The Anglo-Scandenavian Hogback: a Tool for Assimilation

By klayperson • ART HISTORY • 4:10 pm


The Anglo-Scandinavian Hogback: A Tool for Assimilation

The Vikings swept through Britain with series of invasions throughout the 10th century, and for a time controlled the area of northern England known then as Danelaw. Names of towns, roads, and families still in existence today attest to the Scandinavian stronghold of England a millenium ago. However, scholars have discovered only traces of their pagan Scandinavian roots from the artifacts left behind by these Viking settlers. It seems as though the conquerers were quickly conquered by the customs and beliefs prevalent in their new land.
The Vikings rapidly assimilated—they converted to Christianity, adopted Christian burial practices and built churches, and began to carve in stone. Wood and metal had been the preferred mediums for artmaking back in Scandinavia (note the continued evidence of this in Scandinavian furniture you probably own, e.g. Ikea), but stone sculpture had long been practiced throughout Britain. The Vikings adopted this form of carving with relish, the stone sculpture dating from the Scandinavian period vastly outnumbers that which had been made in England in previous eras. On the other hand, the Vikings did not import new sculptural forms that the English had not already made—standing crosses and recumbent grave slabs were already common Anglian forms of sculpture. (This is notwithstanding surface decorative elements; what I am concerned with here is structure.) The joining of the Anglian and Scandinavian cultures did produce one remarkable new form of stone sculpture, unprecedented either in Britain or Scandinavia—the hogback.
Found mainly throughout northern England up into Scotland, the hogback is a unique form of sculpture whose period of production was limited to probably a 50-year span in the mid-10th century. About four to five feet long and shaped generally like a bowed house, the hogback derives its name from the convex curve of its roof. It often incorporates architectural elements, such as shingling, archways, and pilasters, and in fact, the hogback has been employed as a model for recreating Viking-age house structures.
Its purpose remains a great mystery to scholars, as does its short span of existence. Most scholars agree that the hogback is a grave marker, despite the fact that not one has ever been found in clear association with a grave. Those who doubt the hogback’s use in relation to graves have not offered a suitable alternate explanation to justify its purpose.
A number of hogbacks include endbeasts, creatures hugging or attacking the gable ends of the structure. Most easily identifiable are those endbeasts which take the form of bears, but they also appear in various stages of abstraction—without limbs, or more dragonlike than bearlike in appearance. The endbeasts are usually muzzled, even when they have devolved from a distinct bear form.
Certain hogbacks exhibit narrative scenes on their sides depicting scenes from Norse mythology or Christian iconography. Surface carving, both narrative and abstract, is generally shallow and of lesser quality than on contemporary objects such as standing crosses, grave slabs, or luxury items.
Scholarship on the hogback has been largely descriptive, and tends to shy away from speculative, except as a tool to determine architectural form. The definitive work on the subject, a catalogue by James Lang, meticulously describes and categorizes every known hogback, but fails to answer some of the most enigmatic problems of these sculptures—what were they for? who commissioned them? how do they reveal the melding of the two distinct cultures that fostered their creation? If anything, Lang’s study serves to disprove theories that previous scholars had asserted, without proposing suitable alternatives. I hope that my fresh perspective on this issue will offer insight to the matters that need to be addressed, and point to avenues for future investigation.
Using hogbacks to aid their understanding of Viking architecture, scholars have assumed that hogbacks offer a representation of housing. Indeed, hogback decoration appears to mimic architectural features, and the ovalesque curve of most hogback sides match the general pattern of post-holes in contemporary Scandinavian housing. Hogbacks have served as some of the primary sources in the reconstruction of the early medieval Trelleborg house in Denmark. But it would be foolish to assume that these stone carvings accurately depict architectural realities. One must always remember that medieval artisans were not interested in naturalistic analogue, but rather, in presenting readable iconographies. With this danger of literalism in mind, it is useful to extract the consistencies in housing depictions as fair insight to the 10th century idea of structure.
I have already mentioned that both post-holes and many hogback sides bow in a convex curve. The fact that these features are not always identical may indicate several possibilities. Architecture existed in the 10th century with straight walls as well as bowed. There is no evidence to assume that if hogbacks do represent architecture, that they would only mimic those buildings with bowed walls. Alternatively, the artists who carved the hogbacks could have chosen to translate the bowed buildings that existed architecturally into straight-walled stone carvings, either for ease of comprehension or ease of craftsmanship.
