“Most of us would still agree that you wouldn’t be particularly pleased to see a Viking arriving in your local village.”
This article titled “Viking versatility: pillagers cum pirates recast in subtle light by British Museum” was written by Mark Brown, arts correspondent, for The Guardian on Thursday 26th September 2013 15.57 UTC
“There’s no reason why, when you’re hacking someone to death, that you can’t hack them to death stylishly,” suggested Gareth Williams, perfectly reasonably, as he announced details of the first big Viking show at the British Museum for 30 years.
Williams was explaining, about this fresh appraisal of the Vikings, that the exhibition will not depict them as simply brutal rapers and pillagers. Nor will it concentrate on the “fluffy bunny” wing of Viking scholarship, he said, referring to a stance that emphasises their peaceful trade and beautiful craft skills.
“We are trying to provide a balanced view. It is not either or. They are raiders and marauders and they are traders and explorers and craftsmen. Fundamentally they are travellers – and travellers with open minds.”
The exhibition will be staged next spring and has been created in collaboration with national museums in Denmark and Germany. It aims to cast new light on what was an extraordinary expansion between the late 8th century and early 11th century. From their Scandinavian homelands the Vikings managed to get as far as Newfoundland, Morocco and central Asia.
The exhibition will also be the first to be staged in the museum’s new Sainsbury exhibitions gallery, part of a £135m extension that will open fully in 2014 and be known as the World Conservation and Exhibitions Gallery.
The new space allows the central London museum to show what will be the exhibition’s remarkable centrepiece – the surviving timbers of the longest Viking warship ever found. At 37 metres (121ft), it is longer even than the Mary Rose.
Ironically, the hull was discovered under the Viking Ship Museum, in Roskilde, Denmark, when an extension was being built in 1997. It has undergone painstaking conservation in the subsequent years.
The ship dates from around 1025 when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under the rule of Cnut the Great, or King Canute.
It will arrive in London in flatpack form – “as you’d expect of a Scandinavian ship,” joked Williams – and it will take a team in London two weeks to reconstruct.
While the ship would, technically, have fitted in the reading room exhibition space of the museum, there would not have been room enough to build it there.
Williams said the Vikings got a bad press, being portrayed as nothing more than bloodthirsty pirates until about the 1960s. That view was based on accounts of victims, which were never going to be favourable. “Perhaps you don’t have too much time to notice the beautiful jewellery being worn by the people burning your monastery,” he said.
The Vikings’ reputation was not helped by the 19th century confection that they had horns on their helmets (they didn’t, they had conical, hornless helmets).
That is not to say Vikings were particularly nice people. “Most of us would still agree that you wouldn’t be particularly pleased to see a Viking arriving in your local village,” said the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor.
The people were fiercely warlike; to die peacefully in your bed was not honourable. They normally got what they wanted, although the exhibition will include recently excavated skeletons of executed Vikings, from near Weymouth, Dorset, where things clearly did not go to plan.
The show will also display the stupendous Vale of York hoard in its entirety at the museum for the first time since it was discovered by metal detectorists in a field near Harrogate in 2007. The hoard is the most important Viking find for 170 years and contains silver and coins from as far away as Afghanistan and Russia.
There will also be a silver hoard from Gnezdovo, in Russia, which will show how Scandinavian, Slavic and Middle Eastern influences combined and contributed to the development of the early Russian state in the Viking age.
MacGregor said the exhibition would remind us that England in the 11th century was part of a Scandinavian Baltic community that stretched from Dublin to Kiev, just as the Hadrian exhibition at the museum in 2008 told a story of a Europe that stretched from Carlisle to Damascus.
The exhibition will also explore the legacy of the Vikings – descendants in our midst. Many of the show’s visitors will have Viking blood; and we still use words the Vikings gave us, such as window, sister, egg and beard.
“What we are looking at is not just how the Vikings came,” said MacGregor, “But also how lasting their impact has been, because, in a sense, they didn’t go away.”
• Vikings: life and legend will be at the British Museum 6 March to 22 June 2014.
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