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
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."
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.
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
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!!!!!!!!!!!!