In his 1973 article, Holger Schmidt argues persuasively for a clear correlation between Viking architecture and extant representations of housing. He points to several images of Viking houses, in addition to his analysis of hogbacks. Each of the depictions he chooses share features of a roofline that is more or less curved, and most include shingling and/or a central archway or high door. The most convincing two-dimensional parallel appears on the Birka coin, c. 800, which displays each of these attributes, and also includes two beasts perched on the gables looking inward, recalling the hogback’s endbeasts. His most house-like three-dimensional representation is a bronze model of a house on top of an iron rod found in a 10th century grave in Klinda, Öland. The house is rectangular, not ovalesque in plan, but it has a curved roofline. On the buttresses at the corners of the house are beast-shaped finials.
Schmidt also sees the Cammin casket as a representation of a house. It too has a curved roof, projecting beast shapes, and is ovalesque in form. But unlike other house images, the Cammin casket has no other architectural references, such as shingling or an arched door, making it difficult to see as a house form, but clearly analogous in shape to the hogback. To me, this comparison troubles the reading of the hogback as a depiction of Viking housing. It is difficult and perilous to interpret any of these house-like forms as actual or accurate depictions of houses. While I believe this evidence makes it safe to conclude that Viking housing had curved roofs, or rather, that the curved “roofline” was a prevalent feature to the Viking sensibility, that does not necessitate that every curved “roof” found in contemporary objects depicts houses. Clearly, two commonalities were integral to the visual vocabulary of Viking imagery—the curved roof, and projecting beast forms.
The purpose or meaning of these beast forms continues to confound scholars. Frequently, they have been employed in attempts to determine chronology. Lang tentatively proposes that earlier hogbacks display naturalistic endbeasts, which later devolve into stylized creatures and eventually disappear altogether. Richard Bailey considers the opposite chronology would be a more natural assumption, but discourages that as well. “There is no reason to believe that hogbacks with end-beasts are later than those without. And it would be as easy to suggest a development from a bodiless animal to a full-bodied beast as it would to propose the reverse.” So, we must content ourselves to analyze endbeasts for purposes other than chronology.
Beasts held special significance to the Vikings. As we have already seen, the Vikings included images of creatures in their depictions of architecture—most likely, Viking homes were equipped with beasts on their gables or buttresses. The most common Viking ornament from this era are ribbon beasts in the Jellinge style, often difficult to discern amid a jumble of interlace. Creatures abound in Scandinavian mythology. Obviously, animals were integral elements to the Viking sensibility, but to unpack their meanings is complicated and as convoluted as the twisted bodies of ribbon beasts.
The most consistently naturalistic endbeasts carved on hogbacks are bears. To the 20th century eye, these endbeasts resemble teddy bears or cute cartoons, but a thousand years ago, bears were respected and feared as the ferocious and dangerous animals that they are. Bears are incredibly strong and large carnivorous animals who will attack when threatened. They appear in Scandinavian mythology as emblems of the Berserks, the warrior followers of the god Odin. The Berserks would fight in a fit of frenzy, possessed by the spirit of a fierce creature. They would appear in the guise of, or wear costumes as bears or wolves. Like bears, the Berserks were ruthless and tenacious in attack, seemingly impervious to pain; they were the ideal warriors.
Twelfth-century British bestiaries attest to the continued associations with bears as posessed warrior types. The Welsh Armes Prydein likens the Welsh in battle against the Saxons as “a bear from the mountain.” The Historia regum Britanniae VII contains several mentions of bears aligned with certain personality traits. Its colorful and derogatory epithets derive from lasting impressions of bear connotations. One character is derided as a “bear who had been rolling in the filth of his wickedness since youth.” Indeed, bears seem to progress from icons of battle and fury to emblems of sordid lust and squalor. Never do bears appear as respectable, noble creatures in the British sensibility.
