• An Oxford Historian

The Vikings and Post-Colonialism

Updated: Apr 26

This week, in a cannibalised version of a piece of coursework I once wrote, I thought it would be interesting to explore the question of post-colonialism (esp. hybridity) in regard to the study of the Vikings - what can this approach tell us, and how can it challenge past narratives? This can never be more than a brief overview, not least because of the limits of my knowledge, but hopefully it starts an interesting conversation for those previously unaware of the approach. Forgive the ramblings, and correct anything that's wrong!


Post-Colonial is a broad and complex set of theoretical approaches, one I can't pretend to be an expert on by any means. Our focus here is on one particular section - hybridity. Championed most strongly by Bhabha, this acknowledges the creation of new and distinct cultural identities through the merging of cultures in a colonial context (Gosden 2012, 241). In contrast to Childe’s notion of the ‘aquatic’ flow of material cultural traits between areas, supported by the cultural-historical archaeologists, acknowledging novelty rejects the simplistic division between ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Scandinavian’ material culture (Rice 1985, 128).


I think it is consistently productive to think of the Vikings in this context of hybridity, adopting and adapting the cultures they settled among. There is evidence for this from across the Viking world - Coupland's exceptional 'From Poachers to Gamekeepers' is a great start for exploring integration in a political sense. However, it is in regard to the Danelaw that it is perhaps clearest (or, at least, clearest to my little English-focused brain).


In England evidence for hybridity is widespread: Lewis-Simpson has supported the idea that personal names in the Danelaw reflect a process of hybridisation (Lewis-Simpson 2011).

However, it is archaeologically that we might see this trend most acutely, with the creation of what might be termed 'Anglo-Scandinavian' items.


New artefacts types emerge. The Norse Bells found at Cottam B are a prime example: none have been found in Scandinavian, and their presence exclusively in Scandinavian colonies implies a new identity (Richards 2000, 305). Their frequency at Cottam B suggests a settlement that in itself represents an ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ model (Richards 2000, 306). Furthermore, Kershaw has made clear the emergence of Anglo-Scandinavian style dress ornaments and their possible connotations in regard to appearing ‘Scandinavian’ (Kershaw 2013, 215). Finally, the ‘hogback’ stonework might be an equal example of this, and is unattested in the rest of the Scandinavian world (Richards 2000, 306).

The evidence for hybridity is evident also in the ritual of burial archaeology. There are certainly some overly Viking burials. A notable example is the female burial at Adwick-le-Street (Yorkshire), accompanied most obviously by a pair of ‘tortoise’ brooches in a traditional Scandinavian style, illustrated in Figure 1 (Speed and Rogers 2004, 64). However, even with the broadest definition of ‘Scandinavian’ attributes, it is remarkable that the corpus is limited in size with the majority representing single graves only (Richards 2002, 156). This has been traditionally used to argue either for a small number of settlers, or for a process of quick acculturation.Hadley’s argument for a rapid adoption of Christian tropes of burial by the Scandinavians as an explanation for their archaeological ‘invisibility’ seems impractical (Richards et al 2004, 97). Certainly, the process of nominal conversion should not be confused with the complex genuine process of ‘Christianisation’, but it still represents a simple process of acculturation (Buckberry et al. 2014, 414).


Instead, Richards makes clear that ‘rather than searching for burial-types that can be matched in Scandinavia we should therefore be looking for the creation of new cultural identities’ (emphasis my own) (Richards 2002, 157). These, in regard to the previous rejection of a simple dichotomy between Christian and pagan burial rites, he finds in the sheer variation of burial rites evident in late Anglo-Saxon England (Ibid., 162). A prime example of this is the variation found under York minster, with the introduction of beds of charcoal and stone slabs (Ibid., 163).


