VIKINGS: LIFE AND LEGEND at the British Museum

The Vikings are here!  The British Museum has chosen to christen its brand new Sainsbury galleries with an exhibition that aims to change our perception of Vikings from gruesome warriors to international empire builders and awesome sailors.  Myths are debunked:  Vikings did not wear horned helmets  just regular head shaped ones and they were kind, dutiful parents who fashioned toy boats out of wood for their children. Indeed the first things we see are model boats.

Vikings Life and Legend

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy.
©The National Museum of Denmark

Boats were big in the Viking world, their heartland consisted of: Denmark, mainly islands; Sweden, lots more islands and a heavily wooded and mountainous hinterland and Norway, long and indented coastline with an impenetrable hinterland, boats were their main form of transport.  Once they’d explored their own lands they set off across the sea to our own shores, down rivers into modern Russia, through the Caspian Sea to modern Uzbekistan and into the Mediterranean and Black Seas.  The big showstopper  is  the remains of the biggest Viking ship ever found, Roskilde 6 would have been 37 metres long and been powered by 40 pairs of oars (rather than the 25 as was usual).  She was found in 1997 during building work for the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde along with 8 other smaller vessels.  It’s thought that she was made in Southern Norway around 1025AD and might have been made for King Cnut the Great.

Vikings Life and Legend

Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered.
© National Museum of Denmark.

It wasn’t all rape and pillage, the Vikings settled in many of the places that their boats took them to and set up sophisticated trade networks.  Jewellery was made using Amber and Jet from Northern Europe as well as Rock Crystal and Carnelian from the East.  Metal bracelets and necklaces were often made in standard weights that could be used as currency.  There is the most enormous rope like gold necklace on display that weighs 2kg; whoever wore it would have needed to be strong.  The Vale of York hoard, discovered in 2007 is on display for the first time.  It consists of 617 coins and various bits of silver all contained in a silver cup, amazingly most of the coins are Islamic showing the vast reach of the Viking trade network.

Vikings Life and Legend

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver.
British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Vikings is well worth the trip to the British Museum, just make sure you book your tickets first as the queues are very long.  If you don’t fancy queueing then consider becoming a friend of the British Museum.  Membership starts at £60 and gets you into all exhibitions free, as well as access to a rather nice Friends room and a 10% discount in the shop and café.  I always like to fit a café visit into my cultural jaunts, a short amble down to 35 New Oxford Street will take you to Pain de Mie that serves excellent homemade cakes, sandwiches and coffee.

VIKINGS LIFE AND LEGEND at the British Museum
until 22 June 2014
British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1.
Entry £16.50, Children free


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