Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

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