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Viking reinventions

The Vikings are having a good year. In March a blockbuster exhibition opened in the new BP Gallery at the British Museum and tens of thousands have flocked to see the largest collection of Viking treasure ever to be displayed in the British Isles. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Viking longship known as Roskilde 6. This was excavated from the edge of the Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997, during construction of an extension of the Ship Museum, being built to house the previous ships to be found. The curators must have felt they were in a Catch22 dilemma, with each attempt to enlarge the museum unearthing yet more potential exhibits. Their solution has been to flat-pack the largest longship, IKEA-style, and to send it round Europe in a travelling exhibition. It started its journey in Copenhagen in 2013, before coming to London; in the Autumn it will travel to Berlin. Having been fortunate to see both exhibitions I must admit to preferring the Danish version. This was in a darkened hall, with spotlights on the objects, and the longship was displayed against an animated backdrop of a turbulent sea, culminating on a raid on a coastal monastery. At 37m long Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking warship ever found, and it would have held a crew of 60 warriors. Although only 20% has actually survived, the steel frame, the darkened hall, and background soundtrack of the sea, helped bring it back to life and, standing at the stern looking down its full length, it left me completely awestruck. In London, by contrast, the ship was displayed in a fully illuminated white space, whilst the smaller objects are difficult to see, given the crowds jostling round the small cases. The Vikings seemed to lack mystery, which was a shame. I look forward to see what the Germans make of it, when Vikings opens in Berlin in October.

What both Danish and British versions share is a re-emphasis on the violence of the Viking Age. During the 1980s there was a little too much stress on Vikings as peaceful traders, and it was high time that the pendulum swung the other way. In Copenhagen prominence was given to the leg irons of slaves, and a warrior’s skull with grooved teeth, designed to give him a fearsome grin. In London a case displays the tumbled bodies, maybe the remains of a Viking raiding party, stripped naked and slaughtered on Ridgeway Hill, near Weymouth in Dorset, before their bloodied corpses were thrown into an open pit. One interpretation is that these were the victims of the St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002 AD, when Æthelred the Unready ordered all Danes living in England to be slaughtered as a savage reprisal against a fresh wave of raiders. One skeleton has deep cuts to the forearms as the unarmed man tried to shield himself against the sword blows raining down.

Skuldelev VI: Ein wikingerzeitliches Ruder- und Segelboot, das im Roskilde-Fjord in der Nähe von Skuldelev gefunden wurde. Photo by y Casiopeia. CC-BY-SA-2.0-de via Wikimedia Commons
Skuldelev VI: Ein wikingerzeitliches Ruder- und Segelboot, das im Roskilde-Fjord in der Nähe von Skuldelev gefunden wurde. Photo by y Casiopeia. CC-BY-SA-2.0-de via Wikimedia Commons

Viking England was not always as cosy as visitors to the reconstructed Viking townscape in the Jorvik Viking Centre in York might have been led to believe. At a conference we held at the University of York in March this year, a recurring theme was the Viking Great Army that ravaged England, and Continental Europe, in the late ninth century. Unlike previous hit and run attacks on undefended coastal monasteries this much larger and highly mobile force made best use of the narrows draught of their longships to sail up the estuaries and English river system to penetrate deep inland. They were regularly reinforced by new war bands, eager for their own share of the loot, and ravaged southern and eastern England for over a decade, making camp each winter. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us where many of these camps were but until recently only one, at Repton in Derbyshire, the Viking base for the winter of 873-4 AD, had been investigated archaeologically, revealing a mass grave, as well as the graves of individual warriors (at least one of whom had met a brutal death), buried up against the walls of the royal Anglo-Saxon shrine to St Wystan. An adult male, buried with his sword, and a Thor’s hammer amulet around his neck, had been killed by a deep cut to his upper leg, and also a sword thrust through the eyepiece of his helmet, which penetrated deep into the eye socket. He may also have been disemboweled.

In recent years two more Viking camps have been located, both through the discovery by metal detector users, of Viking treasure, including concentrations of Arabic and Anglo-Saxon coins and Viking silver and gold, melted down into ingots. One of these is north of York and may be linked to the return of part of the Great Army to Tyneside, after they had departed from Repton in Derbyshire. The other, at Torksey in Lincolnshire, also on the banks of the River Trent, testifies to the winter camp of the previous year in 872-3 AD. A new project led by the Universities of Sheffield and York is now investigating the site, and we have already recorded more Arabic silver coins, or dirhams, than anywhere else in the British Isles. These finds reflect the loot that the war bands had collected, in Ireland, England, and previously in Francia, and which they were re-processing into portable treasure and status symbols whilst they over-wintered.

Every age seems to reinvent Vikings to reflect the spirit of its own age. In the 80s, as the European Common Market expanded, and free trade delivered new consumer goods to our homes we saw the Vikings as traders, bringing exotic goods from Europe and the Middle East to our shores. We have now had several reminders, from new discoveries of mass graves, fearsome warships, and looted possessions, that there was another side to their activities and that the arrival of the ‘dragon ships’ often did indeed bring pillage, rape, and death, and that if you were lucky you might be carried off into slavery. Maybe this year’s return of Vikings as warriors and slave traders is a depressing reflection of current headlines, with religious and ethnic genocides in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

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