“Vikings: Life and Legend” Thomas Williams (Lecture at British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 16/6/2014)

The most recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening was in mid-June, just before the Vikings exhibition finished. As part of the evening they had a lecture from the Project Curator, Thomas Williams. As we’d already seen the exhibition twice (post) and seen the Vikings Live film they did (post) I was more expecting to get another perspective on the exhibition rather than anything completely new, and this was the case. So I’m just going to pick out a small handful of things that particularly struck me about his talk, rather than try & recap it.

Williams was a very entertaining speaker. He opened with a drawing of stereotypical (mythical) Vikings – men on a boat, complete with horns on helmets, double headed axes, and overly muscled blonde men wearing “barbarian” outfits (fur loin cloths & cloaks). He then spent a little while explaining how pretty much everything in that was wrong, except the fact they were on the sea (but even the shape of the boat was wrong)! So one of the jumping off points for the exhibition is that it was to present an overview of what we really know about the Vikings. This is a much harder task than it had been thirty-something years ago when the last British Museum exhibition about Vikings was held – scholarship has moved on a lot since then. One of the things Williams pointed out over & over during his talk was how recently many of the items on display had been discovered. The other jumping off point for the exhibition was Roskilde 6, the ship that was the centrepiece – another relatively recent discovery (in 1997). So the exhibition was centred around what the ships were used for – in particular the interactions of the Vikings with other surrounding cultures, as traders, as settlers and of course as raiders.

As well as pointing out the many new discoveries on show in the exhibition Williams also talked about how new work has lead to re-evaluation of older finds. One of the big changes is in the evaluation of the position & status of women in the Viking culture. One aspect of this that’s very revealing about previous archaeologists’ assumptions is that early excavations of Viking burials seemed to show a distinct gender imbalance with many more men than women. On later more detailed analysis of the bones it turns out there’s about a 50:50 split of men:women, the thing that confused the first excavators is that a not insignificant number of women were buried with swords. He said it isn’t certain if these women used the swords, or if the swords were in their graves as in indication of high status.

Women also played a role in the religious/magical life of the communities. High status female burials sometimes contain decorated iron rods, which are now identified with the iron staffs that female Viking shamans were said to carry. The evidence for what exactly these women did and what part they played in their communities is fragmentary but is similar to what is known of shamanic practices in the nomadic peoples who live(d) along the northern edge of Scandinavia & Russia etc. Williams also talked about how what we think we know about Norse mythology might not be the whole story. Most of what we know is what was written down post-conversion to Christianity, and there are all sorts of obvious ways that might be biased – both from people distancing themselves from the “old bad religion”, and from people trying to make their ancestors’ beliefs not look too “wrong” by the new standards. One thing Williams speculated about was whether the attitude to women in the medieval church (i.e. temptresses, sin starting with Eve & the apple) meant that some of the powers associated with women in Norse mythology got merged in with more “acceptable” male deities. The object that he used to illustrate this idea is a small statue of what might be Odin with his two ravens sitting on either side of his throne. But the figure is dressed in female clothes. Williams was suggesting, I think, that maybe it’s a feminised Odin to reflect the feminine nature of the shamanic powers (represented by the ravens), or not Odin at all but a female deity or shaman who was later merged in the written down mythology with Odin.

A very entertaining talk – glad we went to see it.