The British Museum's Vikings: part provincial exhibit, part gripping drama

The BM's new blockbuster ranges as far and wide as the famously peripatetic marauders

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

Vikings: Life and Legend

British Museum, until 22 June

Exhibitions are made for two main reasons: education and entertainment. Although I recognise the importance of education I am, by nature, a devotee of pleasure and want people to enjoy what they see in museums — not just feel that they must learn from it. Great exhibitions marry the two impulses effortlessly, and on balance the Vikings show, supported by BP, in the marvellous new Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery at the BM, is a great exhibition, though it does rather fall into two sections, the first somewhat more earnest than the last. But this also has the effect of significant build-up: the first half is like Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone warming the audience before Dame Edna appears after the interval. For it is only in the second half of the show that the sea really arrives: the crucial ambience for a seafaring nation and a sea-based culture.

The exhibition opens to the droning of Norse sagas with a copper alloy ship brooch from Denmark of the period 800–1050, a rather beautiful affair of opposed dragons’ heads. This, the toy boats nearby and a couple of pieces of intriguing ship graffiti are the only indications in this first section that water and maritime ascendancy were the very essence of the Viking empire. German by descent, and based in Scandinavia, they were great marine explorers. These expansionist raiders and traders, these sea wolves, were wide-ranging and omnivorous in their rapine plundering across Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. The show concentrates on the heart of the Viking Age, from the late 8th century to the early 11th, and emphasises the diversity of its cultural connections mostly through stolen artefacts. One Viking hoard, for example, the recently discovered Vale of York hoard (found near Harrogate in 2007 by metal detector, and shown here in its entirety for the first time), contains Russian jewellery, Islamic coins and a gilded silver Frankish cup. It also includes a quantity of intriguingly named hack-silver, which is not what journalists get paid, but odd fragments of chopped-up silver used as currency valued by weight.

The terror inspired by the raiding Norsemen was very real, and the energy that drove them to loot as far as Persia via the Volga and the Caspian Sea was a great force in the western world, and helps to account for the adventuring blood that flowed in such a later explorer as Columbus. Their shallow-draft longships were not just for seafaring but for penetrating up rivers into rich heartlands, too, and their pagan beliefs (a mythology enduringly popularised by Wagner) lent a fearsome edge to their brutalities. Christianity was under threat, though its gradual ascendancy over Wotan et al is evidenced by the appearance of Christian symbols side by side with pagan ones in Viking art.

Odin or volva figure, 800–1050, Lejre, Zealand
Odin or volva figure, 800–1050, Lejre, Zealand

But pirates do not put down roots, they set off on another enterprise, wandering the seas in search of new places to invade and pillage, though these wanderers carried their craftsmen with them, which accounts for the large quantities of personal adornment in this exhibition. The Vikings were a culture in flux, with wide-open boundaries, a largely non-literate society despite possessing a runic alphabet (see the birch-bark inscriptions here), romanticised at different points of later history as noble savages, who had the unfortunate habit of going berserk in battle and even killing their own compatriots in their blind fury.

If the first half of the show is like an educational display in a provincial museum writ large — with better-quality artefacts superbly presented, such as the splendid woven gold neck ring from Tissø in Denmark — the second half is real drama and harsh reality. The noise of the sea greets the viewer on the ramp up to the second room, as you pass a series of effectively placed wall cabinets showing drinking vessels, a great oaken feasting bucket for ale or mead, a lovely decorative wooden platter and gaming pieces in the form of a Greek cross, then a display of spurs, stirrups and bridle fittings (the noise of breaking waves growing louder) and then out on to a raised platform to confront the show’s pièce de résistance, the great longship Roskilde 6. At 37 metres, it is the longest Viking warship ever recovered, and though only 20 per cent of it actually survives — mostly in the form of fragments of hull — the whole boat has been ingeniously suggested through the construction of a stainless-steel framework of considerable elegance. Rather less seaworthy than the Jumblies’ sieve, it nevertheless manages to evoke the predatory nature of its crew, particularly when set against the large screen on the gallery’s end wall showing an expanse of moving open sea.

There are good supporting exhibits next to the longship skeleton: a stepped boat stem from the Isle of Eigg, a Danish steering oar, strake and clinker nails, pinewood oars and rigging block. Here is where the visitor might be tempted to linger, if crowds permit, contemplating the spectacle. Here, too, is death, always a draw — a community of skulls and fragments of human skeletons laid out artistically in a flat floor cabinet. This was one occasion when the invaders came off worse: the evidence of this mass grave of decapitated Vikings at Weymouth indicates an effective defence of Dorset. With the mood so high at this point, it’s slightly surprising that the exhibition’s designers missed a trick by allowing the ramp down to the lower floor level to be so bleak and unadorned with objects or even wall panels.

Pin with dragon’s head, 950–1000, Hedeby
Pin with dragon’s head, 950–1000, Hedeby

Down below, the exhibits continue: helmets, axe heads, spears, a great yew bow with iron arrowheads, a haunting assembly of silver from the Cuerdale hoard, a massive blackened pine shield with iron boss, more coins, tiny amulets of Odin, the Middleton Cross B, which features a rare Viking-Age depiction of a fully armed warrior. Particularly emotive are the bent or rolled-up swords, ritually ‘killed’ to accompany the dead on their last voyage. There are four together: bent in half, curved like a wave, rolled in a circle. There’s a marvellous oak and gilt copper alloy Crucifix from Aby in Denmark, poignantly juxtaposed with an axe head with a cross from Sweden, and to end, a group of the famous Lewis walrus ivory chessmen.

A note about the labelling: it is not at all clear, and the publication accompanying the show doesn’t much help as it’s more a book about Vikings than an exhibition catalogue. I think there will be some confusion among visitors about what’s what, though the exhibition’s dynamics will carry most through any such discomfort. Certainly a show to see and wonder at.

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  • Kenneth

    I must say that this is too generous. It is a dull show – Sewell’s damning review in the Standard was spot on. The ship is a complete con – some bits of rotten wood in a new steel shell. The setting of the new building, grimly austere, completes the disaster.