The bears that cling to the sides of hogbacks are seen most clearly in the group excavated from the Brompton site. Adhering to the British disdain for the ferocity of bears, scholarship comparing Viking art to its Anglo-Saxon contemporary, on occasion, has scoffed at these stone carvings. “These remarkable Brompton carvings must … be treated as a more or less freak adventure in art, out of the main line of sculptural development and hopeless of posterity.” I prefer to examine these endbeasts in order to determine their significance for a group of people at a specific moment in history.
With the exception of the two of poorest quality (Brompton 5 & 6), these bears wear muzzles. A notable variation of the muzzle appears on Brompton 9 where the bear holds it paws over its own jowl in an act of self-muzzling. In fact, hogback endbeasts from every region wear muzzles more often than not. Lang suggests that the muzzle may be a habitual continuation of Jellinge style beasts, which are often fettered in some way. But Jellinge beasts are visually more similar to interlace pattern and fantastic decoration than these primarily naturalistic and recognizable animals. I read the muzzle feature as a clear symbol of the taming or domestication of the wild warrior. Such a reading is consistent with the shape of the Viking house, another motif of domesticity.
Further implications may be drawn from the fact that bears did not live in England in the 10th century, but that they are native to all of Scandinavia. The carvers of these stones were familiar with the forms of bears to depict them with varying degrees of verisimilitude. It is not important to know whether Anglian or Scandinavian artists carved these stones, or who commissioned them—what is relevant is that bears are a sign of foreignness to England; they represent the Scandinavian homeland that was left behind by the Vikings. That they are muzzled and domesticated indicates a deliberate denial of the ferocity natural to bears. If the depiction of bears implies Odin’s warriors, then their muzzling points toward an abstension from fighting.
It would be consistent with their rapid assimilation to English culture that the Vikings would relinquish warrior practices. The Christian English advocated peace and denounced the pagan adventurous spirit of the Vikings. The Vikings, eager to settle England as their home, would have sought to prove their own new-found Englishness through a display of domestication and denial of derogatory Viking barbarism. The hogback bowed house shape recalls Scandinavian heritage but also connotes a solid concern for the home. The bears likewise convey a recollection of Scandinavia, while their muzzles assure a passive complacency suitable to the English notion of civilization.
Although most hogbacks are decorated with endbeasts, interlace patterns, and/or vague architectural references, not a single hogback contains any inscription, and only a select few depict narrative scenes. Lang categorizes these latter hogbacks as “Type VII—Illustrative Type,” and comments on their broad distribution throughout the hogback region, but indicates no reason to consider these separately from the general classification of hogbacks. I will describe the seven extant illustrative hogbacks below.
Gosforth 1, called “The Warrior’s Tomb,” illustrates a warrior scene on one side and carries interlace patterns along with a Jellinge beast on the other. Endbeasts are absent from the gable ends, but one side depicts the damaged and worn figure of a man in a kirtle with a belt on his hips. Gosforth 2, known as “The Saint’s Tomb,” depicts humans fighting serpentine monsters on each side, and on the gables, underneath muzzled dragonesque endbeasts, appear images of the Crucifixion. The hogback from Heysham illustrates animals and humans interacting on each side, flanked by fully developed, if poorly carved endbeasts. Each side of the Lowther 1 fragment features shallowly carved human figures, some with their hands held as if in prayer. Lowther 2 depicts warrior figures in a boat carrying shields, facing an army on land also carrying shields. Underneath is the figure of a serpent. Sockburn 5 clearly illustrates the Scandinavian mythological story of the god Tyr losing his hand to the wolf Fenrir in the attempt to muzzle the fierce beast. Finally, Sockburn 6 depicts a Valkyrie and a raven, both associated with the god Odin.
The common theme that links these illustrations together is the warrior motif. However, the only two that overtly reference warriors, The Warrior’s Tomb and Lowther 2, depict the figures in non-confrontational poses. They stand ready with their shields and armor, but do not clash swords. Likewise, Sockburn 6’s Valkyrie and raven are associated with warfare, but do not actually fight as warriors. (Lowther 1 is not a complete hogback, and must be discounted for this argument as the human figures do not combine to make a fully readable narrative.) Such non-fighting warrior types support my supposition that hogbacks represent an effort to portray the Viking in a peaceful, Anglicized manner.
The only scenes of confrontation appear on The Saint’s Tomb, where humans battle snake creatures, and Sockburn 5, depicting the Fenrir wolf myth. The Saint’s Tomb is particularly engaging, as the hogback also includes the crucifixion scene. Whereas in Scandinavian mythology, the snake signifies the world serpent who encircles the earth, in the Christian religion, snakes are associated with evil and temptation. Whether the humans represent Vikings denying their heritage or Christians fighting insurgent pagan beliefs, the Christian concept of good vs. evil informs the entire composition. The crucifixion scene on either end secures such a reading. Clearly, the Saint’s Tomb champions the Christian victory over pagan ideas.
