There has been a tendency amongst archaeologists to look at sites in isolation, but if one is to understand the changing historic landscape, a landscape based approach must be used to approach the archaeology of rural settlements. It is only though integrating settlement archaeology with landscape archaeology, that a picture of the process of settlement with all its regional variations can be built up.
Other examples of this regional variation are found, for example, within areas that were heavily militarised. One such area is in Derbyshire, where the military settlements at Repton, and Ingleby are examples of a distinct Viking presence where not only is there documentary evidence for the presence of a Viking army, in combat against the Mercians, but there are also characteristically Viking burials, including a mass grave.
Viking burial archaeology again reflects this picture of the deeply regional effect that the Vikings had. In the Danelaw, for example, according to David Wilson, the number of archetypal Scandinavian burials numbers about 25 (fig. 4).7 For other parts of the British Isles, the picture is different, in the north for example, you have the presence of characteristically Viking ship burials, such as that at Scar, Sanday, in Orkney, which are simply not found further south.
In burial archaeology we encounter most significantly the problem of the ‘cultural history’ approach to archaeology. This essentially relates to the practicality of relating ethnicity with material culture, and whether or not it is possible to assign an archaeologically meaningful identity to burials on the basis of their grave goods. Clearly when you have as substantial a settlement as the Vikings had in York, for example, it seems absurd to consider that there have only been a handful of Scandinavians buried in the town.
What we see therefore, is a continuation of the process of acculturation that is visible in the settlement and artefactual archaeology of York. Julian Richards has argued convincingly, that ‘burial forms are actively manipulated and used as strategies of legitimation and negotiation’8, when these diplomatic processes break down, as is the case in Derbyshire in the later ninth century, then you see evidence of a militarily dominant culture, fully retaining its own burial customs, as is the case at Repton and Ingleby. This process of assimilation and acculturation has manifested itself in the creation of certain new forms of burial rites, which again are regional in nature.
These new rites manifested themselves most prominently in Hogback grave markers, found predominantly in Cumbria, Southern Scotland and North Yorkshire, and are a product of cross cultural influences. Given the usually static, and dateable nature of stone sculpture, it can often be a good indication to the archaeologist as to what cultural influences are present in certain places at certain times.
Distribution map of Viking age Burials in England (after Richards 1991)
Of course a major part of Archaeological method is the scientific analysis of sampled data from excavations, from which a huge information can be gleaned about settlement characteristics, climactic information can be obtained to contextualise migrations, and information can be gleaned about the health and sanitation levels of the Viking settlement, what kind of animals they kept and traded, their diet and other issues. This information is particularly useful when applied to Scandinavia itself, analysing climactic conditions may shed light on possibly reasons for the Viking settlement elsewhere.
Scientific data has been particularly forthcoming from Urban excavations such as York and Dublin, at Coppergate, for example, ‘analysis of a range of biological remains has enabled a detailed reconstruction of the home environment, and suggest it was far from hygienic’.9 Climactic information can be deduced from, for example, insect remains. The bug Heterogaster urticae, was detected in samples, since its current distribution does not extend as far north as York, it can be argued that the temperature was higher in the tenth century 10, if temperatures were higher, it is a reasonable corroborating reason for the settlement of Scandinavians in the British Isles.
Archaeology, therefore, provides a wealth of information about the process and nature of the Viking settlement of the British Isles. It is only through archaeology that one can begin to comprehend the regionally idiosyncrasies that characterise the Viking settlement, or indeed any early medieval diaspora. Of course archaeology is a piece amongst many, early medieval history can no longer be written by simply a historian.
Archaeology has provided the basis for radical historiographical positions, Peter Sawyers conclusion that the Viking settlers numbered in the hundreds, not thousands, was based largely on the idea that the scale of Viking settlement was far smaller than previously thought. Of course, as is the nature of archaeology, when one question is answered, many more spring up. Ultimately archaeological evidence has often served to add to the complexity of this already enigmatic period, by exposing the profound regional variations in Viking settlement, not just between separate geographical entities such as England and Ireland, but also within the Danelaw itself.