‘The Vikings: Life and Legend’ at The British Museum, was always going to be popular. Running from 6th March to the 22nd June 2014, as their website suggests, booking in advance is essential.
This high profile exhibition is a first in two ways. It’s the first such show at the British Museum for over 30 years and showcases the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery; part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014.
One of the aims of this exhibition seems to be to rid the spectator of the many cliches that surround our understanding of the Vikings. Well, let me help in that aim with a few obvious examples for you here. No, they didn’t just rape and pillage, and no; they never wore those horned ‘Spam Spam Spam Spam’ helmets, so oft seen.
Contemporary accounts of the raiders’ arrival at Lindisfarne in Britain in AD 793, in which they desecrated the monastery and killed the priests, does indeed paint a chilling picture based on truth. However, as this exhibition makes clear, much of our general understanding is based on biased accounts left by their enemies, and 19th century reimaginings. Myths that still obscure the reality today.
The facts of course are much more interesting as the exhibition proves. Great care has been taken to tease out the details of who the Vikings really were, what they did and when, using exhibits and multimedia presentations to tell their story. These are drawn from many sources; some never seen in this country before (the exhibition has been developed with the National Museum of Denmark and National Museums in Berlin) and each item on display is sensitively placed in context.
I was struck by just how successful the Vikings were in refining their unique ‘Scandinavian’ culture and as traders- ‘borrowers’ of ideas and explorers. Their geographical range was truly staggering for the time. Through rivers and seas to the Ukraine and the beginnings of ‘Kievan Russia’ (the ‘Rus’ were descended partly from the Vikings), across Europe to its farthest edge; on to and beyond the known world; into Greenland and possibly North America. In fact, it could be said the Vikings were the common thread that wove together early versions of the nations that eventually became England, France and several others besides.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the reconstruction of a vast longship from around 1025. Although fragments of hull are missing parts, the full extent of the original vessel can be seen in a metal reconstruction holding the wooden remnants in place and reflecting it’s complete shape: truly extraordinary. The ship was from the time of King Canute and could carry 100 warriors; presumably with all their weapons and supplies.
These warrior bands who pushed so far in search of glory in battle and it’s subsequent spoils, were willing, to an extent, to assimilate ideas of those they encountered through trade and conquest, into their own culture. This is demonstrated for example in the Vikings’ acquisition and adaptation of
Frankish designs in the form of exquisite jewellery. Also in the many weapons on display; many intricately decorated and often having ceremonial function. It’s obvious too that they loved to show off their wealth and status through beautiful broaches (some huge) and other things. Some of these looking so flawless it’s as if they were made yesterday.
If they liked it, they’d use it. If they didn’t however, it was another story. One can read about and imagine the extent of destruction of things the Vikings didn’t understand. How many Illuminated Manuscripts, works of art and culture were lost as a consequence of their raids?
Death in battle was seen as the highest calling for the Vikings and they revelled in being violent raiders in search of booty and slaves. Although only a proportion of their society were actual worriers, their rich oral culture tells stories of valour and victory over their enemies. Blood soaked conquests aside, often Viking rulers was incredibly adept at statecraft. King Cnut (Canute) occupied the Danish and English thrones simultaneously for a time during the latter Viking era. As Scandinavia became more settled, the worrier clans began to emulate their southern neighbours in embracing Christianity. This was political expediency no doubt, but as one wonderful exhibit makes clear, they didn’t dispense with Paganism completely. A tiny casting mould seen at the end of the exhibition shows Christian crosses and Thor’s hammer together. Some artisan not putting all his eggs in one basket.
The art and design of the Vikings falls into several distinct phases, but it is clear from so much of the work just how deeply their artists responded to the natural (and Supernatural) world.
One can see on display artefacts that give insights into others’ perception of the Vikings from later ages. A beautiful wooden fragment depicts a formation of Longships in exquisite carved line.
Also on show are many of the things they inadvertently left behind: hoards of coins and silver. The Vikings initially had a bullion economy or used other people’s money, rather than produce their own. Although they did eventually mint coins, sometime after encountering cultures on their travels with more advanced monetary systems.
The latter part of the exhibition shows many of the ways Vikings adapted to Christianity and how their world gradually became more settled. Also that the influence of the Vikings carried on in language and Vocabulary. Certain parts of what is now the UK remained Norse centuries after Harald ‘The Hard Ruler’ Hardrada was killed at Stamford Bridge. I was particularly touched by the recording of a living voice from the regions, in which you can detect the traces of Old Norse. A bit like watching S4C; you can understand some of it, but other parts are wonderfully mysterious and foreign.
In the final analysis, I felt that the observer is left to make their own conclusions as to the motivations and merits of the Vikings, provided with the traces of their culture. In a violent and bloody world in which slavery and oppression were the norm, were the Vikings really that different from say the Huns or Mongols? Indeed, many of the atrocities attributed to the Vikings would not look out of place in the Age of Chivalry. This exhibition gives you the opportunity to decide for yourself.
(C) Gideon Hall (2014)
(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2014)