‘Vikings: Life and Legend’ Arrives in London


London’s British Museum presents Vikings: Life and Legend until June 22, 2014. As the first extensive Viking exhibition at the museum for over 30 years, it showcases many new Viking Age archaeological discoveries and objects. Visitors arrive in the realm of seafarers, warriors and conquerors to study the fascinating dynamics of Viking history and legend. While the historical account of the Vikings in Britain is one of blackmail, expulsion, invasion, occupation and conquest, their final legacy was the founding of the sovereign kingdoms of England and Scotland. The exhibit surveys new analyses on combat and warrior identity, emphasizing the Viking Age from late 8th century to the early 11th century.

The Viking Age, from 880 to 1050, was a period of major transformations across Europe. The Vikings spread out from their Scandinavian homelands to build an international network linking cultures over four continents, where artistic, spiritual and political beliefs assembled.

The term, Viking in Norse, denotes raider or pirate. These raiders arrived on wooden boats, attacked defenseless monastic sites, and massacred monks. In the 990s, the English King Ethelred the Unready awarded the Vikings sizeable sums to stay away. However, the substantial tributes only encouraged more raids, and in 1013, the Danes conquered all of England for the first time.

Recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of Vikings warriors put to death near Weymouth in Dorset, in the southwestern English countryside, gives visitors to the British Museum a close-up encounter with “real” Vikings and show what ensued when raids went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil.

The Vikings’ expertise in shipbuilding and seafaring was vital to their culture and successes. At the core of the Viking exhibit are existing timbers of a 121-foot-long Viking warship, the longest ever discovered. Known as Roskilde 6, it was unearthed from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997 during the efforts to build the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum.

The surviving timbers have been re-assembled for the show in a custom-built stainless steel frame that restructures the full size and shape of the original ship. Estimation of the ship’s dimensions and the resources that were needed to build the craft, indicates that it was almost certainly a royal warship.

The original construction has been dated around 1025 AD. This period was at the high point of the Viking Age when England, Norway, Denmark and even conceivably parts of Sweden were briefly unified under the reign of King Canute the Great after campaigns in Scandinavia. Canute was a resilient and effectual ruler. He introduced several Danish traditions to England, and then England had an effect on Denmark. For example, Canute chose numerous Englishmen as bishops in Denmark. Today, most of the conventional Danish terms of church organizations are derived from English.

In a global context, their network was from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. They were often violent, and the transportation of looted treasures and slaves show the role of the Vikings as raiders, merchants and traders. Visitors can view the Vale of York Hoard in its entirety for the first time since it was discovered near Harrogate in 2007. Spanning three belief systems and seven languages, the hoard consists of a quantity of bullion, six arm rings, 617 coins and hack-silver. Viking hoards such as the Vale of York reveal the scope of the Viking global network. The Vale of York hoard includes objects from Afghanistan and Russia to Ireland and Scandinavia.

The Viking collection of jewels and amulets show how men and women flaunted status with grandiose gold and silver jewelry. It includes a silver hoard from Gnezdovo in Russia, which highlights a blend of Slavic, Middle Eastern and Scandinavian influences.

Descendants of the original Vikings still live in areas of Northern Britain such as Yorkshire and Scotland. In Shetland, a group of Scottish islands, 95 percent of all the place names originated from Norse. There is also the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival that concludes with launching a burning galley into the sea in mimicry of a Viking burial rite.

From ship and legends to battered skulls and hoards, the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition tells a story of a society with little known written chronicles, but yet still brings forth shock and awe to all that witness.

By: Dawn Levesque

British Museum
The New York Times

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