The Vikings—as they Lived, Died, and Feasted

Dec. 14, 2023

Vikings have an entrenched reputation—and it’s one that no longer convinces students of Dr. Janet Kay’s ART 478/HIS 476/HUM 476/MED 476 “The Vikings: History and Archaeology.” Through a robust semester that included guest lectures, a vibrant class debate, and an enthralling final project, Kay inspired students to reevaluate their preconceptions. The class dug into Viking culture by way of three major themes with the help of contemporary texts, sagas and epic poetry, material culture, and archaeological excavations.

First, the class examined the reach of the Viking culture, which extended well beyond Scandinavia and Western Europe. “When we talk about the ‘Viking world,’” said Kay, “we are really talking about travel and movement and trade across most of the northern hemisphere at this point. We know the Norse traded as far as India, were active in Constantinople, and made it to northern Canada,” she explained.

“When we talk about the ‘Viking world,’ we are really talking about travel and movement and trade across most of the northern hemisphere." —Janet Kay

Another important component of the course was to evaluate the complex set of available sources. “We don’t have any textual records from the Vikings themselves,” explained Kay. “We have things written down by their enemies at the time, or their own documents several hundred years later (and after Christianization), or we have the archaeology. Each source type has its strengths, but each also has their weaknesses and biases.”

Student dressed as a Viking addresses the audience

Drew Hopkins addresses the audience as his Viking alter ego Björn Björnsson (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Finally, Kay wanted students to understand Viking stories, and their continuing relevance today. “We still tell many of the stories that the Vikings told,” she said, “And how we tell those stories in today’s world actually matters.”

The Debate

A highlight of the course was the midterm debate. Kay tasked student teams to debate which of the major Viking Age commercial centers should have an exclusive trade agreement with “the political powerhouse that was the late-ninth-to early-tenth-century Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia,” whom she portrayed. A heated and theatrical debate ensued. “There was quite a bit of historically appropriate smack talk about the other towns,” said Kay. “I hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time.”

“The debate was definitely one of the highlights of the class for me!” said Julian Rosenfeld ’26. “It truly felt like an immersive experience, he said. “At some points it felt like we were actually from the sites we were debating about. Needless to say, it got ridiculous, and the relentless historically accurate slandering of the other sites made it far and away the most enjoyable midterm I have ever taken part in.”

The stained glass windows in the room above the audience waiting for the presentation to begin

Chancellor Green Rotunda drew a crowd for the Viking funeral (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The Funeral

Chancellor Green Rotunda’s exquisitely unique interior was the ideal setting for the class’s collaborative final presentation. Co-sponsored by a Humanities Council Magic Grant, the Program in Medieval Studies, and the Department of Art & Archaeology, the Viking funeral drew interest from across campus. The audience entered the octagonal space to find deceased siblings Ulfhild Björnsdóttir and Björn Björnsson, played by anthropology major earning a certificate in archaeology Autumn Shelton ’24 and history major Drew Hopkins ’24, still and supine center stage.

Computer science major Garner Thompson ’24 opened the presentation with a eulogy as a Skaldic poem. Admitting to limited experience writing poetry of any kind, Thompson went to great lengths in crafting an authentic, relevant piece. “To prepare, I learned about different Norse meters, settling on the court meter, or dróttkvætt meter. After testing some verses, I learned how to incorporate kennings into the poetry by finding some popular ones. Kennings are a two-noun metaphor standing for another noun (sword-breeze, for example, is a kenning for battle). Then, I reviewed some of the poetic works we read earlier in the year (mostly The Saga of the Volsungs) to capitalize on some of the storytelling narrative style and general poetic themes. Finally, I incorporated this into a story consistent with the narratives of the characters in the funeral.”

A student holds a chicken above the microphone
Laura Wunderlich ’24 pretends to make a sacrifice as the Angel of Death (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Rounding out the portion of the presentation by Vikings, students played a childhood friend, a crewmate, an angel of death, and a “grey-cloaked wanderer.”

Next, ten students represented contemporary archaeologists employing discrete specialties to draw conclusions about these siblings from the burial site. Chemistry major Emma Cavendish ’24, for example, presented an isotope chemistry analysis; molecular biology major Sophia Chen ’24 analyzed the ancient DNA; mechanical engineering major Julian Rosenfeld ’26 evaluated the weapons; and computer science major Silas Mohr presented numismatic evidence.

