British Museum’s Viking show locates the original Scandinavian Noir

The big new exhibition in the museum’s newest hall will float many a longboat, though those simply seeking the raping and pillaging berserkers of legend may be surprised

Hiddensee hoard … 14 gold filigree pendants, spacers, brooch and neck-ring, (late 10th-century Denmark). Photograph: Kulturhistorisches Museum der Hansestadt Stralsund

It is the year of our lord 793, and I am a God-fearing monk living on the island monastery of Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. I am illuminating manuscripts in my cell, or weeding the vegetable patch. Or sneakily opening my eyes while supposedly praying, when on the horizon I catch sight of a black dot sailing this way. An hour later that small dot has enlarged to a boat, a small flotilla of boats in fact, and a few hours after that the monastery is ransacked, its storehouses emptied and precious objects stolen. Fellow monks lie slaughtered, their bodies face down in a crimson sea, or have been taken as slaves. As the wounded and maimed stumble around the beach the sterns of several longboats are still visible out on the water, heading north-east.

That was a scene outlined by a history teacher at some early point in my school career, and one that clunks mechanically into place, like a photograph in an old carousel-slide projector, whenever the word Viking is used. My understanding of modern Scandinavia was informed by cliches, this time perpetuated through popular culture, trivia and urban myths. The Swedes built reliable cars, designed collapsible furniture and had the highest suicide rate of any nation. The Danes baked pastries, produced sizzling bacon and brewed the best lager in the world, probably. And the Norwegians had their ski jumps, A-ha, and continued to hunt whales in the face of international condemnation.

I suspect that for many Britons those stereotypes persisted at a subconscious level until the more recent wave of Norse invasions which have shifted our perception of its peoples, transformed our viewing habits and redefined our attitude towards the knitted sweater. The Killing, Wallander, Borgen, The Bridge … “Nordic Noir” has landed, and suddenly we’re finding a great deal to admire about Scandinavia, including contemporary cuisine (Copenhagen boasts Noma, “the world’s number one restaurant”), architecture, interior design, bike riding, and progressive environmental policies. Even Hollywood has got the bug, if the Thor franchise can be said to retain any of its mythological Norse origins, and the new Lego movie is a box-office smash.

Lewis Chessmen (1150-1145). Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum

A good time, then, to be renegotiating our relationship with that part of the world on a historical level too, through a major new exhibition in the British Museum’s major new exhibition hall. Timely as well that I should be visiting while our own nation is in a state of flood – rain bucketing from the skies, the sea spewing over harbour walls, rivers bursting their banks – because water is very much the central theme of this curation, and at its heart is a boat.

When it opened in 1759 about seventy people a day mooched around in the echoey galleries of the British Museum. Last year more than six million passed through its doors. The Vikings are at the back, beyond the Parthenon, the Nereid Monument and the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos and through a set of pristine glass doors yet to experience the sticky hands of the general public. Once inside, a single copper brooch in the stylised shape of a ship is offered as a motif for the entire exhibition, the two little holes either side of the mast like eyes through which all other objects should be viewed.

Oxidised to a pale green over the past one thousand years or so, it’s a beautifully worked piece, which speaks of art and decoration as much as plunder and booty, and I ask project curator Tom Williams if there’s something of a re-branding going on here, an attempt to get away from the enduring image of Vikings as bloodthirsty barbarians, out for all they could get. Yes and no seems to be the cautious answer. The academic discourse has been veering in that direction for over 50 years now, and if anything the British Museum is putting a bit of cold steel back into the debate.

But anyone expecting the raping and pillaging berserkers of cartoon and caricature will be challenged and surprised by the more complex, multi-faceted Vikings presented here. Through the first series of exhibits we are re-familiarised with the narrative of Viking incursions into Britain and Ireland, and reminded how foraging parties made it all the way across the Atlantic to the shores of North America or “Vinland” several hundred years before Columbus. Moving on we learn of Norse trading expeditions to the east and south, through the Slavic and Baltic states, into Russia, the Mediterranean and even into the Arab world, and on my part at least the image of blue-eyed, blonde-haired Vikings sculling along the Bosphorus or heading off into the markets of 10th-century Constantinople requires a certain amount of mental CGI.

