West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
A Visit to the Exhibition at the British Museum
Thursday 13th March 2014
The first CFDAS visit of the year was also our first visit to an
exhibition in the recently opened Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the
British Museum’s first purpose built space for temporary exhibitions
and part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that
opens later in 2014.
curatorial lecture was given by Dr Gareth Williams who, over a
period of six years, was responsible for putting the exhibition
together in partnership with museums in Copenhagen and Berlin.
Dr Williams has been a curator at the Museum since 1996, with
responsibility for British and European coinage, about AD 500 to
1180. Much of his work focuses on the use of Anglo-Saxon and
Viking coinage as evidence within broader historical and archaeological
studies. As well as giving a very informative presentation of the
of the Vikings expansion between AD 800 and 1050 he delivered it
enjoyable manner. So much could be missed if the exhibition is
seen without having
attended the lecture.
‘Just Raiders, or Traders too?’ was the theme of the exhibition and the
various links explored were tied together by the main exhibit.
This was the outline in stainless
steel of a long ship,
known as Roskilde 6, over 37m long, derived from and containing the
timber remains of the ship, which would not have fitted into the
Reading Room. Roskilde 6 was found with eight other ships during
the construction of
the Museum Harbour for the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997 in
Denmark and is the longest longship discovered. Dendro-dating
indicates that the ship was built around AD 1025, when England,
Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were ruled by King
Cnut. There is conjecture about whether it was built to keep King
Cnut out of Norway or built as a celebration of his conquest of Norway,
but whatever the reason it was built to demonstrate wealth and power.
The lecture and exhibition both draw on new research and recent
discoveries that weren’t available previously and have changed the
understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade and
beliefs. Perhaps the myths about the Vikings being invincible,
warriors only interested in rape and pillage will finally be
dispelled. Undoubtedly this did happen on numerous occasions but
there was also exploration, trading and eventually settlement as well,
blending with the cultures they met along the way. From their
Scandinavian homelands the Vikings ranged through Europe and
as far as Greenland, Newfoundland, North Africa and Central Asia and
traded in amber, jet, silk, whalebone, soapstone, Islamic gold and
It was clear that the Vikings had a wide appreciation of art and
workmanship and absorbed aspects of the cultures they came across and
produced a rich Viking amalgam. An example of the blending
cultures was shown by a brooch made in
Scotland around AD 700 and, perhaps, a 100 years later had a runic
inscription added to the back by a new owner which translates as
‘Maelbrigda owns this brooch’.
|The Hunterston Brooch
12.2 cm dia. c. AD 700. Scotland
The language and alphabet are Scandinavian but the
name Maelbrigda is Scottish or Irish indicating that the owner came
from a mixed Scandinavian/Celtic background.
The exhibition included a wide range of beautifully crafted brooches,
necklaces and torcs, many of which were clearly too large to serve
every day purposes but were to establish status. The gold
neck-ring to the left was found in Denmark and originally
weighed over 2 kg and is about 30 cm in diameter. The Viking age
equivalent of modern day ‘bling’?
Viking ‘bling’ did have a practical side though as it was a bank for
wealth. You can see how some of the ring has been uncoiled,
probably to use as bullion. The exhibition included balances and
weights used by traders to weigh silver and gold for trading purposes
and a number of ‘hoards’ have included ‘hack’ silver that has been used
The Vale of York hoard exhibited was discovered in 2007 and is one of
the largest Viking hoards found in Britain. It was thought to
have been buried shortly after AD 927. Apart from the larger
silver ingots the silver, gold and silver-gilt objects were packed into
a cup and originated in places throughout the Viking world. How
may hoards have still to be found?
The new finds also suggest that as well as belief in the pantheon of
Norse gods, such as Odin, Thor etc, it appears as though there was also
belief in magic with female shamans. A number of burials have
been discovered of people wearing women’s
clothing, with grave goods that include what looks like a modern iron
poker (see below).
|Iron staff 44.37 cm long. Sweden
The grave goods also included containers of henbane, probably taken for
out-of-body experiences, supporting the view of shamanistic
beliefs. The ‘poker’ is believed to be their staff of office and,
therefore, they are called Staff Bearers.
It is, also, now thought that the Viking ‘explosion’ was not driven by
over-population but by limited wealth – although if there isn’t enough
cash to go around wouldn’t this suggest that there are too many people?
Towards the end of the exhibition there was another surprise waiting as
some Viking warriors increased their appearance of fierceness by filing
their teeth, covering themselves in green tattoos and using eye
makeup! There was an upper and lower jaw displayed below a
helmet (without horns) and you could see how the ends of the teeth have
been filed – perhaps it also demonstrated courage! It is
understood that the filed areas would have been painted.
Notwithstanding a fierce appearance Viking warriors were not
invincible, as discovered in Dorset in 2009 when a mass grave
containing about 50 beheaded male skeletons was found. The
defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls implied that not all the
men died without a struggle and wounds to necks and shoulders indicated
that in some cases the process of decapitation required several blows
of the sword. Most of the men were found to be 18-25 years
old. Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the
men were from anywhere in Britain, but that they originated in the
Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic
States, Belarus and Russia. They were Vikings who had met their
match and been dispatched.
So were they Raiders or Traders? The term ‘Viking’ translates as
‘pirate’ or ‘pirate raid’ so clearly only describes a minority of
Scandinavians of the times and a small part of the global impact they
had upon their known world. The lecture and the exhibition
convincingly show what a rich world theirs was and to label them only
as rapists and pillagers is like labelling all Brits as football
However, the way out of the exhibition led through the shop so perhaps
the verdict should be in favour of the traders?
Sylvia and Malcolm Wright
With thanks to the British Museum Press Office for supplying the images
used in this report.
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