The Vikings are coming! Watch out for longships, horny warriors and armies of Danish invaders at the British Museum in London.
The story of the Vikings has intrigued us for centuries. It’s a tale of plunder and pillage.
The Vikings are synonymous with men wearing horned helmets and wielding axes, raping and rampaging their way through foreign lands with no mercy.
Ivar the Boneless and Eric the Red were Viking names that struck terror into our ancestors.
But now those thuggish stereotypes are being questioned. Could the Vikings have been misunderstood?
Pillage and plunder
The Vikings: Life and Legend show at the British Museum presents a more complex view of the Nordic invaders than has been portrayed in the past.
Were the Vikings benevolent colonialists and down-to-earth family guys?
The exhibition reveals a ‘softer’ side to the Vikings including their domestic life and artistic achievements.
Earlier last year I was lucky enough to see the show at Copenhagen’s National Museum.
It’s a brilliant exhibition, beautifully presented with stunning artefacts from longships to weaponry and jewellery.
During the show, I felt an affinity for the Vikings despite tales of their aggression and bloodthirsty behaviour.
Perhaps the stories of their family life, hardships and achievements helped to change my opinions?
There are many examples of how the Vikings co-existed with the people whose lands they colonised. Sometimes they married local women. Others even became Christians.
Shining a fresh light on the Vikings, this exhibition is an eye-opener. It blasts away the Hollywood version of events in movies like The Vikings, featuring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis
Then again, Hollywood was never big on historical accuracy, preferring Viking rape and pillage to reality.
Star of the show
Longships are one of the most spectacular achievements of the Viking age.
The star exhibit of the show is the impressive longship, known as Roskilde 6.
The ship was excavated from the banks of Roskilde Fjord in Denmark in 1997.
It’s the largest Viking ship ever discovered at a massive 37 metres long.
Sitting at the heart of the exhibition, you can imagine the ship in its heyday sailing the high seas laden with men and cargoes.
It must have been an awesome sight. The ship could reach a speedy 20 knots – that’s around 19 mph.
The ship dates from around AD 1025, the golden age of the Vikings.
At that time the Viking empire extended to England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden which were united under the rule of Cnut the Great.
The size and style of the ship suggest that it was a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut.
It’s impressive how the surviving timbers have been re-assembled in a specially made stainless steel frame that reconstructs the full size and shape of the original ship.
Never seen before in the UK due to its scale and fragility, it is now displayed for the first time in special facilities at the British Museum’s new Sainsbury Gallery.
Giant projections of Viking life
To bring the ship alive, the exhibition has a giant projection screen featuring animated images next to the longship.
There’s a real sense of time and place as you stand looking at the ship with the film behind it. As well as the seafaring sequences, the film re-creates scenes of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in northern England being raided by Vikings.
The film also illustrates typical Viking living which reminded me of my visit to the Roskilde Museum in Denmark last year. Did I mention that the Danes love dressing up as Vikings?
The Roskilde Museum has many more of these longships on display. And they have a remarkable story to tell.
Most of the ships were deliberately scuttled and sunk by the Vikings to block the fjord as they repelled an attack by their enemies on what was then Denmark’s capital city.
For 21st Century audiences it means that the ships survived under the waters and can be seen today following painstaking restoration work.
If the ships hadn’t been scuppered, we might never be able to see these impressive vessels.
Next to the ship in the British Museum exhibition there’s a box of clothes which will transform you from 21st Century boy to Viking warrior.
There’s also a film with a ‘Viking’ demonstrating how to get dressed correctly in the Danish style. Boys and men will need a long beard to get the full effect!
But the Vikings: Life and Legends show is not just about large-scale exhibits.
Wandering around the exhibition there are many small but perfectly formed objects of great beauty which will stop you in your tracks.
This axe inlaid with silver is a stunning example of the art of the Vikings with its beautifully carved head. It also suggests the wealth of the Vikings who were successful traders as well as invaders.
This axe was found in Jutland in northern Denmark. But many of the pieces on display come from the British Isles which was subjected to Viking invasion and influence.
Up the road from my home town of Newcastle, the Northumberland coast of England was the first place in Britain to experience a fierce Viking attack in 793AD – on the island of Lindisfarne.
It was the start of 300 years of Viking raids on England and Scotland – the rest is, as they say, history.
Despite being portrayed as violent, bloodthirsty and uncompromising, the Vikings also produced many great artistic achievements.
Look out for the Lewis Chessmen, one of the show’s highlights, which were probably made in Norway around AD 1150- 1200.
Found in Scotland’s Western Isles, which was once part of the Kingdom of Norway, they were buried for safe keeping en route to be traded in Ireland.
