Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Exhibition poster displayed in the portico of The British Museum.

Recently my brother Michael and I, who incidentally lives near Aarhus on Jutland, went to see the new Viking exhibition at The British Museum called, “Vikings Life And Legend.” My brother went to the first exhibition about the Vikings at the British Museum thirty years ago. He was interested this time to see how our view and knowledge of the Vikings and the Viking world has developed and changed. There have been many new discoveries, mostly through archaeological excavations, that have  developed our knowledge and informed our understating. The exhibition has been organised and curated by experts at three of Europe’s main centres for the study of the Vikings. Michael Eissenhauer at the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, Neil MaGregor at the The British Museum in London and Per Krisitian Madsen of The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen have all participated in producing this exhibiton. The exhibiton covers a number of themes, Warfare and Military Expansion, Power and Aristocracy, Belief and Ritual and Ships and the Viking.

The entrance to the new Sainsbury Exhibition Centre in the British Museum where the Viking exhibition is located.

When the name, Viking, is mentioned many people still have a preconceived idea of a savage, ruthless raider attacking peaceful farming communities, stealing, murdering, burning and pillaging. The 1958 film, produced by Richard Fleischer, starring Kirk Douglas and based narrowly on some of the Old Norse Saga stories, is many peoples idea of what the Vikings were like and what they got up to. That was a part of what they did but they created new settlements and traded with other people. They also were farmers and developed religious beliefs and, what perhaps is more surprising to many and highlighted by this new exhibition, they learned and adapted from other cultures often taking on new ideas and ways of belief.  We know they also settled and set up new communities because we have so much evidence here in the British Isles. But it was a turbulent history that went along with that.
The Viking Age lasted roughly from the late 8th century to the late 11 th century. To put a more precise date on it, it lasted from about 800 Ad to 1066 Ad , in Britain anyway. 1066 was the year of the Norman Invasion in Britain and also the year of the last great Viking Invasion with an army under Harald Hadrada that was defeated by our last Saxon King, Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Other countries might think of the Viking era extending beyond that period.

The Peterborough Chronicle. One of the versions of the Saxon Chronicle that gives evidence about the Vikings in Britain.

The word Viking itself is misleading. There was not a Viking country as such. The Vikings, or raiders,  came from an area of northern Europe which nowadays covers, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. These countries did not exist at the start of the Viking age. The word Viking comes from an old Norse word , vik, meaning inlet. The word viking or vikingr, means raiding party or even piracy. The Latin word , vicus, means a trading centre or emporium. An old English word, which can be found in place names today is ,wic, which might derive from the word Viking. We have places such as Norwich,  Keswick in The Lake District, and villages such as Scopwick in Norfolk. The English language has developed over more than a thousand years and includes Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Viking words, and French from the Normans. This rich development of our language has created some convoluted ways of spelling and ways of organising our grammar and so the history of Britain, including the period of the Viking invasions and settlements, can be found in names.

The Viking world

One of the main reasons for a somewhat biased view of the Vikings and an emphasis on their brutality has come down to us from the Anglo Saxon chronicles of the late 8th century. The monks of Lindisfarne were attacked and murdered, and the treasures in their church stolen by the ,”heathen,” hoards that came over from the north in their longships. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles, written later, were begun by King Alfred in Winchester during the late 9th century. Alfred wanted the history of England recorded. Various versions were written and distributed to a number of cathedrals around the country  to edit and keep up to date. The monks who wrote them show signs of prejudice , where a chronicle in one part of the country  mentions an event from one point of view, others might see it differently or decide to ignore it all together. The Saxon chronicles are therefore to be treated with an element of scepticism but also as a rich source of historical evidence. The chronicles are the first sources to mention the invasions and raids from the north.
"AD. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter."Entry for the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle.

A Viking axe head used for chopping wood and splitting skulls.

Six years before Lindisfarne was raided the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records for A.D. 787. states that 

"This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king's town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation."

Either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly it has not happened by chance, but it is a sign that it was well merited by someone. But now, you who are left, stand manfully, fight bravely, defend the camp of God."
Alcuin (735-804)

These Saxon extracts, are notable for a number of reasons. First they are written accounts by educated monks who saw their very existence and Christianity under attack. They show that there was a feeling of terror but also that they had a guilty conscience. Maybe they felt that they had done something wrong in the eyes of God to deserve this? These chronicles, are the first evidence in Britain for the Vikings. They are a biased account but as in all stories, whatever the source, there is truth too. It is understandable how a concept of savage heathens came to be the foremost opinion about the Vikings initially.

