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Television: Hordes of Fun Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Kristin M. Romey

One of Tamerlane's warriors strides by the severed heads of Ottoman sultan Beyazit's troops. (History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

Barbarians were always reviled by the more "civilized," literate societies victimized by them, but they have been increasingly redeemed by archaeology as complex and sophisticated peoples. Both points are quickly--and brutally--made apparent in the first few minutes of Barbarians, a four-hour, two-night series premiering on the History Channel January 19 (Vikings and Goths) and 20 (Mongols and Huns) at 9 p.m. ET.

The Vikings are the first up, and viewers are immediately treated to a scene of hapless monks pummeled by filthy Scandinavian raiders at Lindesfarne and a crucifix lapped by bloody waves. The Vikings "explode out of the cold North Sea," intones the narrator, "like beasts unleashed upon an unsuspecting world." But before you roll your eyes and reach for the remote, there's a re-creation of the late-nineteenth-century excavation of the Gokstad ship, a magnificent Viking burial that radically changed our perceptions of these accomplished merchants and explorers.

For viewers weary of your standard historical documentary consisting of slow camera pans over engravings and maps, Barbarians is an exciting departure. A full stunt crew makes the battle scenes--including Goth king Alaric sacking Rome, Tamerlane capturing the Ottoman sultan Beyazit amid smoking piles of severed heads, and Viking Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066--impressive and believable.

While the archaeological component becomes progressively weaker in the cases of the Goths, Mongols, and Huns, a full contingent of experts is on hand to remind us throughout this festival of fur and gore how the Goths, sorely mistreated by the Romans, ended up keeping Roman culture alive centuries after the demise of the Empire, and how the Mongols opened Asia to the West and spurred the Age of Discovery. A balance of historical expertise and impressive, if sometimes gruesome, reenactments keeps Barbarians from becoming either a guilty pleasure or a scholarly snooze.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America