Exploring the mystique of Vikings in London

Posted Sunday, Apr. 06, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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A Viking feasting bucket, 1 gallon in volume and a millennium old, attracted a noisy debate among visitors in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery of the British Museum one recent afternoon over just how drunk it could make them and how quickly.

“How many Vikings do you think it took to down that?” a teenage girl asked, her eyes scanning the vessel’s wooden circumference. Her mother stared, speechless.

This mixture of wonder and intimidation was on ample display throughout a new exhibition, “Vikings: Life and Legend,” which has been drawing sell-out crowds for almost a month and will stay on display through June 22.

It is already the third-most-successful show in the museum’s history in terms of preopening ticket sales. More than 50,000 visitors have absorbed the tales of wily Nordic gods, admired treasure hoards from as far afield as what is now Uzbekistan and shrunk from a warrior skull used to scare off enemies on the battlefield.

Vikings have long had a special place in British lore, not least as the guys who got there first. They roamed the seas and established far-flung trade links centuries before the British did. They enslaved and conquered and built an empire, albeit briefly, that included large swaths of England and Scotland.

One of their descendants, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, even went on to beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

The exhibition is tapping into an age-old preoccupation here. With their binge-drinking warriors, laconic humor and scary teeth, were the Vikings more British than the British?

“There are a striking amount of similarities, and that’s one reason the Vikings are so romanticized in Britain,” said Gareth Williams, chief curator of the exhibition, who recalls first dressing up in homemade cardboard Viking armor at age 4.

“We think they were much more glamorous than us,” Williams said, “and we might have a bit of a complex about that.”

After six years of preparation, the exhibition’s timing conveniently coincides with the Scandimania sweeping the British Isles, a fascination with all things Nordic highlighted last month by a television series in which a celebrity chef branched out into travel and set out to crack the “Norse code.”

Scandinavia’s successful (read: austerity-free) social and economic model is endlessly dissected in the British news media and has even inspired some Scots to root for independence. A new crop of Nordic sandwich shops is popping up in London, and Nordic noir is all the rage with a series of addictive Danish television dramas.

But then, as Williams puts it, “Importing The Killing from Scandinavia goes back a thousand years.”

“Viking” means pirate or raider in the Norse language. Even by medieval standards, the Norsemen who arrived in their wooden warships to raid monasteries and massacre monks were so brutal that, beginning in the 990s, the English King Ethelred the Unready paid them huge sums simply to stay away.

That strategy brought only temporary relief. The generous tributes encouraged more raids, and in 1013 all of England was conquered by the Danes for the first time. More Anglo-Saxon coins from that period have been found in Scandinavia than in England, and some are now among the objects on display in the exhibition.

Those coming for their fill of Viking horror will find plenty to feed the imagination: the iron heads of fighting axes, once wielded with one hand to maim and behead; richly decorated double-edged swords; the remains of body-length spears, the Viking warrior’s weapon of choice; as well as colorful tales of battlefield intimidation. “From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green,” one contemporary recorded.

Most notable for its absence in the show is the familiar Viking helmet with horns or wings, which, it turns out, was invented in the 19th century amid another flurry of Viking obsession in the popular culture. Instead, visitors will see a rather more ordinary conical variety here.

Like their headgear, the Vikings’ fearsome reputation has at times been embellished. They lost about as many battles as they won. One of the show’s most striking elements, on view for the first time, is a selection of skeletons and decapitated skulls from a mass grave discovered in Dorset, the southwestern English county, in 2009.

Carbon dating suggests some 50 Vikings were executed there around the year 1000.

A warrior identity was central to what it meant to be a Viking, but the men were prolific explorers and traders, too. Their shipbuilding and seafaring expertise took them not just across northern Europe but halfway around the globe.

The proud centerpiece of the show is the sparse (and somewhat underwhelming) remains of a 121-foot Viking warship, the longest ever discovered. Almost certainly a royal vessel, it was built at the height of the Viking Age, around 1025, when King Canute briefly united England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden under his rule.

But the Vikings’ travels took them much farther afield. One gets a glimpse of their impressive reach in the display of a single hoard, buried in the Vale of York in northern England in 927 and discovered only seven years ago.

There are precious objects from countries as different as Ireland and Afghanistan, spanning three belief systems and seven languages. Inside a silver cup from modern-day France, fragments of a Russian neck ring and a host of Islamic coins, among other objects, were found.

“Most people know that the Vikings got around Europe and traveled to North America, but few know that they were instrumental in Russia’s development and in the development of trade and contact with the Islamic world,” said Williams, the curator.

Peter Spence, a 36-year-old math teacher who grew up outside London, could not decide what had surprised him more: that the Vikings had gotten as far as Kabul or that so many of them had settled only a few hundred miles from his home. “It shifts the whole picture from them as the invaders to them as our ancestors,” he said. “They seem to have been interested in the same things as us: exploring by sea and conquering.”

Descendants of the original Vikings still roam various corners of northern Britain, particularly in Yorkshire and in Scotland, where 20 percent of the local DNA is Norwegian. In Shetland, a group of Scottish islands, 95 percent of all place names are derived from Norse, and the annual Up Helly Aa fire festival culminates in sending a burning galley into the sea, mimicking a Viking burial rite.

“In some places, the Vikings were our enemies,” Williams said. “In others, they actually became ‘us.’ That’s part of the intrigue.”

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