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The Vikings made landfall to the British Museum, London.
David Franchi – Wednesday, 9th April 2014
The Vikings arrived at the British Museum, London, with a major exhibition in 30 years. “Vikings: life and legend” aims to explore the unprecedented world network they made. It features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK.
The exhibition analyses the Scandinavian territory, which was the Vikings homeland, between the 8th and the early 11Th century. Voyages brought the Vikings around the four continents, including America, the Mediterranean area and the Middle East, and allowed them to build an important network. The British Museum exhibition confirms the incredible ability of the Vikings in shipbuilding, displaying the remains of the ship known as Roskilde 6, in the newly open The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. It is also possible to see the central role of warfare to the identity of the Vikings and the very important the Vale of York Hoard, disclosing the real extent of the Vikings network.
The exhibition opens with the Vikings homeland, which is the modern –day area of countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The original name of Vikings comes from the Old Norse and it means pirates or raiders. Today the term is used to indicate the many people of Scandinavia during the Vikings age which spans from AD 800 to 1050. That area was divided in small and very variegated kingdoms. It was difficult to travel overland in that period, so people developed travel by sea or river.
Vikings travelled around the world to reach four continents. At the British Museum exhibition there is a video showing the routes Vikings have followed. According to the exhibition they went to West (Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and North America), South (Friesland, Russia and Ukraine), and East (Byzantine Empire and Islamic Caliphates). However, Vikings settle down also in other significant parts of the world such as Italy (in particularly Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica), North Africa, and Spain (in Balearic Islands). They had great relations with Mediterranean Sea area.
Vikings created a network with many other (willing or unwilling) populations. The Vikings age was a moment of great interaction.
They created a network and left marks in the places they visited. I remember a couple of friends of mine, who comes from Sicily, found the origins of their family names are actually Vikings. They often battled, and definitely were warriors, but also had more peaceful exchanges and shared ideas in many sectors such as economics, religion, literacy, art, and law.
Other populations of that time had not a great maritime character and instead ruled overland, such as the Franks – who expanded under Charlemagne. Those populations had a limited nautical structure, therefore Vikings were able to expand so widely and by the sea, finding not much obstacles. The Vikings had extraordinary shipbuilding skills and these were key to their achievements. At the centre of the exhibition will be the surviving timbers of a 37-metre-long Viking warship, the longest ever found and never seen before in the UK.
The ship is known as Roskilde 6 and it was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the course of work undertaken to develop the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997. Since the excavation, the timbers have been painstakingly
conserved and analysed by the National Museum of Denmark. The surviving timbers – approximately 20% of the original ship – have now been re- assembled for display in a specially made stainless steel frame that reconstructs the full size and shape of the original ship. The construction of the ship has been dated to around AD 1025, the high point of the Viking Age when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under the rule of Cnut the Great, in the North Sea Empire. The size of the ship and the amount of resources required to build it suggest that it was almost certainly a royal warship. Due to its scale and fragility it would not have been possible to display this ship at the British Museum without the new facilities of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.
This exhibition, in fact, is the first in The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the wing of the British Museum part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014. The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is the British Museum’s first purpose built space for temporary exhibitions.
Another section analyses the central role of warfare to the identity of the Vikings. However, they did not show better battling abilities than their enemies. Recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset, point up what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil.
The Vale of York Hoard is on display in its entirety at the British Museum for the first time since it was found. This hoard was
discovered by metal detectorists near Harrogate in 2007 and jointly acquired by the British Museum and York Museums Trust. It consists of 617 coins, 6 arm rings and a quantity of bullion and hacksilver. Vale of York Hoard is the largest and most important Viking hoard since the Cuerdale Hoard was found in Lancashire in 1840, part of which will also be included in the exhibition. With coins and silver from places as far removed as Ireland and Uzbekistan, the hoards reveal the true extent of the Viking global network. The silver cup in which the Vale of York Hoard was buried predates the burial by a century and was probably made for use in a Frankish church. It may well represent treasure stolen in a Viking raid. The Vale of York hoard includes objects coming from as far apart as Afghanistan in the East and Ireland in the West, as well as Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe. Represented in the hoard are three belief systems (Islam, Christianity and the worship of Thor) and peoples who spoke at least seven languages.
Supported by BP, the Vikings exhibition is organised by the British Museum, National Museum of Denmark and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
“Vikings: life and legend” is running at the British Museum, London, until 22nd June 2014.