The chess pieces illustrate the strong cultural and political connections between Britain and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.
One of the striking things about the Viking exhibition is the quality of the treasures on display.
One of the most impressive exhibits is The Vale of York Hoard which is being shown in its entirety at the British Museum for the first time since it was discovered in 2007.
Comprising 617 coins, six arm rings and a quantity of bullion, the Vale of York Hoard is one of the largest and most important Viking hoards ever found.
With coins and silver from places as far flung as Afghanistan, Russia and Uzbekistan, this is a truly impressive collection. It shows how extensive the Viking’s global network had become.
Can you imagine being David Whelan, the retired metal detectorist, who accidentally happened upon this collection in a field when pursuing his hobby in Yorkshire?
Luckily he revealed his discovery to the wider world so everyone could see the treasure in its full splendour. What an amazing cache.
Historic detective stories
Not everything in the Vikings exhibition has a history that is cut and dried. This figure of Odin sitting on his throne is now thought to be a female priestess – and calls into question our interpretations of history.
My favourite moment in the Copenhagen show came when my Danish cousin Bettina, a historian, explained the two theories behind the Odin statuette.
So forceful was her argument that it led to a change on the description of the display. For her, there is no question that this is a woman not a male figure. Why not make your own mind up?
She also explained some fascinating stories about the Vikings and witches which made my hair stand on end. I’ll never see broomsticks in the same way again!
Gold and silver treasures
Many of the new archaeological discoveries in the exhibition have not been seen in Britain before.
So it’s a thrill to discover them for the first time.
Ostentatious gold and silver jewellery is shown off in the show to great effect.
There are many gorgeous piece which demonstrate how status was displayed by Viking men and women through what they wore.
This exquisite 10th Century neck ring – pictured opposite – looks almost contemporary in design.
Also look out for a stunning silver hoarde from Russia, never previously seen in the UK, which shows a combination of Scandinavian, Slavic and Middle Eastern influences.
These cross-currents contributed to the development of the early Russian state in the Viking Age.
There’s many little known areas of Viking history that the exhibition brings alive. I had no idea that the Viking influence had spread as far into Russia.
They also travelled much further to Iceland, Newfoundland and the Canadian coast. What a long and perilous journey that must have been on the tempestuous seas.
But the big question posed by the show is – were Vikings horny?
Everyone’s traditional image of a Viking is a warrior with a horned helmet, but once again the exhibition debunks this myth.
There were no horns.
The horns were added centuries later in the 18th and 19th Centuries by artists keen to romanticise the Nordic warriors.
Historians also agree that Vikings never wore helmets in battle.
There’s even controversy over when they did and didn’t wear beards. Some experts argue that they only wore beards when at sea.
So do we really understand the Vikings after all?
I wasn’t entirely convinced they were peace-loving family men.
After all, there is still plenty of evidence that they burned down settlements and left a trail of destruction in their wake.
Their narrow-bottomed longships meant they could travel up rivers and creep up on communities. They’d take them by surprise, hitting them with what one historian describes as a “maritime blitzkrieg”.
And the jury is still out on whether it’s true that the famous Viking, Ivar the Boneless, strung up Edmund, King of East Anglia, and commanded his men to shoot arrows at his head until it exploded.
But the exhibition has proved one thing. Vikings were global traders. It could be argued that they were the inventors of modern globalisation.
This set me wondering how many British people are descended from Viking ancestors?
Despite attempts to make the link between my surname and Viking ancestry, I’ve found that my family roots are Anglo-Saxon in origin.
But I’ve grown to admire the Vikings’ culture in many ways. And this show is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of reflecting their lives at home and abroad.
The Viking invasion is – without doubt – London’s blockbuster exhibition of 2014. Don’t miss it but try to forget the horned warrior stereotypes as you enter the doors!
Watch the Vikings video on YouTube below…
Tammy’s top tips
The Vikings: Life and Legend is at the British Museum in London from 6 March- 22 June.
It’s the first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years. There’s an admission fee.
The exhibition will be the first in The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, part of the British Museum’s new wing opening later in 2014.
The nearest Tube station is Russell Square.
Book ahead online as this show is set to be especially popular over the spring and summer months. Tickets will sell like King Arthur’s hot cakes.
If you love Vikings, why not take a trip to Roskilde to see the longships and artefacts in their home city in Denmark.
Travel to Scandinavia for the full Viking experience. Oslo and Copenhagen’s national museums also boast a great collection of Viking culture and ships.
Bring out your inner Viking. Why not take a trip on a replica Viking longship on Roskilde Fjord? I can recommend it for those who fancy some peaceful pillaging!