The site of Lindisfarne Abbey in Northumberland.

Michael and I walked into the exhibition amongst hundreds of other people. It is a very popular exhibition and as such this creates problems in viewing some of the exhibits. The archaeological evidence, after more than a thousand years, includes mostly metal objects, some wood, and of course ceramics, ivory and jewels. Many of the items are small and getting a good view amongst huddled onlookers, shouldering each other for space, was difficult at moments. The first displays showed artefacts belonging to children, women and men; brooches, axes, pins, and a sword hilt. These artefacts denoted wealth. To own any of them meant some level of success but the larger the item and the more intricate the designs displayed on them, showed increasingly greater wealth. So it appears size does matter, or amongst the Vikings anyway. I heard some muttered criticism as we went around that many artefacts appeared to be repeated. There were many sword hilts with various patterns and designs on them; there were numerous brooches, all of a similar shape and there were many shawl and kilt pins of a similar round design and pattern. However what was fascinating was that it appeared that these were not all the same. They came from different parts of the Viking sphere of influence which included all of  Europe,east into into Asia and stretched west to North America. They also came from different time periods. It was interesting to see that the overall construction and shape of these artefacts remained the same but the patterns differed extensively. There were Arab influences and Asian influences. These artefacts made it clear that the Vikings learned from and were influenced by other cultures. They were also evidence for the extent of Viking exploration.

A Viking shawl pin.

What enabled the Vikings to extend their range of influence across four continents were their long ships. The largest long ship ever excavated, Roskilde 6 (six longboats have been found in Roskilde harbour. They are of various sizes), takes pride of place in the large hall in the middle of the exhibition. It is thirty seven metres long and was excavated in Roskilde harbour in 1997 which is situated on Zealand, the main island of Denmark, not far from Copenhagen. Many of the keel planks are preserved. These preserved parts of the ship are displayed within a large steal cage  structure built in the shape of the original long ship. You can see that it was massive. What was important about these long ships was that they were designed with low keels so they could travel far inland along river systems which aided not only, their raiding parties but also more importantly their search  for trade. It also meant that if they wanted to establish a settlement in land they could  and not just be confined to the coast. The design of these ships, long and narrow, made them fast and they were also very manoeuvrable. We can tell this from the working reconstructions that have been built in recent years.

 Roskilde 6, in the exhibiton.The largest Viking long boat excavated so far.

“It held up to 100 warriors and would have been part of a 100-strong battle group that would have terrified enemies.
"This ship was a troop carrier," said Gareth Williams of the British Museum told the Guardian.
"There are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships," Williams said.
"So you could be talking about an army of up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land."
The dates suggest Roskilde 6 may have been built for King Canute, who according to legend set his throne in the path of the incoming tide, to prove to his courtiers that even a monarch could not control the force of nature,”

Wrote Richard Alleyne in The Guardian.

Roskilde 6 being conserved in Roskilde.

The exhibition makes it clear that the Vikings , throughout their most active periods, were continuously extending their contacts and influence and they were interacting in many ways. One of the important ways  they interacted concerned religion. The Vikings began as pagans, or as the monks on Lindisfarne called them, heathens. They worshipped Odin, the father of their gods, and Thor, the god of war, but also Frey, the goddess of fertility and Freya the goddess of sex and Hel who ruled over the land of the dead. Most of the countries that bordered the lands that the Vikings came from were Christian and they started their contacts with these neighbours by killing Christians and burning their churches and monasteries but eventually even the Vikings turned to Christianity after three hundred years. This exhibition shows how the Vikings developed towards and finally embraced Christianity. It was a similar process to the Romans acceptance of Christianity. The Romans began to worship the Christian god alongside their other gods to begin with.  The Vikings followed a similar adaptive process.

Viking runes.

Apart from the written evidence recorded by the people they met, traded with or raided, there is not much written evidence from the Vikings themselves. There are many rune stones but these are mostly memorials to chieftains and their gods. As Christianity took hold some stones have prayers and crosses carved on them. They are not a record or history of the Viking times. The Vikings had an oral tradition of telling stories called sagas. They related stories about journeys and adventures, mainly focussing on one chieftain or important leader. These tell us some things about the Vikings and often give us hints about where they went. It is difficult to work out how much is fact and how much is fantasy. Although, runes, sagas and the chronicles of those peoples the Vikings met all give us insights and evidence about the Vikings It is down to artefacts and objects for solid evidence. This exhibition is full of solid evidence grouped and set out in an interpretation that is formed from the latest research and archaeology. If there is another exhibition in a further thirty years it will be interesting to find out how much more our understanding has moved on. When it comes to the Vikings it seems we will always be learning something new and adding to and adapting our understanding.

