The Vikings: Life and Legend - exhibition review

Image: A Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

'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
clichés 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, do 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.

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 its 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 its
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 brooches
(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 warriors, 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 in the latter Viking era; and as Scandinavia became more
settled, the warrior 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 an 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,
after encountering cultures on their travels with more advanced monetary

Early Viking society was dominated by the warrior clans. It was a martial world in
which the role of women was subservient to men. They were drilled to look after
children, the home and the like. Each gender was expected to 'behave' a certain
way, and woe betide if you crossed the line. That said, certain women achieved
very high status. For example, the Oseburg 'Queen' was buried in AD 834, with a
great longship surrounded by elaborate grave goods, indicating that she must have
been very important indeed. The 'Oseburg' longship in fact is one of the most
significant and intact vessels of its kind ever found. There are other examples of
women who attained wealth and power during the Viking age, but more
opportunities for women to assert themselves appeared in the 11th century, as
Christianity spread through the Viking world. It is also worth remembering that
women endured joint, as well as uniquely female, hardships in the colonising and
settlement of new lands.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how the Vikings adapted to Christianity and
their world became more settled. Also how 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 spectator 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)

Author's review: 
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