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.