Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe.  The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling.  In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era.  In the West it’s Late Antique.  Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period.  In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one).   The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age).  The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.

I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age.  For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age.  This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire.  Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones.  They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.

These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters.  Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint.  Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814.  Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana).  A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste.  The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6).  Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.

Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition.  Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting.  Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject.  A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains.  Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.

Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:

  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
  • Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
  • Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
  • Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
  • Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
  • Menhir by the Sea (1838)
  • Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
  • Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
  • Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
  • Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]

All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany.  The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment.  Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few.  Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape.  People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us.  Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own.  Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings.  Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché.  He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal.  Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles.  In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past.  In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker).  Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).

Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains.  They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers.  They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past.  This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn.  Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one.  During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed.  As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature.  Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.

As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery.  While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes.  Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context.  The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive.  Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures.  Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl.  Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage.  With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.

Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites.  For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists.  Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor.  Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?


Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from, accessed July 2015].

Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Field notes 2: The Viking ship museum, Oslo

On Sunday I had a free day in Oslo.  I had arrived at the decision some time ago, thoroughly cemented after visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition in the British Museum where the somewhat sad remnants of the Viking ship Roskilde 6 were displayed in their rather more impressive aluminium exoskeleton, that if I could do only one thing in Oslo it would be to see the Viking ship museum.

The museum displays the spectacularly preserved carcasses of three ships and their associated finds from burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune.  I’m not going to repeat much information about them here, as you can get that from the far more reliable source of the museum’s website, which I’ve linked to above.

According to the information boards, the decorative metalwork that may have accompanied these burials was seemingly robbed long before their excavation in the later 19th and early 20th century.  The notable exception being the horse gear from another ship burial at Borre (the ship does not survive), which has lent its name to a whole style of Viking art.

In my last post, I talked briefly about the power of material culture to inspire intellectually.  Perhaps because my knowledge of the Viking period is rather limited, these vessels did no so much provoke insight as evoke emotion.  No quantity of photographs can communicate the sense of sheer, dark mass that these colossal vessels evoke, rising in such graceful yet powerful curves to tower over the viewer.  Even as ancient museum pieces they don’t exactly appear fragile.  I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that intimidation, whether through conspicuous display or actual violence, was the purpose behind the construction of these hulks, but that’s certainly how I read them.

The decorative wood carving and its level of preservation on the Oseberg ship was remarkable.  Once again, the motifs combine grace and elegance with the lurid and menacing world of the Viking mythos.  This was also impressive on the four sleighs and other smaller items found alongside the Oseberg ship.

As a final comment, if you ever happen to visit the museum make sure to save some time to squint in frustration at the textile remains in their little darkened room, it’s worth damaging your eyesight for, and I’m half blind as it is.


The Oseberg ship


The robust hull of the Gokstad ship


Grizzled remnants of the Tune ship


Detail of the Oseberg stern


Knobbly attachment (technical term) of the Oseberg rudder


Leather bindings on the Oseberg rudder


Detail of the Oseberg ship stern


Detail of the Oseberg prow


Internal detail of the Oseberg prow


A decorative post (one of four) from the Oseberg burial


Detail of one of the four Oseberg sleighs


A further detail of the same Oseberg sleigh

Attila the Fraud and the Politics of Burial


A 16th-centiry re-imagining of Attila on a silver medallion (image source: wikipedia)

A few weeks ago a very strange story was doing the social media rounds: Hungarian archaeologists had found the tomb of Attila the Hun.  Now, if this was really the case, it would certainly represent one of the most important finds in the history of archaeology.  Strange then that it was only reported by what can only be described as a fringe news source, the World News Daily, which has previously reported allegations that Indonesia’s horned beast man had been captured, a mermaid skeleton had surfaced in New Zealand, and that a half-sasquatch girl had been born in the US (don’t think about that last one too hard).

Stranger still that accompanying the story was a photograph not of a Hunnic burial, but of a Chinese mummy.  I’m sure that very few people were actually taken in by the story, but that did not stop quite a few archaeological Twitterers, Facebookers and even some institutional accounts hitting that ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button.  In fact, if you look at that story today, more than 136,000 people shared that story on Facebook.

Needless to say, the story was a load of old tosh.  I don’t know whether it was based on any truth whatsoever, if the quoted authorities were real or had had their identities hijacked.  Neither do I know if indeed a rich ‘Hunnic’ burial had been found in Budapest, which would be a newsworthy discovery in itself.

