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Vikings land at British Museum, minus the horns

LONDON: The exhibition of Viking cultural production now up at the British Museum is replete with axes, swords, helmets, dragon figureheads and, as its centerpiece, a 37-meter-long Viking warship that is the longest ever excavated.

What might be jarring, is that the dragonheads are tiny and adorning a brooch. Only 20 percent of the wooden ship survived centuries of immersion in the mud of a Danish harbor, so most of what is on display is a huge stainless-steel frame.

None of the helmets in the exhibition is fitted with horns.

“They didn’t wear horns on their helmets,” project curator Thomas Williams, 33, said, explaining one of the messages the museum hopes visitors, especially schoolchildren, will take home from this, its first Viking exhibition in 30 years.

“Archaeologists would never say never,” Williams added, when pressed, “but there’s no evidence whatsoever” for horns on helmets.

This is partly what has irked the British media, some of whose reviewers have found the exhibition – given the Vikings’ well-earned reputation for rape and pillage – to be a little colorless and bloodless.

Pretty much everyone educated in Britain knows about the sack of the Lindisfarne monastery in Northumbria, on England’s northeast coast, invaded by Viking warships in 793.

Within hours, it is recorded, “the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church” and the surviving monks staggered about amid corpses of their brethren along the beachfront.

“There’s no stage setting. No gory recreation of the Lindisfarne raid, say, to get us in the mood,” Jonathan Jones wrote this week in the Guardian. “Instead, cases of smallish, similar objects throw visitors straight into some thorny problems of archaeology.

“How do Viking artifacts compare with things being made at the same time by Baltic and Slav peoples. ... I felt like crying.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mark Hudson said the somber gray walls of the museum’s new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, combined with a soundtrack of a voice speaking in Old Norse, lent the exhibition all the mystery of watching an episode of the “Nordic Noir” crime drama “The Killing” in an airport waiting room.

If Hudson picked up a scent of “Nordic Noir,” that’s exactly what the creators of the exhibition wanted.

“There’s been this huge upsurge in interest in all things Scandinavian recently,” Williams said, “in particular the Scandinavian crime dramas, the ‘Nordic Noir,’ and I think to some degree that’s inspired people from this country to re-evaluate the relationship with Scandinavia.”

He spoke near a case displaying the skeletons and skulls of Vikings who were slaughtered, and many decapitated, by presumably some very angry locals in what is now Dorset on the English south coast around the year 1,000.

“In some ways the Nordic countries are very similar to Britain,” Williams continued, “and people perhaps are trying to think about why this might be and seeing the historical connections.”

Those connections are partly linguistic – “egg,” “window,” “sister” and “oaf” are all derived from Old Norse – but they also go further. DNA tests show close affinities between some Britons, particularly in the north of the country and on the Shetland and Orkney islands, and Scandinavians.

“Vikings” is a joint project of the Danish National Museum, where it opened last year, and Berlin’s National Museums, where it travels next.

The exhibition differs from the British Museum’s last major Viking show in 1980 in having had access to collections that at the time were behind the Iron Curtain. So, alongside a silver men’s brooch from the Danish museum is one from Russia.

Another case contains silver coins from Islamic countries, showing that the Vikings’ mastery of the maritime technology of the day – perfected in the warship – allowed them not only to cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland but to sail Russian rivers and the Baltic Sea to the Byzantine Empire.

“The overarching theme of the exhibition really is cultures and contacts,” Williams said, “and a big part of that is the maritime technology that is developed in Scandinavia that enables the Vikings to become the first group of people who reach for separate continents.”

“Vikings: Life and Legend” is up at the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery until 22 June. For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/vikings.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 07, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

The exhibition of Viking cultural production now up at the British Museum is replete with axes, swords, helmets, dragon figureheads and, as its centerpiece, a 37-meter-long Viking warship that is the longest ever excavated.

None of the helmets in the exhibition is fitted with horns.

This is partly what has irked the British media, some of whose reviewers have found the exhibition – given the Vikings' well-earned reputation for rape and pillage – to be a little colorless and bloodless.

"Vikings" is a joint project of the Danish National Museum, where it opened last year, and Berlin's National Museums, where it travels next.

The exhibition differs from the British Museum's last major Viking show in 1980 in having had access to collections that at the time were behind the Iron Curtain.

"Vikings: Life and Legend" is up at the British Museum's Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery until 22 June.


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