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A Visit to the Exhibition at the British Museum

Thursday 13th March 2014

The first CFDAS visit of the year was also our first visit to an exhibition in the recently opened Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the British Museum’s first purpose built space for temporary exhibitions and part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014.

The curatorial lecture was given by Dr Gareth Williams who, over a period of six years, was responsible for putting the exhibition together in partnership with museums in Copenhagen and Berlin.  Dr Williams has been a curator at the Museum since 1996, with responsibility for British and European coinage, about AD 500 to about 1180.  Much of his work focuses on the use of Anglo-Saxon and Viking coinage as evidence within broader historical and archaeological studies.  As well as giving a very informative presentation of the broad context of the Vikings expansion between AD 800 and 1050 he delivered it in an enjoyable manner.  So much could be missed if the exhibition is seen without having attended the lecture.

‘Just Raiders, or Traders too?’ was the theme of the exhibition and the various links explored were tied together by the main exhibit.  This was the outline in stainless steel of a long ship, known as Roskilde 6, over 37m long, derived from and containing the timber remains of the ship, which would not have fitted into the Reading Room.  Roskilde 6 was found with eight other ships during the construction of the Museum Harbour for the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997 in Denmark and is the longest longship discovered.  Dendro-dating indicates that the ship was built around AD 1025, when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were ruled by King Cnut.  There is conjecture about whether it was built to keep King Cnut out of Norway or built as a celebration of his conquest of Norway, but whatever the reason it was built to demonstrate wealth and power.

The lecture and exhibition both draw on new research and recent discoveries that weren’t available previously and have changed the understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade and beliefs.  Perhaps the myths about the Vikings being invincible, horned-helmeted warriors only interested in rape and pillage will finally be dispelled.  Undoubtedly this did happen on numerous occasions but there was also exploration, trading and eventually settlement as well, blending with the cultures they met along the way.  From their Scandinavian homelands the Vikings ranged through Europe and as far as Greenland, Newfoundland, North Africa and Central Asia and traded in amber, jet, silk, whalebone, soapstone, Islamic gold and slaves.

It was clear that the Vikings had a wide appreciation of art and workmanship and absorbed aspects of the cultures they came across and produced a rich Viking amalgam.  An example of the blending cultures was shown by a brooch made in Scotland around AD 700 and, perhaps, a 100 years later had a runic inscription added to the back by a new owner which translates as ‘Maelbrigda owns this brooch’.

The Hunterston Brooch 12.2 cm dia. c. AD 700.  Scotland

The language and alphabet are Scandinavian but the name Maelbrigda is Scottish or Irish indicating that the owner came from a mixed Scandinavian/Celtic background.

The exhibition included a wide range of beautifully crafted brooches, necklaces and torcs, many of which were clearly too large to serve every day purposes but were to establish status.  The gold neck-ring to the left was found in Denmark and originally weighed over 2 kg and is about 30 cm in diameter.  The Viking age equivalent of modern day ‘bling’?

Viking ‘bling’ did have a practical side though as it was a bank for wealth.  You can see how some of the ring has been uncoiled, probably to use as bullion.  The exhibition included balances and weights used by traders to weigh silver and gold for trading purposes and a number of ‘hoards’ have included ‘hack’ silver that has been used in trade.

The Vale of York hoard exhibited was discovered in 2007 and is one of the largest Viking hoards found in Britain.  It was thought to have been buried shortly after AD 927.  Apart from the larger silver ingots the silver, gold and silver-gilt objects were packed into a cup and originated in places throughout the Viking world.  How may hoards have still to be found?

The new finds also suggest that as well as belief in the pantheon of Norse gods, such as Odin, Thor etc, it appears as though there was also belief in magic with female shamans.  A number of burials have been discovered of people wearing women’s clothing, with grave goods that include what looks like a modern iron poker (see below).

Iron staff 44.37 cm long.  Sweden

The grave goods also included containers of henbane, probably taken for out-of-body experiences, supporting the view of shamanistic beliefs.  The ‘poker’ is believed to be their staff of office and, therefore, they are called Staff Bearers.

It is, also, now thought that the Viking ‘explosion’ was not driven by over-population but by limited wealth – although if there isn’t enough cash to go around wouldn’t this suggest that there are too many people?

Towards the end of the exhibition there was another surprise waiting as some Viking warriors increased their appearance of fierceness by filing their teeth, covering themselves in green tattoos and using eye makeup!  There was an upper and lower jaw displayed below a typical Viking helmet (without horns) and you could see how the ends of the teeth have been filed – perhaps it also demonstrated courage!  It is understood that the filed areas would have been painted.

Notwithstanding a fierce appearance Viking warriors were not invincible, as discovered in Dorset in 2009 when a mass grave containing about 50 beheaded male skeletons was found.  The defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls implied that not all the men died without a struggle and wounds to necks and shoulders indicated that in some cases the process of decapitation required several blows of the sword.  Most of the men were found to be 18-25 years old.  Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain, but that they originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia.  They were Vikings who had met their match and been dispatched.

So were they Raiders or Traders?  The term ‘Viking’ translates as ‘pirate’ or ‘pirate raid’ so clearly only describes a minority of Scandinavians of the times and a small part of the global impact they had upon their known world.  The lecture and the exhibition convincingly show what a rich world theirs was and to label them only as rapists and pillagers is like labelling all Brits as football hooligans.

However, the way out of the exhibition led through the shop so perhaps the verdict should be in favour of the traders?

Sylvia and Malcolm Wright

With thanks to the British Museum Press Office for supplying the images used in this report.

Related Link (opens in new window):

Exhibition website