Vikings: Life and Legend – a Review

This post will be accompanied by LEGO illustrations as we were not permitted to take photographs inside the exhibition.

Viking-Roskilde-6

When it comes to archaeology / anthropology exhibits I’m not the easiest audience to please. Unless the people in question had some serious interaction with the local wildlife I lose interest fast. Fortunately the Scandinavian people do not disappoint in this regard. As soon as you enter the first room you are greeted by a pair of walrus tusks, representing the primary source of Viking ivory, which they carved into all manner of things from game pieces and dice to religious objects and scabbard decorations. They traded ivory, pretty stones such as Jet, and furs – across Europe, the Middle East, and North America. There were some lovely black fox skins available for stroking. One can only imagine how quickly these will be reduced to a sticky mess. Their tools were often fashioned from animal parts too: the whale baculum (penis bone) was used as an axe handle.

We normally associate the Vikings as loud, war-obsessed drunks but their culture seems to have abhorred loud, idiotic behaviour. They did have a proud warrior tradition, in which it was noble to die in battle and shameful to die in bed. A child would be given an unsheathed sword from his father and told that his sole inheritance was whatever he could gain with this sword. Most of our English mediæval ancestors would have associated with the Vikings as raiders – even the word means “raider” or “pirate”.

They were by no means invincible: in Weybridge there were found some 30-35 Viking men, buried unceremoniously together. Carbon dating puts them near 1000 AD and it seems these men were the entire crew of a Viking raiding party that lost. Some of the bones are on display in the exhibition – including one hyper-arctic adapted chap with a very robust femur compared to his friends. According to written accounts of Vikings going to battle, they were often accompanied by ravens, which they referred to as the “wound-grouse” (fantastic name). The ravens got food in abundance from this arrangement but I wonder what was in it for the Vikings.

The centrepiece of the exhibit is of course the large longship Roskilde 6, according to some sources the largest Viking vessel of its kind. The norm seems to be 16 pairs of oars and shields, which is why I depicted this in my illustration, rather than almost double that, aka Roskilde 6. She’s an impressive ship. The Vikings made lightweight ships that could be carried over small obstacles, row into shallow water down to a metre deep, and can be reversed easily by simply rowing in the opposite direction, as the stern cut the water just as easily as the bow. It seems modern ships have made a commitment to going one way and turning is a much more difficult enterprise than it used to be. I have a question for any maritime engineering experts we may have reading this: what have we gained in sacrificing these benefits? I’m assuming there’s a trade-off there somewhere.

If I had criticisms, they would be the flow of traffic round the first room, and the use of microphones on the fire alarm which, in some areas, was barely comprehendable due to vocal distortion plus echo from the building acoustics. In conclusion, if you haven’t got yourself down to the British Museum and seen it yourself yet I would recommend it. It’s finishing on the 22nd of this month so do head down there sooner rather than later.

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