Geographical curiosity can’t be ruled out but the pursuit of wealth would have been the primary motive for such extensive travel, because with wealth came well-being, status and power. So furs, jet, soapstone, falcons and slaves went one way and weapons, glassware, wine, metals and large quantities of silver went home, just as elements of design were traded and shared. Nowhere is this more tellingly and beguilingly illustrated than with the Vale of York hoard. Dug out of a field in North Yorkshire by a father and son metal-detecting team and subsequently valued at over a million pounds, its true worth is in its contribution to our knowledge of the Viking map.

Hunterston brooch (700). Photograph: National Museums Scotland

As well as objects of Scandinavian origin the hoard included items from Ireland, Russia, several parts of continental Europe, north Africa and Afghanistan. The liturgical cup is Frankish and the coins are Islamic dirhams, strewn here with studied casualness among arm rings, neck rings and bullion bars, glittering and winking under the artificial light. Displayed like this it is the treasure of fairy tales, the kind that might be found at the end of a rainbow or under an elf’s pillow. Other cabinets show the Vikings at rest and in their finery: games, dice, combs, outrageously lavish pin brooches, a gold ear-scoop (yes, for scooping wax out of ears) and a thickly woven necklace of solid gold – Viking bling at it its most extravagant.

There is no agreed definition of the word “Viking”, be it a reference to their geographical origins or their identity as raiders. They were Norse people from before the formation of the later day kingdoms of Scandinavia, and their lightweight, shallow ships allowed them the freedom of the rivers, inlets and the high seas. Taken from the first Viking attack in Dorset circa 789 to Harald Hardrada’s defeat at  in 1066, the Viking age is a relatively short period of British history, and their presence on these shores was intermittent and diffuse.

Yet their influence was long lasting. As well as the Lindisfarne incident, school drummed into us the legacy of Norse place names in suffixes such as -by, -thorpe and -thwaite, and hundreds of Norse loan words maintain their place in the English language, some like bairn and addle as dialect words, others such as egg, skin, root and window in everyday usage. Orkney and Shetland are steeped in Viking culture, with some residents feeling stronger affiliations with their neighbours to the north and east than with their rulers to the south.

A looped tape plays in the background of the exhibition, and only by careful listening is it possible to discern that the language echoing around the gallery isn’t Danish or Norwegian but English, as spoken by a Shetlander, talking about shipbuilding.

Seen alongside maps of Norse penetration into the west of Scotland, south Wales and the eventual subjugation of most English regions, if nothing else the Vikings are just one more example of this country as cultural and ethnic crossroads for migrants and mobile populations, giving the lie to any notion of homogeneous Brits going right back to Adam and Eve.

Reinforcing the point, a book known as the Liber Vitae lies open at a page containing the only known image of King Cnut in existence, seen here with his queen, Emma, presenting an altar cross to the church. Cnut ruled England for almost 20 years. He was a Dane.

Silver inlaid axehead in the Mammen style, (900). From Bjerringhoj, Denmark. Photograph: The National Museum of Denmark

As well as their treasure hoards and hog stones and their buried ironwork, the Vikings must also have contributed a fair number of mitochondria to the gene pool. Am I of Viking stock? I do not have the trademark looks, but neither did another Yorkshire skald, WH Auden, and he believed he was a Norseman body and soul. Back in the museum we’re getting towards the grisly end of Viking activities, initially in the shape of manacles, shackles, then the weapons of war.

A Viking’s sword was not just a functional tool, it was his badge of recognition on the battlefield, his status symbol when worn at his side, and his passport to the afterlife – the object by which he would be recognised by the gods as a warrior and rewarded accordingly. So sword hilts were beautifully fashioned and inlaid, and the shafts intricately decorated.

Two swords on display came from the forge of the “designer” blacksmith Ulfberht, and bear the maker’s name on the face of the blade. These are high-end swords, though interestingly several others that bear the same logo are not even mediocre but downright shoddy, implying that counterfeiting was as much an issue then as it is today. Science stops short of being able to tell how far into human flesh some of these swords might have plunged, or how many times, though from wear and tear to the hilts it’s possible to surmise how they were handled and worn, and therefore to imagine them slung in position around a warrior’s waist.

Science of a more forensic type has helped shed light on the fifty or so skeletons unearthed during excavations for the Weymouth Bypass in 2009. Carbon dating of bones places the deaths somewhere in the early 11th century, and stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel provides chemical proof that these men were of Scandinavian origin. But on this occasion they were victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

Disturbingly, they bear no signs of struggle or injury, yet their bodies were heaped in one pile and their heads in another, ritually slaughtered or summarily executed it would seem. Lying here partly reassembled they look like a lost tribe, pitiful, humbled and a long way from home.