This complicates the long-standing question: how big was the Viking settlement of England? The toponymic and linguistic evidence here is complex and argued back-and-forth (and hopefully the subject of a future blog post). Acknowledging (archaeological) hybridity adds to this argument substantially, and here an important distinction between impact and scale must be acknowledged. In the first case, this hybridity supports the notion that the cultural impact of the Scandinavian settlement is clearly much larger than the purely ‘Scandinavian’ elements that can be identified. We need not look exclusively for parallels in the Scandinavian mainland, like the oval ‘tortoise’ brooches at Aldwick-le-Street, to suggest a ‘Viking’ impact. In this sense the argument for absence is further undone. Secondly, however, the scale of the settlement becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish, especially from an archaeological perspective. By definition, both the coloniser and colonised participate in the hybrid new material culture. Ascribing an original ethnic identity to those using these artefacts is therefore over-simplistic.

It is perfectly possible in some cases that Anglo-Scandinavian material culture simply reflects Anglicised Scandinavians. At Cottam B, with evidence for settlement shift and a previous army presence, this might be the case. Alternatively, however, we might frame the use of this new hybrid culture as a deliberate tool by native Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, Bhaba conceptualises hybridity as a means ‘of negotiating and resisting colonial power structures’ by subaltern groups (Harris and Cipolla 2017, 178). Kershaw, for example, sees Anglo-Scandinavian brooches as revealing ‘a desire among the local inhabitants to appropriate a Scandinavian appearance’ (Kershaw 2013, 216). Lang identifies hogbacks as ‘colonial monuments’, and they seem similarly to have been employed to illustrate a sense of ‘Scandinavian-ness’, but within an Anglo-Saxon context (Lang 1984). Just as being ‘Viking’ could be manipulated for ‘strategies of legitimation and negotiation’, so too might the new hybridised identity (Richards 2002, 157). With only a new proclaimed identity, original ethnicity is unclear. (Richards 2000, 303).

The presence of Anglo-Scandinavian material culture is, therefore, no clear expression that those who used it ‘came from Scandinavia or would even have thought of themselves as Scandinavian’ (Richards 2016, 269). In reality, ‘in England, Scandinavian culture rarely exists in an undiluted form’ and the majority of archaeological evidence is instead of a novel ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ nature (Richards 2000, 302). This complicates simple attempts to deduce the size of the Viking settlement, while pointing towards a complexification of our understanding of culture.

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Bibliography and Further Reading Abrams, L. and Parson, D. (2004) Place-Names and the History of Scandinavia Settlement in England. In J. Hines, A. Lance and M. Redknap (eds.) Land, Sea and Home: 379-430. Leeds, Maney Publishing.

Audouy, M. and Chapman, A. (eds.) (2009) Raunds: The Origins and Growth of a Midland Village AD450-1500. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Beresford, G. (1987) Goltho: The Development of an Early Medieval Manor. London, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.

Blair, J. (2018) Building Anglo-Saxon England. Princeton, Princeton University Press. Buckberry, J et al. (2014) Finding Vikings in the Danelaw. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 33.4: 413-34.

Cherryson, A. (2010) Southampton and the Development of Churchyard Burial. In J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds.) Burial in Late Anglo-Saxon England, c.650-1100AD: 54-72. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Coupland, S. (1998) From Poachers to Gamekeepers: Scandinavian Warlords and Carolingian Kings. Early Medieval Europe 71.1: 85-114.

Curta, F. (2007) Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology. Early Medieval Europe 15.22: 59-85.

Dance, R. (2012) English in Contact: Norse. In A. Bergs and L. J. Brinton (eds.) English Historical Linguistics vol. 2: 1724-1737. Boston, De Gruyter.

Hadley, D. M. (2002a) Burial Practices in Northern England in the Later Anglo-Saxon Period. In S. Lucy and A. Reynolds (eds.) Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales: 209-29. London, The Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Hadley, D. M. (2002b) Viking and Native: Re-thinking Identity in the Danelaw. Early Medieval Europe 11.1: 45-70.

