The British Museum, Vikings: life and legend

When we think of Vikings, most of us tend to see the stereotypical Viking raider, wearing his horned helmet, sword in hand, battling his way through medieval Europe. Although we know the horns are fictional, warrior culture was very important to the Norsemen, but in ‘The Viking World’ we’ve learnt that they were much more than that – traders, diplomats, priests… Above all, they were people, complicated, not a simple cartoon.

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As a student of medieval history, the British Museum’s ‘Vikings: life and legend’ exhibition turns hours of reading and discussion into a tangible reality (and a brilliant way to celebrate handing in dissertations). As we entered, the start of the exhibit was filled with readings of Old Norse, which immersed us in Viking culture from the very beginning. Out of such an exciting exhibit, it is hard to decide what to discuss. The hogback stone, a phenomenon unique to Scotland and England, helped to convey the sheer scale of some of the industry; intricately carved throughout and just under two meters wide, it would have taken skill and strength to create and deposit in its original home in Glasgow. There were examples of runic script – not just the careful engraving on the back of a massive gold brooch, but also as graffiti, for example the ship on a stone from Dublin. Near the end of the exhibition, there was an example of a sorcerer’s staff, from the late 10th century, a physical example of the role myth, magic and religion played in pre-Christian society. Alongside these and many other pieces were quotations painted on the walls from sources about the Vikings – from sagas to foreign writers like Ibn Fadlan. All of these showed the impact of a people who were much more than simple raiders.

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Yet all of these amazing pieces were secondary to the main event. Like the Viking Age, the foundation of the exhibition was a Viking long ship: Roskilde 6, the largest ship of its kind to be found. At 37 metres in length, double that of the average war ship, Roskilde 6 is presumed to be an early 10th century royal construction – either as tribute or part of a royal fleet. It’s easy to imagine the kind of ships that were used – we get ideas of plastic toys or cardboard models made at school.  It’s one thing to be discussing the concept of Viking warriors sailing to war or new lands inside a boat, but another to stand in a hall filled with the remains and reconstruction of one. The whole day was not only fun and informative, but also brings to life a society long dead, helping us as historians to gain a new perspective.

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 By Lucy Guest

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