Vikings: Life and Legend – from March 2014

The British Museum is hosting a riveting exhibition – Vikings: Life and Legend, starting in March 2014, which should be of great interest to the maritime communities of much of Scotland.

It is already attracting international attention, with the San Francisco Herald drawing attention to the show’s focus on reinstating the violence of the Viking culture alongside the skills that created the aesthetic  objects of coinage and jewellery that recently been more emphasised.

This exhibition will therefore display – along with the spell-binding artefacts, like neckrings, brooches and plates – the biggest viking ship ever found – a 37 metre [121 ft] warship capable of carrying 100 warriors at speed.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has described this ship as ‘an 11th century weapon of mass destruction’.

Until its discovery, no one had any idea that the Vikings built such large warships – or had contemplataed the awesome attack force they made possible.

This ship is on display at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, below, at the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark and was found as recently as the late 1990s, when foundations for an extension to the museum were being excavated.

Viking Ship Useum Rosskide © User:Masz Creative Commons

Roskilde is on the island of Zealand and is a city of Viking origins. The museum was built in 1969 to house five Viking ships, excavated in 1962; and the late 1990s discovery was of nine more, one of which was the giant warship.

The first five ships it held are known  as the Skuldelev ships. They were sunk deliberately in 1070 in Skuldelev, in the Roskilde Fjord, to block the most important fairway, protecting Roskilde from enemy attack from the sea.

The longboat warship is earlier, dating from 1025 but was discovered around 30 years later than the Skuldelev ships. Known as Roskilde 6, its remains are held in a slender steel framed replica of its full size, which both protects the fragile timbers and ghosts the full reality this ship had been.

It has been disassembled for transport to London – an operation described as ‘surprisingly straightforward’.

Curator Gareth Williams says that the show — the British Museum’s first major Viking exhibition since 1980 — will look at the Nordic voyagers’ skills as warriors and seafarers as well as explorers, traders and creators of sophisticated culture.

He says pithily that it’s hardly surprising the Vikings’ violent side has been emphasized in accounts from countries they raided: ‘If your monastery is being burned down, you don’t take time to admire the beautiful jewelry won by the people burning down your monastery’.

The exhibition runs from 6th March to 22nd June 2014. Tickets can be bought online at the British Museum website here.

The inage above of the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum is by Masz and is reproduced here under the terms of the Creative Commons licence.

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5 Responses to Vikings: Life and Legend – from March 2014

  1. I hope the exhibition also highlights the fact that the Vikings got to America 500 years before Christopher Columbus .Most sources now accept the Vikings were in Newfoundland from settlement discoveries in the early 1960,s .Carbon dating of settlement artefacts showed the Vikings were on the Eastern American seaboard in the 11th century ,Despite this evidence the myth is still taught in American and some European schools teaching that Columbus got there as the first European.
    The same incredible sailors got to the Russian hinterland at the same time via the Danube and the Don,

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    • Stunning, isn’t it? This is a culture as remarkable as that of Rome but less regarded because it left a lesser recorded presence and was not imperial.

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  2. Yes, it took the finding of their settlement in Newfoundland in the 1960′s to get people to begin to believe that the Icelandic Sagas were based on the truth. There was also recorded history from a European writer who had heard of Vinland from the Norwegian King at the time of the voyages.

    It’s amazing how their history was buried by the European powers for centuries. I have read somewhere that the Knights Templars knew the secret and may also have made journeys to America under the Sinclairs of Orkney.
    It is interesting that Leif Eriksson is said to have married a noblewoman from the Hebrides and that his son was called Thorgill. Torquil is still a common name on the Isle of Lewis especially with MacLeods. The MacLeods of Lewis who are of Norse origin are known in Gaelic as “Siol Thorcuil”, although it is said that this was a different Torquil descended from the Kings Of Mann.

    There is a lot of history that has been buried and changed around in our bloody past. There used to be a tradition of storytelling, like the sagas, in Scotland but this has all but died out. Some of it is captured in old songs that thankfully some have worked hard to preserve.
    One of the benefits of all this Gaelic teaching is that it might open up some of this history.

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  3. The Northeast coast of North America would seem to have been a rather crowded place, pre Columbus! Medieval English fishermen, Irish monks, Vikings, and who knows who else, have all been accredited with voyaging, either by accident or design, across the “pond” well before Columbus did.

    What makes Columbus’s achievement stand out is that his discovery had a lasting and profound result, while the others didn’t make any impact because of their insignificance and transience. Interesting footnotes to be sure, but not the main narrative.

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  4. There seems to be a lot of disinformation being spread, even today, to downplay the Vikings great acheivements. I feel that this initially stemmed from the European Royal Courts and the Roman Church who, between them, held their people in uneducated poverty and slavery. The last thing that they would want was people knowing that there was a better world out there.

    There are people active today in trying to remove articles from Wikipedia that say that the Vikings used sunstones for navigation.
    An Iceland spar sunstone was recently recovered from an Elizabethan ship near Alderney which sank in 1592. It was found beside navigational instruments, so it is likely that it was being used for navigation. Sunstones are mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas but not directly referenced to their voyages. If they were available at the time of Eric the Red, I am sure that he would have insisted that his sons carry one with them on their missions.

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