A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Can thousands of filthy reenactors help us understand life in the Dark Ages?
Crouched in the stern of a Viking longship, I feel remarkably unprepared. The shirtless, helmeted raiders rowing us at full speed up the Dziwna River are all heavily armed. Even the full-bearded captain standing at the rudder swearing profusely in Polish has a huge knife hanging from his belt. What am I doing heading into a sea battle armed with nothing but a notebook and a camera?
At least I can be reasonably confident we won't sink. As we bear down on our prey--a wooden fishing boat incongruously packed with more armed warriors--the hull of the ship cuts through the water the way it would have 1,000 years ago. We are aboard a copy of a Viking raiding vessel, Skuldelev V, built to explore the construction techniques of these legendary seafarers. As we close in on the smaller vessel, the men aboard begin beating their swords against the hull of their craft, forcing the captain to swear even louder. Finally, the two boats clash. Men swarm from boat to boat, swinging axes and swords. Sailors with knives clenched in their teeth dive overboard. There is shouting and more swearing. In the end, we win--I think.
The spectators on shore, clad in colorful plastic raingear, loved every moment. Each summer for the past seven years, people from all over the world have made their way to a small island in the middle of Poland's Dziwna River, some 12 miles from the Baltic, trying to turn the clock back 1,000 years. Despite near constant rainfall and temperatures in the low 60s last August, the Wolin-Jomsborg-Vineta Slavonic and Viking Festival stayed true to its reputation as perhaps the world's largest gathering devoted to re-creating life in the early Middle Ages.
While the festival's mock battles pull in the tourists, organizers are hoping its dedication to historical accuracy will attract a different type of visitor: the archaeologist. As part of the festival, Michal Bogacki, a newly minted history Ph.D. from the University of Poznan invited three dozen archaeologists and historians to an academic conference on the nautical archaeology and history of the Baltic region. Bogacki, long hair hanging loose, gave his welcoming speech in a brown linen tunic and leggings, flanked by burly graduate students in chain-mail shirts.
Bogacki hopes someday Wolin will be recognized as the world's biggest, muddiest, wettest, smokiest archaeology lab--a testing ground for ideas, theories, and conclusions about the past that would otherwise molder unverified in the stacks of university libraries. What kind of cut marks does a sword make on a shield? What's the life span of a thatched roof? What kind of pitch did Vikings use on their boats? How do postholes help support a structure? "You can't have theory without practice," Bogacki says. "This is a good way to take another look at material culture."
Andrew Curry is a freelance writer in Berlin, Germany, and a frequent contributor to ARCHAEOLOGY.