There is more dental related activity on display in the form of a well preserved male Viking skull with filed teeth, the kind of self-mutilation that might suggest the Vikings were social outsiders even within their own world, “punks or Hell’s Angels” as the catalogue puts it. A helmet hangs above the skull, quite a rare object despite being the most obvious symbol of Viking identity, at least as far as suppliers of fancy dress are concerned. It is superbly crafted and as smooth as an acorn; even among laypeople the fact that Viking helmets did not sport horns seems better known than the misunderstanding it corrects.

The exhibition contains little in the way of literature other than quotes from Viking lore or the Icelandic sagas emblazoned on the walls, although I notice later that the book shop has taken the opportunity of incorporating a translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf into its tower of Viking reading matter.

Instead, runic inscriptions etched on possessions are left to tell their own stories, ranging from the enigmatic to the mundane. From “We fared out to the men of Friesland, changing combat clothes with them,” (a possible euphemism for “We kicked their arses and nicked their gear”) to “Sakse carved these runes”.

The longship Roskilde 6 is the longest vessel to have survived the Viking age. Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum

However, up to this point we have been pussyfooting around the enormous installation that takes up most of the floor space in this hall, and the item that forms the centrepiece, thematically as well as physically.

In 1997, during the construction of a new Viking ship museum in the Danish town of Roskilde, nine hitherto undiscovered vessels were excavated from the harbour area, including the ship that now goes by the name of Roskilde 6. As longboats go it’s very long indeed, the longest ever found in fact at more than 37 metres (122ft). Using dendrochronology – the study of growth rings in timber – experts have dated the boat to around 1025 and identified the source of the wood as the Oslo fjord in south-eastern Norway. They can also say that at some stage after 1039 it was repaired in the Baltic area, and had been stripped of some of its beams and boards before it sank or was scuttled. Painstakingly recovered and partially reconstructed, Roskilde 6 now sits in a colossal steel cradle or basket, which forms the fexternal skeleton, so it’s best to see it from above. Standing on the viewing platform and looking down, though, I have to admit to a sense of disappointment. When I ask Tom, “Is that it?” I’m trying to spin the question as an inquiry into the preserved proportion of the original ship (to which the answer is “about 20%”), but I’m sure he detects an element of deflation in my mood, a sense of unfulfilled expectations.

If only the prow or stern had been recovered, with one of those big curly figureheads at the top like a treble clef, or more of the hull, to give a sense of the forty or so pairs of oars that would have propelled the ship through the water. But what we have here, in non-nautical language, is the boat’s bottom, a series of dark wooden boards at the base of the shiny metal scaffolding, the scaffolding that in some ways is more impressive than the planks it houses.

I should also confess that several years ago I visited the Viking ship museum on Bygdøy outside Oslo, and even at almost half the length of this more recent find, a craft known as the Oseberg ship has set the standard for all Viking ships in my mind, simply because it looked as if it could float. I guess it’s what the remains imply that counts, rather than what they constitute, but visitors to the British Museum’s Viking exhibition should remember not to leave their imaginations at home.

If Roskilde 6 is the elephant in the room, then it has the effect of throwing attention back onto the smaller, finer objects on display, many of them given plenty of space in their cabinets and cases, drawing the visitor right up to the glass. One such artefact is a tiny silver carving of Odin; his two ravens are at his side, and in a reference to his association with feminine magic and sorcery he appears to be wearing women’s clothing.

Another is a 25cm (10in) stick from Bergen in Norway, just a bit of driftwood it seems until I put on my glasses and take a step closer. Once in focus, a set of vertical striations resolve themselves into a fleet of Viking longboats with their tell-tail dragon-head prows and wind vanes, harbingers of terror, or trade, or possibly both. Then I’m exiting through the gift shop and steering north, letting the installation team gather up the last of the bubble wrap and tissue paper before the grand opening, and leaving them to get things ship-shape, or as near to the shape of a ship as possible given the available materials.

The exhibition

This is the first time in 30 years that the British Museum has mounted a major Vikings exhibition. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, said: “The reach and cultural connections of the Viking Age make it a remarkable story, shared by many countries, not least the British Isles.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition – from 6 March till 22 June – is Roskilde 6, the remains of a Viking ship that would have been 36 metres long and carried 100 men. Among the other exhibits is the Vale of York Hoard, shown in its entirety for the first time since it was discovered near Harrogate in 2007 and featuring hundreds of silver coins

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