Remains from a Viking ship burial.

The Vikings still cause strong controversy and often our views of them are formed by geopolitical theories. Because of the long reach of the Vikings it is not true to say that they represent just the Scandinavian countries. They were Aryans and Hitler used them as an example of the strong, thrusting spirit of the Aryan race. Another name for the Vikings  in the eastern part of Europe were the Rus. Russia today gets its name from the Vikings who settled and traded there, but the present day Russians deny vigorously this northern European legacy. It undermines their view that they see themselves as a Slavic race.
Gareth Williams , the  curator who curated the  British Museum version of the exhibition  writes in the  the exhibition book,

“Interpretation of the past is inevitably informed by the character of the society making the interpretation…..”

He does go on to say, with some hope,

 and the academic view of the Viking phenomenon since the late twentieth century has been less narrow for a number of reasons.”

Viking axe head found in Russia.

Other forms of research are being followed. The Vikings are generally not associated with a system of money. They traded using a system of barter and exchange. The use of coins was minimal. If the people who they traded with wanted some sort of monetary assurance then the Vikings would use gold or other precious things in exchange. However, as the Viking period progressed the exhibition shows they did form a monetary system. A study of numismatics therefore, helps us develop our view of the Vikings. Viking treasure hordes have been discovered with coins in them. Some coins from trading contacts were turned into jewellery, especially necklaces.  Place names and language help map where the Vikings settled and here in Britain, especially in the north of England where there was a Danish Kingdom that drove out the Saxons for a while, have many place names with a Viking origin. Advances in the detecting of DNA and the historic links that DNA provides shows the extent of the Viking urge to settle. Through DNA scientists can map the Viking world.
Viking hoard discovered in York. There are some coins of Slavic origin amongst these.

The exhibit that fascinated me the most was the reconstruction of a Viking ship burial. The conservators and curators have reassembled the artefacts and evidence exactly as they were found in one such burial. The shape of the boat was indented into the soil. The wood had disappeared because of age and the geological composition of the ground but all the iron rivets from the original boat still remained and these are laid out as they had been when they were excavated. The personal artefacts of the warrior are also laid in the position they had been found. A sword to one side, buckles and brooches placed in their exact positions. and a metal jar, positioned where the feet of the warrior would have reached with coins and other precious things inside. I got a sense of a Viking life.

A mass burial of Vikings on the south coast near Weymouth. DNA testing has shown that these were young Viking men who had been decapitated.

People wonder when the Viking period actually came to an end. This exhibition makes it clear that it didn’t really end as such. A couple of things happened. The states of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were formed. Instead of being a series heterogeneous groups of scattered and very loosely connected communities, they became homogeneous, forming clear identities under one rule  like the other so called civilised countries around them. They also became Christians.

The exhibition is excellent. If you are thinking of going I would suggest you book on line in advance. There a very few tickets available on the day and this exhibition is popular.
It runs from 6th March until 22nd June.

Here is a link to the British Museum booking facility.

A video link . Be afraid, be very afraid!!!!!!


As a postscript, here are the brochures my brother Michael bought 34 years ago at the British Museums exhibition The Vikings and also the brochures he bought when  he went to see the Danish version of the same exhibiton in Copenhagen.

My brother Michael, e-mailed me to say:

"By the way, there's a joke her in DK that roughly goes that the reason for so many beautiful women in Denmark is because the Vikings stole all the good looking women from England."

Yes, the Danes have a sense of humour!!!!!!!!!!!!


  1. Tony, sounds like a great day out with your brother and an exhibit worth seeing. I love the British Museum and look forward to visiting it again someday. Is there a day of the week or a time of day that is less busy than others?

  2. Jean, it is probably best to avoid the school holidays or the Summer months!!!!! That does not leave much. However, it is good to go to the British Museum at any time. It is a vast place.

  3. Tony:

    I just got around to reading this one. Very interesting. Too bad I can't get to this exhibition before it closes.