Vikings: Life and Legend – Highlights of an Exhibition at the British Museum

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Roskilde 6

Shown here is the Roskilde 6. Image by Frances Spiegel, taken with permission from the British Museum. All rights reserved.

In 1014, the Danish Viking named Svein Forkbeard took the English throne by force. Exactly one thousand years later, those Vikings are back again in the first exhibition to take place in the new purpose-built Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

The Story of the Vikings

Through a fascinating display of swords and axes, coins and jewellery, hoards, amulets, skeletons and religious images, Vikings: life and legend tells the story of the Vikings.

Featuring artefacts from the Viking age together with new archaeological discoveries, the exhibition explores the period from the late eighth century to the early eleventh century.

The display brings together items sourced from the British Museum’s own comprehensive collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, plus key loans from international collections including the Roskilde Museum, the National Museum of Denmark and Wikinger Museum Haithabu (Hedeby Viking Museum) in Germany.

The British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark and the National Museums in Berlin jointly organised the Vikings: life and legend exhibit and Tom Williams (Project Curator) and Gareth Williams (Lead Curator) serve as curators for the British Petroleum-sponsored exhibit.

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The Vikings: A Warrior Nation

Vikings: life and legend presents new research proving the Vikings had a powerful sense of warrior identity. Warfare and violent contact with other societies was central to their culture.

Their efficiency in transporting the products of that warfare, including slaves and stolen goods, shows the crucial role of the Vikings as raiders and traders. The Viking network covered four continents from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean.

Recent discoveries have altered our understanding of the Viking psyche. Oustanding shipbuilding skills played a vital part in their success as a maritime nation and the Viking warship, known as Roskilde 6, forms the focal point of the exhibition.

Roskilde 6: The Longest Viking Warship Discovered to Date

The focal point of the exhibition is the Roskilde 6, built in southern Norway in about 1025 and the longest-ever Viking ship discovered to date. The Vikings deliberately sank the 37 metre-long ship in Denmark in the middle of the eleventh century.

Since its excavation from the banks of Roskilde fjord in 1999, archaeologists carefully conserved the surviving timbers (about 20% of the original ship) and the museum curators displayed these in a specially constructed stainless steel frame. 

According to the National Museum of Denmark’s analysis of the timbers, the ship dates to around 1025 AD when Cnut the Great, son of Svein Forkbeard, ruled England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden. The sheer size of the ship hints that it may have once been a royal war ship, possibly used in Cnut’s campaign to control the short-lived North Sea Empire.

Coins and Silver: Vale of York and Other Hoards

The exhibition also includes the Vale of York Hoard, discovered near Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 2007. The hoard, shown in its entirety, consists of 617 coins, 6 arm rings, several ornaments, a quantity of bullion as well as chopped-up fragments known as hack-silver.

The hoard, which includes objects from Afghanistan, Ireland, Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe, reflects at least three different belief systems: Islam, Christianity and the worship of Thor, the pre-Christian religion of the Vikings.

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. Image - British Museum used with permission.

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. Copyright image courtesy of the British Museum, used with permission. All rights reserved.

The most spectacular single piece is a silver cup, probably made in Germany or northern France during the 9th century. On discovery, the cup, protected by a lead container, contained most of the smaller objects.

Experts believe that a Viking leader most likely buried the hoard in about 927 AD,  which is the time of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan’s conquest of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria. As a result, the hoard shows the real extent of Viking activities at the time.

Lewis Chessmen

Dating from around 1150-1200 AD, the Lewis Chessmen, were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The walrus ivory and whales’ teeth figures take the forms of kings and queens, mitred bishops, mounted knights, standing warders and pawns resembling obelisks and reflect a strong influence from Norse culture.

The Lewis Chessmen, berserkers.  Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum. Used with permission.

The Lewis Chessmen, berserkers. Copyright image courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum, used with permission. All rights reserved.

The pieces, mostly in excellent condition, form part of four distinct, but incomplete, sets. The original owner of the pieces remains unknown and there is ongoing speculation about their place of manufacture.

The English palaeographer Sir Frederic Madden thought they were Icelandic, but other authorities think they could be Irish, Scottish or English. Norway, due to its historic, political and cultural links, is also very a strong contender. 

The pieces shown in the image take the form of wild-eyed warriors chewing their shields, a behaviour normally linked to the berserkr (also spelt berserker, and translated as ‘bear-shirt.’) Apparently, berserkrs went into a battle frenzy, fighting without armour, or maybe even naked. They supposedly enjoyed monumental strength and a very high pain threshold, apparently due to their worship of the god Odin.

Is this story true? Most accounts of the berserkrs come from reports that date from more than 100 years after the Viking Age such as the Ynglinga saga written by Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturluson in about 1200-30 AD. Sturluson said: ″[Odin’s] men rush forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow… .″ Our modern phase ‘going berserk’ comes from this practice.

Not All Viking Raids Were Successful

Yes, the Vikings were formidable warriors, but not every sortie was successful. The exhibition features a group of skeletons from a mass grave discovered near Weymouth, Dorset, England in 2009.

Skeletons discovered in Dorset. Image: Frances Spiegel with permission from the British Museum.

Skeletons discovered in Dorset. Image by Frances Spiegel, taken with permission from the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Discovered in a disused Roman quarry, carbon dating suggests burial took place in about 1000 AD. There were fewer skulls than skeletons, and it is likely that the  Vikings displayed the missing skulls on stakes by the grave, or elsewhere. Analysis of the teeth indicates the warriors, all youngish men, came from different parts of Scandinavia.

The remains show very clearly the range of injuries that could be inflicted by swords and axes. Consistent with beheading and not death in battle, most of the injuries are to head, neck and shoulder. The skeletons also show ‘defensive’ injuries where the victim raised his hand or arm to protect himself from the victor’s weapon.

Viking Conquest Continues

These artefacts mentioned above include some of the highlights of the exhibition; my colleague Paris Franz introduces Vikings: life and legend and further explores the purpose of the exhibition.

Following their appearance at the British Museum from 6th March to 22nd June 2014, the Vikings exhibit appears at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, from 10th September 2014 to 4th January 2015. The British Museum provides tickets and further information.

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