Vikings: life and legend – savaging the myths

A new exhibition shows there’s more to the Vikings than raping and pillaging.

This week, the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition opens at the British Museum in London. The exhibition, the first to be held in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, draws together artefacts loaned from museums across Europe.

The exhibition sets out to provide a nuanced vision of Viking society, stressing the cultural exchange between the Vikings and the people with whom they came into contact. In the past, the Vikings have often been depicted as Norse, or Danes, or simply as Vikings, but the curators are keen to demonstrate how the Vikings created distinctive hybrid cultures wherever they went. There were the Vikings who followed the rivers east of the Baltic, who mingled with Slavic tribes and became known as the Rus’ (giving their name to Russia); there were those who settled in Northern France who became the Normans; and there were the Vikings who became the Norse-Gaels in Ireland. And there were many more besides. An example of the Vikings’ tendency to fuse together disparate cultures is shown by a fragment of a stone crucifix from the Isle of Man, which features friezes on its surface depicting scenes from myths about the god, Odin. Another case displays goods discovered in the graves of wealthy Viking women in places as far apart as Ireland and Russia. Each of the artefacts shows signs of the local culture, but they are also strikingly similar for objects discovered thousands of miles apart. 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is what remains of the Roskilde 6, the largest Viking ship ever discovered. About 20 per cent of the timbers have survived, and these have been articulated on a modern steel frame giving the projected dimensions of the ship at an impressive 37 metres long. Amusingly, Roskilde 6 was discovered when builders were constructing the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. According to experts, it was a warship, dating from about 1025 AD, and may have been part of King Canute’s fleet.

The centrality of the ship in Viking culture is one of the main themes of the exhibition. It was the ship, after all, that turned the Vikings’ geographical weakness - isolated over scattered fjords and islands - into their greatest strength as voyagers and traders. International trade was the backbone of Viking society, and it was the Vikings’ search for exotic goods that took them as far afield as Baghdad, Newfoundland and Morocco. From these places, they were able to connect with wider trading routes which brought them goods from around the world, as evidenced by the fragments of silk from China and the coins from Afghanistan on display.

Vikings were once branded barbarians whose society was based entirely on violence and plunder. In recent years, there has been an equally simplistic effort to portray them as a misunderstood race of great artisans, poets and proto-democrats. The exhibition’s curator, Gareth Williams, points out that both of these characterisations contain elements of truth, but that both have been taken to extremes.

The popular image of the Viking as a gruff and unsophisticated brute may not be entirely undeserved, but they also enjoyed the finer things in life. The exhibition displays many artefacts that acted as conspicuous, if impractical, displays of wealth and status for their original owners. One example is a golden torc weighing some 2.5 kilogrammes, which would have surely given the wearer a neck ache.

The exhibition does not shy away from the more savage side of Viking society. The partial skull of a warrior is displayed grinning from behind an iron helmet, his teeth filed to terrify his enemies. Indeed, many warriors would also have had facial tattoos to increase their air of menace. However ferocious their appearance may have been, the Vikings didn’t always come out on top after their raids. Skeletons of Viking men who had been brutally slain and tossed into a mass grave in Dorset, perhaps by those they had intended to pillage from, are also on display. They had been decapitated and exhibit defensive wounds on their arms from where they had futilely attempted to deflect the blows. Oxygen isotope analysis of their teeth shows that the men came from a wide range of places across Northern Europe, demonstrating the diverse make-up of Viking society. 

As I wrote last week, museums these days have a terrible habit of pandering to the perceived interests of children. Mercifully, the only concession made to children is a helpful pamphlet that tells them what to look out for among the exhibits, and it doesn’t even include a colouring section. The exhibition doesn’t require any childish gimmicks as it has plenty to hold a child’s interest.

Not everyone is happy with the adult-orientated nature of the exhibition, however. In an article called ‘Great ship but where’s the story?’, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones lamented that the curators did not provide him with an easy-to-follow narrative thread. Perhaps he should have picked up the children’s booklet. As Wendy Earle argued on spiked recently, sometimes you should just ‘let objects speak for themselves’.

The exhibition is the first to be held in the new Sainsbury gallery. This itself is quite bland in comparison with the British Museum’s grander rooms, but it does provide the space to house enormous artefacts like the Roskilde 6.

If you’re in London between now and 22 June, Vikings: life and legend is a must-see. If you’re unable to make it to London, a live tour of the exhibition will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK on 24 April at 19.30. After the British Museum, the exhibition moves on to the National Museum in Berlin.

Rossa Minogue is staff writer at spiked.

Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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