For most of us that grew up in Britain, the story of the Vikings begins on the holy island of Lindisfarne, just off the windswept coast of Northumberland, one day in the year 793. Ships with red and white striped sails appeared on the horizon, then an army of tall, bearded men in horned helmets burst ashore, and laid waste to the island’s monastery. Even by the violent standards of the early Middle Ages, the sheer brutality of this particular act of war – with its slaughtering of monks and pillaging of a sacred site by pagan warriors – was about the most terrifying event imaginable to the people of Britain, and it sent shock waves through the whole of Christian Europe.
The sudden and unexpected nature of that event provides British history with a rather neat and tidy starting point for what we now come to think of as the Viking Age. For the next quarter of a millennium these mysterious raiders from Scandinavia would continue to attack Britain, and would establish a kingdom with its capital at York known to history as ‘the Danelaw.’ At one stage a Dane, king Canute, even sat on the English throne. But this is only a tiny part of the Viking story. Or should I say, saga.
Comparatively speaking, Britain and Ireland were on the Vikings’ doorstep, at least as far as these highly skilled shipbuilders and astute seafarers were concerned. Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, Viking armies travelled outwards from their homelands in all directions, to places as far afield as Russia, the Byzantine Empire, Islamic Spain, Greenland, Iceland and even North America. Furthermore, the Vikings did not just rape, pillage and destroy as they went. Venturing forth into these many and varied lands, they traded, they colonised, and eventually settled. In the process they began to adopt local customs, speak local languages and eventually convert to Christianity.
Vikings: Life & Legend, the British Museum’s first exhibition about the Vikings in more than thirty years, attempts to tell the complete Viking story, beginning with the farmers and shipbuilders of the Norwegian fjords, taking us from the Newfoundland coast to the steppes of Russia, and ending up with a look at how the Vikings’ cultural, linguistic and genetic legacy continues to this day (today’s Northumbrians are, on average, 8% Viking, while if you are from Northern Ireland or the Shetlands the blood that runs through your veins is, respectively, about 18% and 25% Viking). As is so often the case in history, it seems that the most successful thing this people did was breed.
The Vikings never carved out an empire in the way that the Romans did (king Canute came closest, being simultaneously king of Denmark, Norway and England between 1014 and 1035), instead establishing a patchwork of settlements across Europe that would gradually evolve into many different states with distinctly different cultures. And thus, the Vikings never really went away at all. For instance, it was a Viking, prince Oleg, that founded the Kievan Rus, the land that would eventually become Russia (the word ‘Rus’ comes from a norse term for ‘men who row’). The baptism of one of Oleg’s successors, Vladimir the Great, marks the founding of the Russian orthodox church. Even in Britain, the event that has come to be seen as the neat-and-tidy end point of the Viking Age – the battle of Hastings in 1066 and subsequent Norman conquest of England – is, at closer inspection, something of a continuation. William of Normandy was himself a French-speaking descendent of Vikings, that had settled in northern France during the ninth century and established the fiefdom, and eventually duchy, of Normandy (the name means land of the ‘northman’). Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, Harald Bluetooth established the kingdom of Denmark in 935, and with it a monarchy that is now the oldest in Europe.
If the aim of the curators was to teach Britons like me that the Viking story is about far more than Lindisfarne, beards and horned helmets, and that the Vikings made a significant impact in far more places than just my homeland and theirs, then it certainly succeeds. Many of the objects are very consciously designed to challenge preconceived ideas about the Vikings, such as the set of decapitated skeletons unceremoniously dumped in the ground after a battle which, it turns out, the Vikings lost. DNA evidence found in the bones, discovered near Weymouth in 2009, reveals that it was Anglo-Saxons who dealt out this particular bit of brutal mass-execution. There are several artefacts of a domestic nature, such as pottery, farming tools and jewelry, to remind us that not all Vikings spent their lives swinging axes in battles. But what struck me most of all was how so many of these objects tell us not just how far the Vikings travelled, but how many different elements of other cultures were assimilated into their own along the way. We see Celtic art imitated in the decoration of both items of jewelry and of weapons. We see the blending of Norse mythology with Christianity on the Manx Runestone from the Isle of Man (it seems that worshipping Jesus Christ alongside the Vikings’ own gods, such as Thor, was not a problem for them). Coins – of which they are plenty in the exhibition – perhaps demonstrate the extent to which the Vikings travelled, and then picked up things along the way, best of all. Some, excavated in Russia, depict Hindu rulers of Punjab and Khabul, while some others, excavated in Britain, originate from the Islamic world, demonstrating just how far and wide Viking trade managed to spread. No one in Scandinavia even used coins before the year 800, but the Vikings gradually took to the idea as their trade networks became more extensive, and eventually they even started making their own coinage based on the Islamic model, complete with Norse writing made to look as much like Arabic script as possible.
Since the Islamic Empire would have been the most advanced society that the Vikings made contact with on their travels – theirs was the world’s most sophisticated monetary economy at the time and, despite its vast size, most centralised state – it is little wonder that the Vikings would have been somewhat impressed by what they saw. But it seems the feeling was not mutual, as demonstrated by a colourful contemporary description by one particular Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlān, written high on one of the walls of the exhibition. ‘They are the filthiest of God’s creatures,’ he said, ‘They do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex. They do not wash their hands after meals. They are like wondering asses.’ The centre of the Christian world, meanwhile, was the city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was a group of Vikings that formed the Varangian guard, an elite group of soldiers who acted as the emperor’s personal bodyguards, and fought alongside him in battle. The guard’s fighting skills, loyalty to their emperor and apparently suicidal bravery became legendary. It seems that the casting of these men from the north as uncultured, savage and formidable in battle began almost as soon as the Vikings had left Scandinavia.
