Post 14: Vikings: Life and Legend

British Museum, 6 March – 22 June

This has been much publicised and has not got long left to run, but I thought I’d belatedly post my thoughts on this wonderful exhibition (spoiler – they may be positive).

The Vikings created a huge international network of trade and culture, ranging from Iceland through the British Isles and Scandinavia, across northern Germany and into Kiev and the Black Sea. It incorporated influences from Arabia, the Byzantine Empire, the Franks and more. This exhibition brings artifacts from sources all over the world that display this range, with the star of the show Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship even found – a 37m long warship holding roughly one hundred men.

Roskilde 6

Roskilde 6 InstallmentThe remains of this ship were discovered in 1997 near Roskilde. The timbers made up perhaps 20% of the ship and were painstakingly preserved and investigated by the Museum of Denmark, then finally assembled within a huge stainless steel skeleton in the size and shape of the original ship design. The ship has been dated to 1026 using dendrochronology – with the tree rings of the wood used to build it. As all school kids know, we can find the age of trees by counting the number of these rings; but we can also go further and look at the size of them. Some years (those with better weather) trees can grow more than other so we find thicker rings. By comparing these to other trees and chaining up the results we can find the age of the ship! This places the ship at quite an interesting point – when Cnut was fighting to control all of Scandinavia and England. As to which side Roskilde 6 was on … that remains unknown.

The British Museum actually had to design the hall especially for this exhibition to accommodate the size and fragility of the ship – and they certainly did a good job. After the first few busy, closed in rooms, the exhibition opens up into a huge expanse with the ship in the centre. One then follows a path around the outside of the room and down, with articles and exhibits dotted around the edge. Even reading the size of the ship before hand and understanding its record breaking length, the sheer size of it is really quite an impressive sight.

Lewis Chessmen

Lewis BeserkerAnother notable highlight is the Lewis chessmen. If you aren’t ware of these, they are a set of 78 chess pieces carved from walrus ivory in the Twelfth Century and discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Nineteenth. They are widely believed to originate from Trondheim in Norway, and possibly to have been lost in transit to Viking settlements further west – maybe by some sort of trader in such pieces, given their number and well kept state.

They crop up at various places throughout the exhibit – you’ll find this little chap in the right at a section on Beserkers. These legendary Norse warriors are said to have joined battle in an bestial, trance-like state often with little armour. He’d be a rook in terms of the standard chess pieces, but obviously looks a little more unhinged in design with his mad eyes and shield biting.

There’s also a large and representative collection at the end, with kings, queens, knights and bishops. They really are quite beautiful and have wonderfully kept intricately carved detailing. These are a bit closer to the normal chess piece stereotypes, but they are no less impressive for that.

There has been a bit of controversy in recent years, with SNP politicians demanding that the majority of the pieces be moved to Edinburgh (11 are currently in the museum of Scotland, while the remaining 67 are based in London). While it’s generally best to ignore swivel eyed nationalism and leave these decisions to people who know what they’re talking about, the pieces have begun to tour the UK in recent years with some even set to join a new museum on Stornoway for a long term loan. It should be worth a visit when that happens later in the year.

Other Treasures

Sword circa 800, Museum of DenmarkAlthough the boat is perhaps the most awesome exhibit and the Chessmen perhaps the most well known, there’s a lot more to the exhibition than that. There’s a wide collection of weapons, gold and jewellery and the invaluable opportunity to see so much of this in one place really makes one appreciate the subtleties and differences. There are noticeable changes to the items as the influence of the Franks and the East starts to sink in – we find imitations of Frankish style on otherwise Viking items and attempts at Arabic calligraphy on the Vikings own coins. There are also numerous instances of items made elsewhere which made it into Norse hands through trade or plunder – often with runes carved into them to identify their new owners.

There are also more individual items – a Viking drinking cup, a carved wooden tray for serving food, chains for transporting slaves (they weren’t all nice). With these you start to build a picture of viking society – how they lived, what they prized. Relevant quotations from various sources (Norse or otherwise) line the walls and add to this, albeit often with the confused views of someone from outside of the Norse culture.

There is also the more religious side – hammers of Thor are common, and carvings of Odin as well, but there are also other figures less easy to decipher – Norns, Valkyries or some local gods. Later these pagan works of art start to blur into Christianity – the mixing of religions seems to be the old fashioned slippery slope that moved the populations from paganism to Christianity, and we find carvings portraying biblical stories or themes alongside those from Norse mythology. The link between St Peter and Thor was new to me, with one facing off with and superseding the other as temples were built on old sacred sites.

There’s some fascinating and awesome stuff in this exhibition. I feel like I can’t really do it justice in this quick post – I’d definitely recommend getting down to the British Museum for it while you can (though booking is recommended). If you don’t make it, most of this stuff should be heading back to its own home so I’m sure you can still get an impressive Viking showing at the lead collaborators – the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Or indeed the British Museum on a normal day.


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