Hadley, D. M. (2016) In Search of the Vikings: The Problems and Possibilities of Interdisciplinary Approaches. In J. Graham-Campbell et al. (eds.) Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997: 13-30. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Hadley, D. M. and Richards, J. D. (2016) The Winter Camp of the Viking Great Army, AD872-3, Torksey, Lincolnshire. The Antiquaries Journal 96.1: 23-67.

Haldenby, D. and Richards, J. D. (2016) The Viking Great Army and its Legacy: Plotting Settlement Shift Using Metal-Detector Finds’, Internet Archaeology: 42/1. Available from: https:// doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.3 [Accessed: 5th January 2020].

Halsall, G. (2000) The Viking Presence in England? The Burial Evidence Reconsidered. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 259-76. Turnhout, Brepols.

Kershaw, J. (2009) Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 5.1: 295-325.


Kershaw, J. (2013) Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kershaw, J. and Røyrvik, E. C. (2016) The ‘People of the British Isles’ Project and Viking Settlement in England. Antiquity 90.354: 1670-80.

Lang, J. (1984) The Hogback: A Viking Colonial Monument. Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 3.1: 83-176.

Lewis-Simpson, S. (2011) Assimilation or Hybridization? A Study of Personal Names from the Danelaw. In W. M. Hoofnagle and W. R. Keller (eds.) Other Nations: The Hybridization of Medieval Insular Mythology and Identity: 13-43. Heidelberg, Universitätsverlag Winter.

Losco-Bradley, S., Kinsley, G. and Brown, K. (2002) Catholme: An Anglo-Saxon Settlement on the Trent Gravels in Staffordshire. Nottingham, Department of Archaeology, University of Nottingham.

Patterson, C. (2017) Viking Burials at Cumwhitton and Carlisle, Cumbria. In E. Cambridge and J. Hawkes (eds.), Cross Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Arts, Material Culture, Language and Literature of the Early Medieval World: 258-73. Oxford, Oxbow Books. Rice, D. (1985) The ‘New’ Archaeology. Wilson Quarterly 9.2: 127-39.

Richards, J. D. (1987) Simy Folds: an Early Medieval Settlement in Upper Teesdale. Medieval Archaeology 27.1: 1-26.

Richards, J. D. (2000) Identifying Anglo-Scandinavian Settlements. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 295-309. Turnhout, Brepols.

Richards, J. D. (2002) The Case of the Missing Vikings: Scandinavian Burials in the Danelaw. In S. Lucy and A Reynolds (eds.), Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales: 156-70. London, The Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Richards, J. D. (2011) Anglo-Scandinavian Identity. In D. A. Hinton, S. Crawford and H. Hamerow (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology: 46-61. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. D. (2012) Viking Settlement in England. In S. Brink and N. S. Price (eds.) The Viking World: 368-74. London, Routledge.

Richards, J. D. (2016). Finding the Vikings: The Search for Anglo-Scandinavian Rural Settlement in the Northern Danelaw. In J. Graham-Campbell et al. (eds.) Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997: 269-77. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Richards, J. D. and Haldenby, D. (2018) The Scale and Impact of Viking Settlement in Northumbria. Medieval Archaeology 62.2: 322-50.

Richards, J. D. et al. (1995) The Viking Barrow Cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire. Medieval Archaeology 39.1: 51-70.

Richards, J. D. et al. (2004) The Viking Barrow Cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby, Derbyshire. The Antiquaries Journal 84.1: 23-116.


Sawyer, P. H. (1971) The Age of the Vikings. London, Edward Arnold.

Speed, G. and Rogers, P. W. (2004) A Burial of a Viking Woman at Adwick-le-Street, South Yorkshire. Medieval Archaeology 48.1: 51-90.

Swanton, M. (ed. and tr.) (2000) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London, Phoenix Press.

The Gersum Project 2020. [online] Available from: https://www.gersum.org [Accessed: 3rd February 2020].

Trafford, S. (2002) Ethnicity, Migration Theory, and the Historiography of the Scandinavian Settlement of England. In D. M. Hadley and J. D. Richards (eds.) Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries: 1-23. Turnhout, Brepols.




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