The Vikings are returning. Right now in Britain all things Scandinavian are fashionable, from television drama to political theories. So “Vikings: Life and Legend” (through June 22) at the British Museum catches the zeitgeist.
However, it must be admitted that it lacks the dark excitement of Nordic TV mysteries such as “The Killing.” The show — the first in the BM’s new temporary exhibition galleries — corresponds more to another set of clichés about Scandinavia: efficient, thorough, just a little dull. On the other hand, it contains some spectacular exhibits — including the remains of the largest Viking boat ever discovered.
This, known as Roskilde 6, was found in Denmark in 1996, and dates from around 1025. At over 37 meters long, it is the biggest vessel to survive from the Viking age. Its beautiful lines contain a clue to the Vikings’ success. Like many booms throughout history, the Viking age — the period covered by the BM show runs from 800 to 1050 AD — was built on technology: in this case, a better boat, lighter, shallow enough to navigate rivers yet sufficiently seaworthy — in the case of bigger craft — to cross oceans. This was what enabled the Vikings to cross the Atlantic, sail up the Seine to plunder Dark Age Paris, and down the rivers of Russia to settle — topically — in Kiev.
Only a fifth of the original timber of Roskilde 6 survives, so most of what you see is an elegant modern reconstruction: the ghost of a ship. The Vikings are like that — not too much survives to look at. True, there is plenty of jewellery on show, precious metals lasting better than most materials in the damp northern climate. The most eye-catching of these items is a neck-ring of plaited gold that originally weighed some two kilograms, suggesting the wearer was prepared to suffer to look rich. There are also quantities of weapons, some decorated. But personally I find that after a while I’ve seen enough brooches, necklaces, and rusted swords. As art, the most powerful things on show are carved chess pieces found on the island of Lewis in Western Scotland. These tiny, fierce figures stare angrily ahead, biting their shields in the manner of the “berserkers,” warriors who fought in a frenzied trance.
Most Viking objects, made of perishable materials such as cloth, must have rotted long ago. The display includes some battered relics of wood, and — most grippingly — bone. The single exhibit that most bears out the Vikings’ grim reputation — as Dark Age Hell’s Angels with battle-axes — is a jaw bone, its teeth carefully filed so that that they could be decorated with colored stripes.
This fearsome dental ornamentation was probably complemented with tattooing. In the exhibition the grinning and serrated jaw is topped off with a helmet, giving a vivid impression of a person you would very much not want to come knocking on your door in the 9th century. Nearby, a pile of early 11th-century bones excavated in Dorset demonstrates that the Vikings did not have it all their own way. These were apparently the remains of a raiding party, all of whom had been beheaded, the skulls piled neatly to one side (the man with the striped teeth was one of these).
The Vikings had an image problem in the Dark Ages. The histories were written by monks — an easy target for raiders — who regarded them understandably enough as barbaric heathens. But were the Vikings really so ferociously piratical, forever raping and pillaging? Or were they, as revisionist historians have argued, more likely to be peaceful farmers and traders? The book accompanying the exhibition hints the truth may lie in between. Most 9th- and 10th-century Scandinavians stuck to agriculture, but some — as that jaw bone proves — certainly lived up to the sacking and ravaging stereotype.
The British Museum exhibition makes the case that the Vikings hold an important place in history. But not every historical epoch is equally easy to display in visual terms. Although there is plenty of interesting information to absorb here, and some striking things to see, the Vikings do not quite come to life. Perhaps, in the case of the man with the teeth and the berserkers, that’s not such a bad thing.
First published at Blouin Artinfo