Vikings: Life and Legend (British Museum Exhibition)

The current big exhibition at the British Museum is Vikings: Life and Legend. It only just opened and runs through till 22 June. We’ve actually visited twice – first time on opening day when it was shutting early so we ended up not having enough time to see things properly, so we went back a week later. This is the first exhibition they’ve had in their new exhibition space, so it was interesting to see what the new room was like. Of course the way it’s laid out this time will be totally different for another exhibition, but the final space with the whole ship in it was striking for its sense of wide open space. Otherwise my impressions were that, really, it’s a big rectangular room but that’s not a bad thing – it gives them a lot more flexibility with layout than the circular space they were using before.

The overall theme of the exhibition is to show the Vikings as being more than just marauding warriors. The emphasis was on their trading and settling activities rather than just raiding, and on the cultural exchange between the Vikings and the various places they visited. I was a little disappointed with the first couple of areas of the exhibition, not helped by the huge number of people when we visited the second time. The exhibition opened with a small collection of illustrative objects found in the Viking homelands, then looked at Viking influenced objects from a variety of the areas they interacted with. Most of the objects were quite small (and spaced out) and the labels weren’t visible till you got right up near them – this meant there was a lot of time queueing to see things. And I didn’t think they’d made enough use of the wall space in that area – there were some pictures (and a rather good video) and a handful of quotes but more to look at while you waited to get a chance to see the objects would’ve been nice. There also wasn’t quite enough context in the labels for some of these objects – like the jewellery, where it would’ve been nice to have some pictures showing how it would be worn.

However, criticisms about the layout and labelling aside, they did have a lot of interesting things (and later sections of the exhibition were much better). One thing I particularly liked in the first area was a video screen that was showing the various trade & raiding routes of the Vikings. The sheer scale of the area that the network covered was astonishing, and particularly so when you remember the sorts of ships they were sailing in. The first room and a half had objects of Viking origin or with Viking influenced design that had been found across their trading network. As well as a selection of things from the British Isles and north western Europe there were also items from a variety of Slavic countries where the Vikings settled fairly early on. And from as far away as the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. Many of the quotes round the walls throughout the exhibition were from Islamic writers, talking about the barbaric habits of the Rus (the name they gave the Vikings). In many ways that told us as much about how the Islamic intellectual elite of the time wanted to see themselves as it did about the Vikings, but it was interesting to see someone else’s mythology of the Vikings and how it was and wasn’t like ours.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the sorts of goods that the Vikings took on their trading runs, and the sorts of things they got back. This included a couple of large hoards of silver – one found in England, one in Sweden. These included whole pieces of jewellery, jewellery that had been hacked up (to use as currency) and coins. Some of these coins were Islamic dirhams from the Middle East, showing again the widespread nature of Viking contacts. The English hoard had been buried in the north of the country just around the time that Æthelstan (Anglo-Saxon King, grandson of Alfred the Great) united the whole of England under his rule. Presumably left behind by one of the defeated Vikings. This section of the exhibition also included samples of amber and fur of the sort that the Vikings would’ve taken to trade in Byzantium or the Middle East. And examples of the shackles that they kept their slaves in as they took them to the same markets – many of these slaves were picked up on raids on places like Ireland. Some were taken to Viking settlements (genetic analysis of people in Iceland shows a lot of Irish influence) and others were sold on in the Middle East. They had a quote from an Islamic writer talking about how impressively well the Vikings looked after their slaves, after all they were valuable trade goods.

After this there was an area devoted to the way that the Vikings displayed wealth and status. As well as some ornately decorated swords there were several very large pieces of gold jewellery. This included a cloak pin for a man to wear which was huge and must’ve been really quite cumbersome when in use. There was also a gold necklace that looked big enough to be a belt, and must’ve weighed far too much to wear regularly. And there were several objects associated with feasting – I was particularly struck by the decoration to go round the top of a drinking horn.

And then after walking through a couple of fairly narrow corridors you come out onto a balcony overlooking the centre piece of the exhibition – the longest Viking ship ever found. It’s really quite impressive to see. About 20% of the actual wood was found, mostly at the base of the ship – including the whole of the keel (I think that’s the right word, the piece of wood at the centre of the base that goes from end to end). Because they have that particular piece they can recreate the size and shape of the ship (knowing how Viking ships are designed) and they’ve created a metal frame to fill in the gaps that gives you a real sense of scale. While it’s the longest ship ever found, they don’t think it was the biggest in existence because sagas refer to ships with more pairs of oars than this one would take. But it’s still one of the biggest, and was a great display of status for the man who had it built. It’s thought that this was either Cnut (the one that ruled England for a while in the early 11th Century) or a rival of his in Norway. On the one hand it looks incredibly large as you stand there looking at it (37m long), but on the other hand when you think about how far the Vikings went in ships like these it seems awfully small for such long voyages. There were also some other pieces of other ships (like a shield that had hung over a burial ship’s side, and a steering oar). And a fascinating little audio snippet of an interview with a man from Shetland (interviewed in the 60s I think) talking about the names of pieces of ships – which are apparently very similar in old Shetland dialect to Viking names for the same things. Partly this was fascinating because for most of the way round the room till I got to it I could half hear it and it sounded like a foreign language not English. But when I sat down for a moment to listen it was suddenly understandable, even if heavily accented and full of “foreign” words.

Around the ship there are several collections of objects that give much more of a sense of the Vikings as people than the previous rooms had done. These started with a look at the warrior culture of Vikings, and included many swords and pieces of armour. There was also a jawbone from a warrior that showed how they filed their teeth. I’d known they did this, but somehow I’d though that meant filed to points – that’s not the case though, what they did was to etch horizontal grooves in the front teeth. These would be filled with blue pigment, and were an extension of the decoration of their tatoos – intended to make them look fierce and intimidating on the battlefield. And also to demonstrate their ability to handle pain. In this section they also had evidence that the Vikings weren’t as unbeatable as their reputation at the time and in the modern day might suggest. A mass grave somewhere in England with the bodies of several Viking warriors, all of whom had been decapitated – this was clearly an execution of people captured in battle, not a sign of victorious Vikings.

The last section looked at the move from warriors to soldiers, and the concurrent move from their older pagan beliefs to Christianity. By the end of the 11th Century the Viking era was over – often the endpoint chosen is the defeat of the Norwegians by Harald Godwinson the day before William the Conqueror defeated Harald in his turn. What remained were countries that were just like other European countries of the time (the Normans are a good example of this). In this section they had a replica of the stone erected by Harald Bluetooth with a very Viking looking piece of Christian imagery on it – Christ on a cross but surrounded by a snake motif. The replica was coloured as the original would’ve been when it was set up and was very striking.

Despite finding the first couple of rooms disappointing I’m pleased we went to see the exhibition. It might not be one of their best but it’s still good and worth seeing 🙂 And the ship is awesome!