Autumn Shelton speaks into a microphone

Autumn Shelton addresses the audience as Viking Ulfhild  (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Finally, in the section of the program titled “The Dead Speak,” Hopkins and Shelton delivered their characters’ autobiographies. “Professor Kay, throughout the semester, encouraged the class to reevaluate how we view and understand the Vikings. In turn, the Viking Funeral allowed us to materialize and actualize our new understandings,” said Shelton. “Playing a Viking (and doing the research for my performance) made me think about the humanity and stories behind the science - perhaps the greatest asset archaeology can give us.”

“One of the things I love about teaching interdisciplinary classes is the diversity of experiences and ideas that come to the table,” said Kay. “This course had students from many different majors and academic fields, and they each contributed their own particular perspective. I love learning from them, and though I have taught this course multiple times, there’s always something new!”

Professor of History Helmut Reimitz was overwhelmed by the presentation. “The Viking funeral was a truly extraordinary event - even for Princeton,” he said. “It brought learning, research, different disciplines from the Humanities and sciences, rhetoric, and performance together on a level that I have not seen before. The enthusiasm and engagement of the students let it look like an easy job. But I know very well that this is not the case.
On the contrary! It is for experienced scholars and many highly funded research projects still an enormous challenge to bring together the complex and differently scaled data from various sciences such as paleobotany, genealogy, chemistry, biology, computer, and neuroscience with data and evidence from literature history, literature, archaeology, linguistics, and history. The Viking funeral showed how it can be done with a lot of curiosity, hard work, conceptual discipline, and interdisciplinary training. And the performance also showed that if it is done right, it is enormously productive and rewarding - and great fun!”

As former director of the Program in Medieval Studies I always hoped and supported such cross overs between the various disciplines in the sciences and humanities, and I cannot thank Janet Kay and the students in this class enough for this evening, and the demonstration how productive and how much fun such a fortunate integration of what we teach and learn here at Princeton can be. —Helmut Reimitz

“I hope the students will truly remember the work they did for this class, and learn something valuable from it,” said Kay. “Their contribution to the collaborative, final project was directed by their own individual interests and talents. They all put so much effort into the project, and I am blown away by the end result.”

Chef Luz describes the Viking feast he prepared as students look on

Chef Luz describes the Viking feast he prepared for students (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The Feast

Ending the class on an especially positive note, students enjoyed a Viking feast presented by Jerry Luz of Princeton Campus Dining. He studied Viking culinary habits, learning how they would have cooked, which ingredients they would have used, and how it would have been presented. “I put myself in their shoes,” said Luz. “Being a chef, we tend to do things a little more precise and fine,” he said, “but these things I left more rustic.”

Students load their plates

Students enjoyed an abundant buffet of wild onion soup, various meats, turnips, fresh cheese, and thyme-infused honey (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

The menu included wild onion soup, fresh cheese with herbs, honey infused with thyme, venison, salmon, hand-made pork and chicken sausages with honey (which would have been used as a preservative, said Luz). Luz char-grilled whole turnips, mimicking the Viking practice of tossing them directly onto embers.

“With dishes ranging from roasted venison to stewed turnips, the Viking Feast gave us the opportunity to explore the past via sensory archaeology,” said Shelton. “A huge thank you to Campus Dining and Professor Kay for making it all possible.”

The Takeaway

Students raved about the course throughout the feast. Coming from so many different disciplines, they found direct connections to their primary fields while gaining a rich new skill set. Thompson summed up the enthusiastic spirit of the class. “I loved the class: it was one of my favorite I’ve ever taken at Princeton!” Thompson said. “The main takeaway I drew from the course is that the Vikings were a much more complex people than we typically think. They interacted with a multitude of peoples, kingdoms, and empires, whether that be the Byzantine Empire, Eastern European territories, Native Americans, or Western and Central Europe. Moreover, the notion that Vikings simply raided and pillaged is untrue: the Norse were mostly peaceful farmers with a vibrant culture.”

“Vikings were a much more complex people than we typically think. They interacted with a multitude of peoples, kingdoms, and empires…the notion that Vikings simply raided and pillaged is untrue: the Norse were mostly peaceful farmers with a vibrant culture.” —Garner Thompson '24

Students fill a long table, eating

Students enjoy the Viking feast (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)