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River Kings by Cat Jarman: A Review

Cat Jarman's new book River Kings is a huge triumph, not only for the study of the Vikings in England more broadly, but for the accessibility of the archaeological method, and the outstanding uses it can be put to. #ComissionsEarned (This post includes Amazon Affiliate links) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Vikings are a funny old topic. They dominate popular imagination to a huge extent, especially in tv and movies, but we actually know relatively little about them as a whole. In a world where the image of the Vikings is increasingly being misused and misappropriated for political gain, there is certainly a substantial need for an accessible, holistic and up-to-date overview of the topic. Cat Jarman's River Kings, which can be found on amazon here, is just such a book, and is an exceptional read.

One of the book's great strengths is its readability, largely due to its impressive flowing narrative between sites, times and items, and I don't want to spoil too much of this for the reader. Jarman's book focuses around a set of artefacts, each given their own chapter, that act as a launching point into broader discussions of theme and history. What is immediately noticeable is the international focus of these items - one chapter, for example, focuses on the Bronze Buddha statue from Helgo. Indeed, it has becoming increasing clear that the Vikings were a globally connected group - gone are the days of exploring the Vikings solely through European chronicles. This interconnectivity is a central theme of Jarman's book, exploring connections with the Middle East, and how that materially manifested itself in trade routes and the movement of artefacts. In this, the book is providing an important service, writing an increasingly global history.

Jarman is also to be congratulated on how recent the evidence she includes is. The study of the Vikings has famously stalled for many years, arguing over the scale of the settlement amongst other things. Recent exciting archaeological investigations have begun to allow a clearer view of beyond the limited textual sources we have of the period. Indeed, Jarman has been at the centre of this research herself, and so the book's ground-breaking nature is hardly surprising.

Where River Kings really shines is the in-depth but accessible examination of the archaeological process. This is an exceptional introduction to the world of archaeological science wizardry that underlies modern archaeology - carbon dating, isotope analysis, osteoarchaeology etc. As an archaeologist Jarman is, of course, an expert on these topics - books written exclusively by 'historians' (in the strictest, text-based meaning of the term) tend to awkwardly sidle around archaeology with a wide-bearth.

'Where River Kings really shines is the in-depth but accessible examination of the archaeological process.'

For anyone interested in early medieval European history this book is a must, providing the best overall accessible summary of an interconnected Viking world to date. For those interested in archaeology more broadly, particularly in accessing and understanding a little bit more about how archaeologists actually go about their job, this is an equally important read. It is no exaggeration to say that this book is a product of the very latest research in both the study of the Vikings and of archaeology more broadly.

I have reviewed more historical books here, and my overall reading suggestions for the period can be found here.

Broader (free) historical resources for studying and exploring early medieval history can be found here.

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