of fire-cracked stones, altar-like structures, boundaries between properties, and fields, arguing that the primary destination of cremated remains were not in fact the grave itself, but places such as these. Bones were likely distributed among family members or spread out in religious rites. Even a form of ritualized, endocannibalistic consumption has been suggested as a form of ancestor worship.
Whatever they did, it seems that burial was literally just a fragment of a greater religious funerary concept, expressed through the disintegration of the physical body, and the transformative properties of fire.
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Kaliff, Anders & Terje Østigård (2013). Kremation och kosmologi – en komparativ arkeologisk introduktion. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 56. Uppsala University: Uppsala
Østigård, Terje (2007). Transformatøren – ildens mester i jernalderen. Rituelle spesialister i bronse- og jernalderen. Gotar Serie C. Arkeologiska Skrifter No 65. Gothenburg University: Gothenburg