The British Museum showcases the poetry, boats and bling of the marauding 11th-century Norsemen who, above all else, understood curves…
Anyone who has even dipped a toe in the briny sagas of the Viking kings will know that the stag outing the itinerant Norsemen prized above all others always began something like this: “On Saturday the fleet-lord throws off the long tarpaulin, and splendid widows from the town gaze on the planking of the dragon ship. The young ruler steers the brand new warship west out of the Nio, and the oars of the warriors fall into the sea… ” Those lines come from the 11th-century court poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson, and they describe the characteristic actions of the fleet of Harald Hardradra (Harold the Hard Ruler), the last great Viking king, who fought unsuccessfully to extend his Norwegian monarchy to Denmark and then Britain. He died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 along with his poet.
For nearly three centuries prior to that, the collective skill of creating “brand new warships” in a society seemingly geared to the singular thrill of that moment of setting forth on the ocean, west or east, powered a culture that came to explore, colonise, terrify (and enslave) large parts of northern Europe and Asia, and which extended its trading reach to Constantinople, Newfoundland and beyond. The word “viking” was originally shorthand for the experience of throwing back that sealskin tarpaulin and setting oars to water, deriving from “vik”, which was the name for the mouth of a river or fjord. Later, in particular in the Icelandic sagas, it became something like the catch-all term we now understand: to “fara í viking”, “go on a viking” came to mean not only to set out on a voyage but to take part in anything that might follow – trade, commerce, raiding, piracy or worse.
One thing this quite austere British Museum exhibition seeks to establish is that the lines of the saga poets were secondary to the lines of the ships themselves. The legends of the exhibition’s title are told very much through its objects rather than its famous verses (though the soundtrack is a looped, guttural telling of some of those legends in a language you seem to half understand from box sets of The Bridge). Empires have been built by many means, but the implication here is clear, the Vikings built their roving power on a single collective facility: they understood curves. This knowledge enabled them to build large, fast sea-going ships with shallow enough drafts to navigate far inland on rivers, and light enough to be dragged up on to beaches (Viking raiders got as far into England as Lichfield in the landlocked Midlands, and they raided and colonised far into Russian lands along the tributaries of the Volga).
For a quarter of a millennium no other culture in their sphere had much of an answer to that curvilinear knowledge. Like the splendid 11th-century widows marvelling at the unsheathed warship, you confront those curves immediately in the new hangar-like exhibition space of the British Museum, which is also launched with this show. The great dragon ship Roskilde 6 is reconstructed in the new hall with a good deal of its original planking laid on a steel skeleton. The ship seems likely to have been part of the fleet of Canute (or Cnut, as he is here, to which the epithet “total” remains silent); it was, like most Viking vessels, essentially a troop carrier, 36 metres long, and is the largest longship ever found. Having probably crisscrossed the North Sea 1,000 years ago before being scuttled to protect the harbour entrance to Roskilde, the ancient capital of Denmark, it was discovered and excavated in 1996, and has made the journey across the greyest of oceans once again. About a quarter of its timbers survive, but even in its hollowed and reimagined state, its aerodynamic heft, the sheer prowess of its ribs and stays, retain a good deal of the original 11th-century shock and awe.
That ship so dominates this show that you begin, probably justifiably, to see its curves almost everywhere in the exhibits that surround it. The dominant Viking forms are obvious in the representations of the curious longhouses, often windowless and built like upturned boats, and in the shape of the graves that took notable Viking warriors on their last voyages of discovery – accompanied by valkyries in the myth, perhaps to the great hall of Valhalla to drink with the god Odin, and imagine how their stories might echo down the ages to be recast in CGI and given Hollywood endings.
Odin, who takes his place here only as a tiny silver figurine, a tactile charm, was associated with “feminine magic”, and appears to be depicted in women’s clothes. There is precious little else that might be described as feminine in the Viking aesthetic, beyond some of the delicate skill in carving. The investment in ships afforded chiefs and kings great wealth, traded or looted and defended with double-edged swords, of which there are many lethal looking examples.
There was, it seems, a formidable culture of bling, great rope-like chains of silver and gold; almost comically outsized buckles and brooches that became status symbols from Stockholm to Shetland. In some instances amulets and bracelets doubled as currency; the silver of some examples is scored in regular increments for the purposes of trade; cattle or silk would be purchased by chiselling off a couple of segments.
Almost universally, jewellery and armour, as well as the many whalebone artefacts, are decorated with bold riverine and wave designs, reminders of where the money came from. When Christianity began to supersede Norse mythology – and crucifixes replaced valkyries – it is easy to see how the Vikings might have taken to a god who walked on water.
The trade that underpinned a good deal of that wealth was in slaves, or “thralls”. The neck chains and manacles of Irish slaves, literally enthralled and sent off to Iceland, are grimly emblematic of what the sight of longships on the horizon might have represented to native populations. A preserved warrior’s skull in which the front teeth have been filed flat for aggressive effect also makes a chilling point (though his helmet was never adorned with horns; those were a Victorian addition to the myth).
Though dues are paid here to the profound depths of Norse mythology, and to the Vikings’ civilisation-changing technological expertise and sporadic efforts at diplomacy, you are unlikely to leave this exhibition with the feeling that longships were often welcome visitors on foreign beaches. In part of an excavated mass grave from Weymouth, in which the exclusively male DNA is sourced to 10th-century Scandinavian origins, each skeleton has been brutally beheaded (with in some cases protective hands sliced clean through as well). This is thought to be evidence of the manner in which the crew of a single Viking longship were repelled. For many decades, such a violent reverse was obviously an exception to the rule.