The myth depicted on Sockburn 5 relates the story of Fenrir, the huge and menacing wolf who was an offspring of the trickster god Loki. No fetter was strong enough to hold Fenrir until the world dwarves devised a muzzle made from ephemeral, intangible notions—the roots of a mountain, the noise of a moving cat, and the breath of a fish. Fenrir would only allow the god Tyr to lay the resulting cord upon his jaws. The muzzle held, but not before Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand. A notable variation in this hogback’s depiction of the tale is that Tyr’s hand has yet to be bitten off. Perhaps this indicates, like the muzzling of the endbeasts, a desire to portray Viking tendencies with a gentler, Anglicized understanding. It is unclear whether the endbeasts themselves on this hogback wear muzzles.
The uncertain function of hogback stones has troubled scholars in their efforts to reinvent the world of Viking Age England. With a fair amount of trepidation, most agree that hogbacks were a form of grave-covers. Lang refers to them throughout his catalogue as such, with no apology or explanation otherwise. “Hogbacks belong to the genus of recumbent grave-covers which include flat slabs, coped stones, sarcophagi and shrine tombs of various construction.” Holger Schmidt emphatically agrees with Lang’s assertion. “I wish to stress that the hog-backs are first of all grave-covers found within Scandinavian settlements.” Bailey weighs the evidence more skeptically, and questions the assurance of such a conviction. Bailey writes, “It would be natural to assume that hogbacks were grave-covers. We cannot be certain of this because no grave has been found in clear association with one of these stones…” In a later text, Bailey asserts his position as to the purpose of hogbacks in analogy to a function regarding grave marking. “I believe that this monumental type represents a development of the shrine-tomb known in earlier Anglian England at sites like Peterborough (Hedda’s tomb), with the shape of the monument being adapted to contemporary architectural types.” I appreciate Bailey’s hesitancy to absolutely classify hogbacks as a form of grave-cover, and believe that other possibilities must be considered before such an assured statement can be proffered.
That no hogback has ever been excavated in clear association with a grave make any assumption in that regard dangerously presumptuous. Although most hogbacks were found in church settings, they were found primarily incorporated as building stones in the fabric of later Norman churches. Theoretically, they could have been imported from elsewhere than the churchyard. The ones that were excavated outside in churchyards have unclear provenance. The Heysham hogback was purportedly discovered during the digging of an early 19th century grave, perhaps with a spearhead underneath. Documents to this account must be hazy at best, since all modern references to it regard this claim with doubt. The group of hogbacks that comprise “The Giant’s Grave” at Penrith have clearly been rearranged several times at least throughout the last number of centuries, and quite possibly earlier since their original placement during the Viking Age. In fact, what appears here to be four separate hogbacks and two standing shafts is more likely only one complete hogback and three halves. Neither the Heysham hogback nor The Giant’s Grave offer useful evidence for reconstructing the original function of hogbacks.
A number of contemporary standing crosses do exist in their original positions, and therefore perhaps could suggest other uses for outdoor stone carving. In his study of inscribed stone crosses, John Higgitt finds that “The principle functions which the inscriptions reveal are memorial and votive.” but warns that, “The evidence of the inscriptions on the inscribed crosses need not apply to uninscribed crosses. The uninscribed crosses may lack inscriptions because they are different in kind.” Such qualifications render this comparison frustrating, as none of the hogbacks are inscribed, and that hogbacks surely differed in precise function from standing crosses. But what is useful is that memorial and votive purposes can justify pieces of stone carving as well as gravemarking. Bailey likewise enumerates purposes other than gravemarking for stone crosses in graveyards. “Their function was not so much to mark burials as to the visible reminders of an unseen world—a role which was signalled by the Anglo-Saxon word for a cross, becun (a conspicuous symbol).” However, Bailey later reminds us that when the Vikings took over this art form, they revised its function, and that later crosses were more likely to be used as grave-markers.
