One of the first things you will learn at the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition is that the word Viking means pirate in its original Norse and Olde English. However, what this exhibition aims to do is show that the Vikings built an empire between 800-1050AD by trading, as well as raiding.
The BP Exhibition: Vikings: Life and Legend is the first exhibition to be housed in the newly completed Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, part of the £135 million World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014. The centrepiece is the remains of a 37m-long Viking warship, a piece that the museum would have struggled to accommodate before this gallery existed.
The remains of The Longship, named Roskilde 6, are displayed using a minimalist steel structure, which contrasts with the original timbers, of which only 20% remain, to allow for easy distinction between the ancient and modern Scandinavian design techniques.
The ship was discovered, of all places, on the site of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark in 1996-7. After which 10,000 conservation hours went into freeze drying the timbers and reconstructing the ship.
The ship would have required unparalleled resources to build at the time: 350sq m of timber, 200kg of flax or wool for the sails, 174kg of horse hair for rope, 500kg of iron and over 500,000 man hours, and that’s not including the precious metals used for ornamentation. The ship is a symbol of power, and nothing says power like a 37m warship, coated in gold and manned by 40 hulking warriors, “gleaming like fire” as it approaches the shore.
The warship is surrounded in this grand space by weaponry and beheaded skeletons, in an attempt to recreate the terror the Vikings could once incite. In comparison, the jewellery on display at the start of the exhibition is more serene, achieving the curator Gareth Williams’ aim of presenting the Vikings as a progressive trading society, as well as ruthless warriors.
Using their nautical expertise the Vikings developed an unparalleled trading network, spreading outwards to eastern Canada, central Asia and southwards to Morocco. The most brazenly extravagant piece is a 2kg gold necklace from Denmark, a symbol of the incredible wealth present amongst the Vikings.
When a son is born, the father throws a naked sword before him and says: “I leave you no inheritance. All you possess is what you can gain with this sword.” Ihn Rusta, Arab Writer, The Book of Precious Records, AD903-913
The weaponry will naturally be a big draw here, with several swords of varying shapes and sizes on show. Some of my favourite items on show are the berserker warrior chess pieces, shown maniacally chewing their shields before battle. These terrifying icons, alongside axes, shields and a huge longbow all show the craftsmanship and mentality which helped the Vikings dominate Europe for centuries.
Make sure to grab one of the touchscreen audio guides, hosted by the broadcaster and Viking descendant Sandi Toksvig.