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Planet Earth

Hagar the Huggable

By Jocelyn SelimDecember 3, 2004 6:00 AM

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One need only read the Sunday comics to get the impression that Vikings were a group of bandits, more concerned with raping and pillaging than with equality and assimilation. But now archaeologists excavating a burial site on the west coast of England are finding a totally different picture. The 10th-century grave—the only intact group Viking burial ever found—contains the remains of six people, four men and two women, in what appears to be a family plot. All six were sent to the afterlife bearing an equally rich assortment of goods, including beads, brooches, rings, and bracelets, says Faye Simpson, an archaeologist with the British government’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. Her conclusion: The uniform style of burial implies similar status between the sexes.

Other evidence shows the impact the English had on their Viking conquerors. Carvings on jewelry and ornate sword hilts show the Vikings kept their pagan gods, but the graves are orientated in the east-west configuration typical of Christian burials. “This was at the beginning of when Vikings really started to settle in England,” says Simpson. “It looks as if they were assimilating rather than conquering.”

In fact, Simpson believes the familiar image of the marauding Viking is largely a fabrication. “The image of Vikings in horned helmets killing children and so forth comes from politically and religiously motivated written accounts by monks a few centuries later,” she says. Vikings probably did occasionally loot churches, where a lot of wealth was undefended, “but we think that was the exception rather than the rule.”

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