Review: Viking Apocalypse

During the construction of a new highway in Southern England, the builders find what is confirmed to be a mass burial grave from around the year 1000. But how did they die, and who where they?

Produced for the National Geographic network, Viking Apocalypse is a 50 minute documentary about the 54 headless bodies found at Ridgeway Hill in Weymouth in Southern England in 2009. The why, who and when of the find seemed at first to be obvious – local Anglo Saxons killed by invading Vikings, perhaps? – but as the historians literally dug deeper into the skeletons by way of forensic science, they found out that the truth was likely to be more unique and unusual than that.

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The documentary is structured like a linear murder mystery, not so much an Agatha Christie novel but more as a Midsomer Murder episode, where interviews, forensic evidence and old documents are puzzled together to form an educated guess about what happened. This structure works well in this case, as it recreates what we can assume was the real-life methods and chain of research for this particular archeological project. The narrative is spread out in ample portions, with re-enactment clips, video graphics and expert interviews inserted frequently to both explain and illustrate the science. This is of course not a unique approach in documentaries, but in this particular film it works better than usual, with no segments appearing redundant or too academic.

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In fact, there are even red herrings spread out here and there, to entice viewers and get expectations up. Theories and alternatives I thought of in the beginning of the documentary seemed to be overlooked, but as in most murder cases (at least the fictional ones), the “detectives” soon rolled up loose ends and presented what is most likely the truth about the massacre. At least as close to the truth as historians can be about a 1000 year old mass grave.

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The fact that the probable story behind the mass grave is a unique event in Viking history does not make the film less interesting. We have learned that Vikings raided and killed and invaded England, but in some cases, even the feared Jomsvikings were victims.

Rated 8 of 10.

Directed by Stuart Elliott.

National Geographic Channel, 2011.

 

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