Vikings: life and legend

23 February 2014 | Nicky Charlish

Nicky Charlish looks ahead to a new exhibition at the British Museum

Mention the Vikings and people usually think of horn-helmeted raiders bringing 
murder, rape and pillage to England's east coast. Indeed, the word Viking means sea-borne 
adventurer or pirate! But have these fearsome characters been misrepresented? This 
exhibition at the British Museum - the first it's held on this topic for 30 years - promises us 
a wealth of material which may lead us to revise our views.

Focusing on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th to the early 11th century, the 
exhibition features new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK, 
incoporating material from the Museum's own collection and other British and Irish sources.

Crowning the exhibition are the fragile surviving timbers from a Roskile 6, a ship built around AD 1025. It was 
almost certainly a royal warship, and was excavated from the banks of Roskilde 
fjord in Denmark. Perhaps connected with the wars fought by King Cnut the Great when 
England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under him, its 
presence emphasises the remarkable shipbuilding skills of Viking society. They were the key to the Vikings' power as raiders and 

Also on display are elaborate gold and silver jewellery, including an impressive silver hoard from Gnezdovo in Russia which has never been 
previously exhibited in the UK. The display highlights the combination of influences 
- Scandinavian, Slavic and Middle Eastern - which helped form the development of the 
early Russian state in the Viking Age.

The Vale of York Hoard is also on display here for the 
first time in its entirety since it was discovered by metal detectorists near Harrogate in 2007, 
and includes 617 coins, 6 arm rings and a quantity of bullion and hack-silver as well as 
evidence of three religions - Christianity, Islam, and the worship of Thor. There is also 
material from the Cuerdale Hoard, originally discovered in Lancashire in 1840. These hoards 
include material from locations as wide-ranging as Ireland, Uzbekistan, Russia, Scandinavia 
and Continental Europe.

The Vikings did not leave written records of their activities, and most of what we know 
about them comes from the pens of Anglo-Saxon chroniclers who bore the brunt of their 
attacks - a rare example of history being written by victims rather than victors. The Vikings, 
being pagans, did not write their own memoirs. So, to an extent, our image of them is based on 
biased material, which largely ignores the positive effect that Viking expansion had in stimulating trade.

The presence in the exhibition of a silver cup 
- probably made for use in a Frankish church - shows the Vikings' disrespect for other cultures' belief systems, although they were certainly more than simple traders concerned just 
with making money. War was central to their identity, as is demonstrated by the weapons 
and looted treasures we see in the exhibition. Periodically, the English had to buy the Danes off with 
money, raised by means of a tax often called Danegeld.

Recently-excavated skeletons from 
a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth, also on display in this exhibition, are a 
vivid demonstration that, because of their behaviour and reputation, Viking warriors could 
expect little mercy - if any - in defeat. Put all these factors together and it can be argued 
that - just as the Vikings helped form the Russian state - so they also contributed to forming 
the British character of tough restlessness which would result in the development of Britain 
as a maritime nation and the establishment of the British Empire with its mixture of 
seafaring, conquest and trade.

As with any culture, the Viking achievement had a 
darker side, but this should not deter us from visiting this lavish - and painstaking - display. 
Also this exhibition gives us a chance to see the 
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre 
that opens later this year and which is the Museum's first purpose-built space for temporary 

As Neil MacGregor, the Museum's Director, points-out with regard to both 
the exhibition and its venue: 'The reach and cultural connections of the Viking Age make it a 
remarkable story shared by many countries, not least here in the British Isles. New 
discoveries and research have led to a wealth of new information about the Vikings so it is a 
perfect moment to look again at this critical era. Temporary exhibitions of this nature are 
only possible thanks to external support so I am hugely grateful to BP for their longstanding 
and ongoing commitment to the British Museum.'

The content of this exhibition is not only 
a feast of aesthetic pleasure: it makes us ponder the paradox of the way brutality and 
beauty can coexist.

Vikings: Life and Legend runs from 6 March to 22 June 2014 at the British Museum. Tickets from £8.25, available here.


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