For a show that almost literally no one watched—averaging only around 500,000 viewers across its four-episode run, fewer than syndicated reruns of off-network sitcoms—Megan Fox’s Legends of the Lost has inspired a lot of discussion and upset online, particularly around the question of Viking women warriors. Frankly, I find this to be the least interesting “mystery” on Fox’s show, but it raises a fascinating question about archaeological vs. historical knowledge and how an idea does or does not become a consensus concept in the creation of our story of the past.
The proximate cause of this post is a recent Twitter thread by bioarchaeologist Dr. Cat Jarman, who appeared on Legends and defended her appearance, arguing that the program offered facts about Viking life not otherwise seen on TV, which forgives the mystical and New Age claptrap used to sensationalize those facts.
She did not comment on later episodes advocating claims that Native Americans are non-human hybrids or that a comet destroyed an Atlantis-like civilization or that Stonehenge has magic powers—all presumably forgivable because the show contained 15 minutes of facts amidst the extremist claptrap.
In her thread, Jarman said that critics (such as me) were wrong to suggest that the existence of Viking women warriors is “accepted” by scholars. “Simply not true,” she says. Here, though, is where the interesting problem comes in to play. My concern wasn’t as much for current scholarly consensus as the claim the show made that the idea of Viking women warriors is “new.” As I pointed out, in the 1800s through to the middle twentieth century, the claim was frequent, if not universal, in history books and received lengthy treatment in at least one major scholarly study of Viking life. The claim therefore is not “new” in any real sense—being in print for a century.
Today, revisionists use the same evidence, supplemented by new archaeological findings, to reach the same conclusions. So why was this knowledge “forgotten”?
Here we come to a crossroads in the question of how to interpret the past. For many archaeologists, the prewar scholarship on Viking women is of dubious value because it relies on textual evidence, much of it relatively late, which cannot be taken at face value. Reliance on Norse mythology, Icelandic sagas, runic inscriptions, and historical reports from non-Viking peoples formed the basis of nineteenth and early twentieth century views of women in Viking culture. Indeed, when the feminist scholar Mary Wilhelmine Williams wrote a chapter on Viking women in her 1920 book on medieval Scandinavian life, her evidence came primarily from these categories of data, namely the sagas and also references to medieval laws and customs. Prof. Harold Williams, who defended Fox and challenged by evaluation of her show, considers this evidence to be, basically, “pseudohistory,” as he told me on Twitter yesterday. For him, and for Jarman and others, archaeological evidence is of much greater importance.
But what remains interesting is that modern studies of Viking women still rely on the same evidence that Mary Wilhelmine Williams gathered in 1920. For example, Judith Jesch’s 1991 book Women in the Viking Age, the first major full-length study of the subject in the postwar era, devoted one chapter to archaeological evidence, another to runic inscriptions, and six chapters to medieval documents, myths, legends, and sagas. Jesch, of course, recognized that medieval texts cannot be taken literally, but like Williams before her, she understood that cultural information is embedded such accounts even if they are not literally true. She also hit upon a very important fact in the changing relationship between history and archaeology. She noted that the sagas and other medieval texts were long believed to be based on genuine history but in the middle twentieth century had come to be seen as fantasies, a point she did not fully challenge even while mining the sagas for cultural data.
This change in perception is something we have previously encountered in the case of the Viking colonization of North America. Similarly, the sagas were long believed to record genuine accounts of Viking excursions to Vinland, somewhere along the Canadian or New England coast, and as such were accepted as evidence of a Viking presence in North America down to the war years. Consult school textbooks from the era, and you will see how widespread this acceptance was, even with caveats about the challenges of accepting poems as sources. But with the changing attitude toward the use of literary sources in writing history in the postwar years, scholars came to doubt the accounts—until the unearthing of a Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows proved that the sagas (and non-saga accounts like that of Adam of Bremen) reflected a historical reality.
And yet, each time archaeology confirms a literary account, the literary account is retroactively promoted back to evidence in support of the archaeology.
Something similar happened with Greek mythology. For a long time, Greek myths were taken to be accurate reflections of life in the Heroic Age, or what we would call the Bronze Age, and the Trojan War (the subject of another of Fox’s shows) was routinely included as a historical event. But then the authority of these old histories collapsed with the expansion of archaeological knowledge, and the myths were largely dismissed as so many stories, only vaguely connected to real events and people. Then, Martin Nilsson reevaluated the oldest data in Greek myths in his Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology (1932) and was able to demonstrate that, irrespective of whether the myths recorded literal truths about Bronze Age battles, they accurately recorded the Mycenaean geographic landscape, to the point that he could use mentions of places in myths and legends to predict the location of heretofore unexcavated Mycenaean palace sites.
The decipherment of the hieroglyphs proved that Manetho’s account of the kings of Egypt—and not the romantic chronologies and histories told by Herodotus or the medieval Arab historians—was largely correct. In the same vein, the discovery of the Ugarit tablets demonstrated that Sanchuniathon’s account of Phoenician mythology was, as early scholars believed and later ones doubted, an accurate, if Hellenized, account of otherwise undocumented Phoenician mythological beliefs.
The trouble, of course, is that for every example like these, we have to contrast them with widespread acceptance of Biblical history, where myths, legends, and stories from the Bible have been treated as true, even in the face of a lack of archaeological evidence for them. Biblical narratives appear in many nineteenth and early twentieth century texts as incontrovertible truths, and even in the modern era, they still frequently receive deferential treatment, particularly in popular histories. Somewhat similarly, many books casually repeat sensational stories from Greek and Roman historians, and also the medieval Arab historians, even when there is no evidence that these accounts are actually true.
It’s certainly the case that the use of textual evidence is problematic, but no more so—and probably less so—than the use of oral histories, which have changed much more than medieval texts over the centuries. The Victorians and their successors were often led astray by an overreliance on textual sources without archaeology to back them up. In the 1830s, Carl Rafn, for example, was so taken with his insight that the sagas recorded a voyage to North America that he over-interpreted colonial and Native American archaeological sites as Norse to support his (mostly correct) conclusions from the literary evidence. On the other hand, when the literary evidence that Biblical narrative of the Flood was likely not the original version of the story was in plain sight, recorded in the fragments of the Babylonian priest Berossus, Western scholars refused to believe it, claiming Berossus copied from God’s Truth, until archaeology uncovered incontrovertibly old copies of Mesopotamian Flood stories from Iraqi ruins.
Choosing what texts to give credence tends to follow popular beliefs and prejudices. Thus, an early twentieth-century feminist would read the Icelandic sagas and runic inscriptions and see evidence of female empowerment, but most men demanded physical proof. Victorian free-thinkers were happy to see Berossus as proof of a pre-Biblical Flood story, but the era’s Christians demanded ancient tablets to demonstrate the existence of the story at an early date.
It’s not that the scholars who relied on medieval texts were wrong, sloppy, or practicing pseudoscience, per se. They were doing the best historiography they could, and many had exceptional insights that took generations to prove. The trouble is how to distinguish between the good conclusions and the bad ones, the right interpretations of texts and the wrong. Here is where archaeology is essential to inform historiography.
This, I think, is the root of the split between my concern over whether a claim had been previously known and my critics’ concern over whether modern scholars have achieved a consensus that the claim is true.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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