In this regard, I would not go as far as to say that this exhibition completely turned on its head my own ideas as to what the Vikings were like. More, it put much more flesh on the bone, so to speak, putting what I already knew into a far broader context. But from reading some other reviews of the exhibition it seems that, for some, it was the deliberate shift of focus away from what we might call the stereotypical Viking legends, and away from the raiding, pillaging and general terrorising of the native populations that they encountered, that has taken away too much of the excitement and intrigue. I did not, for instance, spot a single horned helmet. Mirroring the exhibition’s attempt to showcase its artefacts in a new, fresh light, the brand new Sainsbury’s Exhibitions Gallery, in which the exhibition is staged, is designed to let the objects on display speak for themselves. There is no denying that it is a grey, sterile and essentially featureless space. A lot of people miss the cosy charm of the British Museum reading room, in which most of the previous blockbuster exhibitions – most recently Beyond el Dorado, Life & Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum and Shakespeare: Staging the World – were staged. The overall effect, at least according to its harshest critics, is that the exhibition is basically rather dull. Unless you’re an archaeologist (there is further, interesting discussion of the response to the exhibition to be found here).
I am prepared to admit that perhaps my reading of negative reviews beforehand – something I never normally do, incidentally, and I shall endeavor not to do again – lowered my expectation somewhat. But I must say that I did not find the exhibition dull at all. Yes, I miss the old reading room a little bit, and yes, if I was at the age I was when I first heard about the Lindisfarne raids and read the Horrible Histories books, I may have found it a little boring. But then again, I found most museum exhibitions boring when I was a child with a short attention span. Nowadays I enjoy any exhibition that teaches me things I did not already know, makes me see things in a new light, and perhaps most significantly, ignites (or re-ignites) a personal interest in a period of history. Vikings: Life & Legend passed all of these tests with flying colours. Where I do agree with some of the more disgruntled TripAdvisor reviews is that I felt the exhibition was a little over-crowded, which given the fact that the tickets are sold on a timed entry basis, was disappointing. I am convinced that a great deal of the criticism written on TripAdvisor – directed at the layout of the cabinets, the dim lighting, and the size of explanatory text – would simply never have been made had the galleries not been quite so busy.
One artefact in the exhibition that everybody agrees is impressive – with the exception of the Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell – is the 37-metre-long Roskilde 6, the largest Viking ship ever found. Not much of the actual ship survives, but the timbers that were excavated have been positioned inside a metal frame to show the size and shape of the vessel as it was around the year 1025 when it first set sail (dendrochronology, the study of the growth rings in wood, was used to date the ship and determine the forest from which the wood originated). As large as Roskilde 6 appears up close, I still found it incredible to think that just one sail and forty pairs of oars were able to take vessels like this from Europe to America across the stormy seas of the Atlantic. It is certainly appropriate that this ship forms the exhibition’s centrepiece, since ships were at the heart of everything the Vikings did. It was their ships that allowed them negotiate the rugged terrain of the Norwegian fjords, cross seas and oceans, and sail up rivers deep into the heart of continental Europe. It was their wide, shallow hulls that made the Vikings’ ships perfect for beaching, making for swift and easy landfall for invaders. And it was in their boats that some Vikings chose to be buried, its hull forming a coffin to sail them – along with other valuable possessions, such as jewellery or weapons – into the afterlife (a beautiful example is displayed here). Little wonder then, for a people who saw land, and not water, as an obstacle to travel, that the Vikings were reluctant to settle anywhere far away from a coast or major river. This prevented them from systematically conquering large areas of land and, as we have already seen, carving out a large empire. Islands, like the Faroes, Shetlands and Orkneys, or small, coast-hugging settlements like the Danelaw and Normandy, were where Vikings felt most at home.
When one single object is the real showstopper, the big question for the curators is where to put it. At the beginning, at the end, or somewhere in the middle? Some reviews I had read beforehand advised visitors to skittle through the dull bits and head straight to the ship, giving me the impression that the best bit had been left until the end. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while the ship is to be found in the final room of the exhibition, the enormous size of the space and the amount of objects that are displayed alongside the ship mean that, actually, one first glances the ship at about the half-way stage of the exhibition. I found myself enjoying the second half of the exhibition more than the first, Roskilde 6’s ‘wow’ factor managing to inject more enthusiasm into me. Which leads me to wonder, would it have not been better to have put the ship at the beginning, and have it as one of the very first things you see? Putting out your big guns at the start is a risky move, perhaps, but in this case I think it might have been a smart one.
Vikings: Life & Legend runs at the British Museum until 22nd June 2014. Advanced booking is absolutely essential (buy tickets here). I thoroughly recommend the audio guide, voiced beautifully by Radio 4’s favourite Viking descendant, Sandi Toksvig, although disappointingly not included in the price of the ticket. And the accompanying book looks extremely good too, although you may not have any money left by that point.