Furthermore, hogbacks are not as conspicuous as standing crosses. In fact, their low horizontality, unless they were originally placed on some kind of pedestals, would have made them difficult to study unless one knelt before it. But kneeling prayer directed toward these hogbacks seems unlikely given their only quite rare references to Christianity. Certain Irish crosses bear a church-shaped capping that resembles the architectural quality of hogbacks, which suggests perhaps a more solid connection between the two forms of stone carving. However, there is a distinct difference between a church shape that looms from a lofty height, reinforced in its Christian reference by the cross that supports it, and a house shape set low to the ground only rarely and tenuously aligned with Christian iconography. Moreover, these architectural cross cappings are only found in Ireland, where none but a solitary hogback exist. Nevertheless, the architectural motif and placement within the churchyard surely suggests a connection of intention and situation between standing crosses and hogbacks.
Comparisons with shrine tombs are similarly problematic. Reachable and readable by their viewers, shrine tombs are limited to aid in understanding the purpose of hogbacks that apparently were not intended to be easily accessed. The Danish Cammin casket, already mentioned as analogous in shape to the hogback house design, was possibly used as a jewel box, as was the Bamberg casket, probably made in the same workshop. House-shaped objects of Anglo-Saxon origin were likewise used to carry precious objects, but generally of a religious nature—shrine tombs held saints’ relics. Bailey cites examples of small house-shaped boxes, now lost, with holes for the devoted to reach in and touch relics contained within.
These developed into solid stone shrines, such as Hedda’s Tomb, which provides the clearest analogy to hogbacks. Basically equivalent in size, shape, and material, the hogbacks differ from Hedda’s Tomb mainly in surface decoration. Whereas Hedda’s Tomb depicts standing saints carved in familiar upright European medieval poses, hogbacks feature Viking-style decoration. When human figures do appear, they never wear the robes or bear the same proportions as the figures on Hedda’s Tomb. This difference could easily be explained by a difference in aesthetic. More significant surface differences are the appearances of narrative mythological scenes and, of course, the endbeasts. Such anachronistic formal schemes muddle a direct connection between shrine tombs and hogbacks. What is more, even the finest hogbacks are never carved with the same quality or care invested in the best shrine tombs, grave covers, or standing crosses.
The rarity of Viking-style graves in England, complete with burial mounds, weapons, and other burial goods, indicates that the Vikings quickly adopted the English style cemetary, making Viking graves and English graves virtually indistinguishable. If hogbacks were grave-markers, they would have served to differentiate certain graves from others, an effect that would have been at odds with the Viking goal to assimilate. Therefore, I conclude that hogbacks were not grave-markers, but rather, existed in the churchyard context in order to commemorate absent persons or more general ideas. Their span of existence, most likely limited to the years between 920–970, implies an immediate, specific desire to communicate via these anachronistic objects. That they ceased to be produced, or evolved into more distinctly Anglo forms, indicates that the Viking settlers who created the hogbacks no longer had the need to express their desire to assimilate. Their status in Britain was already settled—by the late 10th century, Britains of Viking origin had established themselves among the native Anglo-Saxon British. A status quo was achieved that no longer urgently demanded to be proved.
Perhaps the hogbacks were votive reminders of family ancestors back in the Scandinavian homeland, who had not converted to Christianity, but were nonetheless worthy of salvation. Another possibility would be that the hogbacks represent the desire of a group of people to be accepted in their adopted land. Therefore, they are more in keeping with, although not equivalent to a solid shrine such as Hedda’s Tomb. These monuments do not contain or mark any specific physical object or body, but rather, commemorate a concept integral to the Christianization of the Vikings. Such a solution to this great mystery would be in keeping with my reading of hogbacks as a tool of peaceful assimilation of the pagan Viking into a Christian world.


1 Viking invasions in Britain

2 The distribution of hogback sites in England and Wales

3 The reconstructed Viking-age house in Trelleborg, Denmark

4 The Birka coin

5 Bronze model of house on top of iron rod, found in 10th-century grave in Klinta, Öland

6 The Cammin casket

7–17 Brompton hogbacks

18–19 Gosforth 1—The Warrior Tomb

20–21 Gosforth 2—The Saint’s Tomb

22–23 Heysham hogback

24–27 Lowther 1

28 Lowther 2

29 Sockburn 5

30 Sockburn 6

31 Viking-period grave slabs

32 Hedda’s tomb

33 Crathorne 3

34 Penrith—The Giant’s Grave

35–38 Standing crosses

39 Church shape on top of Muiredach’s cross, Monasterboice, Ireland


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