If we can salvage something from this nonsense, it’s an excuse to recount the little that we do know about Attila’s demise.  Priscus (a contemporary Roman diplomat who had earlier encountered Attila) reported that Attila’s death in AD 453 was the result of an over-enthusiastic celebration of his most recent marriage, which ended with a particularly severe nosebleed (a later and probably less reliable account by Marcellinus Comes implicated a wife in his demise).  Following this undignified exit, Attila’s corpse was allegedly put into three successive coffins of gold, silver and iron.  A river (we don’t know which one) was temporarily diverted and his tomb was dug on its bed.  Afterwards, the river was set back on its course, forever concealing the grave.  I don’t think we need to contemplate the logistics of diverting the Danube in Budapest.  We can probably rest easy, the scourge of God remains securely tucked up in his tomb.

Although the hoax tells us nothing about Attila or archaeology, it does reveal the way in which this kind of rubbish can be promulgated by social media.  This is only possible because of the excitement generated by two combined factors: (1) we have disturbed the dead, a practice not exactly encouraged in our society and (2) the dead has a name.  Currently, such exhumations have captured the imaginations of the public and the media in an especially acute manner.

But perhaps they have always aroused such excitement.  Excavating the graves of historical leaders stokes the myths upon which contemporary identities are built.  If you want a slightly depressing taste of this, you can read the discussion below the Attila news story.   However, all burials tap into a very special kind of morbid fascination.  Strangely personal connections are drawn between the digger and the deceased, partly because digging up dead people is a strange thing to do in our society, and partly because it’s a reminder of our own mortality.  I wrote about this in my very first blog, and returned to the theme in a later post.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the peculiar power of names.  With a name, bones that were previously numbered specimens become re-inhabited by personality, even if that personality is largely one of our own creation (take Richard III for example).  That can be a personal name, but it can also be an identity label: woman, man, child, Saxon, Roman, slave, prince.  It all goes back to that most basic human act of needing to classify things, to fit them into our world view and attribute them some kind of value.  We pull something from the ground and ask “but what is this worth”?  But is that a fair or even useful question to ask of the named and the anonymous dead?

Burying Maggie and Digging Up Dick

A few weeks ago, Hilary Mantel got in a lot of trouble for talking about royal bodies.  The article was not in itself particularly controversial, but its intentional and selective misreading by sections of the media made it so.  Recently, the actions of the same media, alongside the apparatus of the state, have facilitated the creation of two new ‘royal’ bodies to get all flustered about: the strange bedfellows of Margaret Thatcher and Richard III.

Most of my research is into funerals.  In particular, I’m interested in why our Anglo-Saxon forebears 1,500 years ago buried their dead with large amounts of jewellery. A partial answer to that question is that they did this to recreate their dead as idealised ancestors, dressed in all their finery in the grave.  There is nothing new about this interpretation – it’s been the bread and butter of mortuary archaeology for decades.  But it’s interesting to see similar processes played out today.

Curiously, our recent ‘royal’ bodies have been created by opposite processes: one’s been put into the ground, the other has been dragged out of it.  Covered in all the pomp and finery the state can throw at her, Thatcher sinks into the soil, to many, vindicated.  Meanwhile, Richard III emerges somehow not the same villain he was when he went in.  Whether they are burying bodies or digging them up, the orchestrators of these performances can achieve for the dead a far more idealised image than they could ever achieve in life.  The symbolic power dead bodies have over the living cannot be overestimated.  One must not speak ill of the dead, but it it is somehow possible to make them dance to your own tune.

Thatcher & Richard III

Richard III, however, knew a good hat when he saw one.

No one can deny that Thatcher’s funeral was a staged, intentional performance, groaning under the weight of ideology.  The exhumation of Richard III was also a performance.  It was sold to us in a Channel 4 documentary as a bizarrely staged, almost theatrical performance replete with high emotions, staged mysteries and even a smattering of ceremony.  A quick look at the Richard III Society’s website should assuage any doubt as to the partiality of the people that funded this work and the motivation they had for doing so.

Although Richard III and Thatcher’s transformations share many parallels, they are not the same in every way.  While we have seen the blatant re-packaging of Thatcher as a myth, Richard III has apparently stepped out of mythology and into our world, debunked, and very much corporeal.  Or has he, like Thatcher, just become saturated in even more myth through the actions of his body’s current custodians? Either way, once the various factions have finished squabbling over his remains, we’ll inevitably see the creation of yet more, perhaps even televised, mythology in his reinterment.