There is an impressive longship at the heart of the British Museum’s new Viking exhibition. Roskilde 6 is the biggest Viking vessel ever found. 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 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. The size of the ship and the amount of resources required to build it suggest that it was almost certainly a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut to assert his authority over this short-lived North Sea Empire.
The fragile oak lies within a metal skeleton which gives you a good idea of the shape and size of the original ship. Only about a fifth of the hull is from the surviving original timber. It has never been seen in the UK before and it can only be seen now because of the new temperature controlled large-scale facilities of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.
The influence and cultural complexity of the Vikings has sometimes been underestimated. The Vale of York Hoard (displayed in full for the first time illustrates both). It contains coins and silver from places as far removed as Ireland and Uzbekistan! The Vale of York hoard includes objects from 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. The Vikings had an extensive cultural and trade network with contacts from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. The exhibition shows the myriad of influences on the Vikings and their influence on others.
There are many examples of fine Viking craftmanship in the exhibition: large brooches used to fasten women’s aprons, ivory figures and an exquisite gold horse’s bridle for example. The work is intricate and the designs merge abstract and animal forms with great skill and precision. If the Vikings were barbarians they were very cultured barbarians!
The exhibition does not try to whitewash the Vikings accepting their dual nature as traders and raiders, brutal yet cultured and complex, slavers and explorers.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said “The reach and cultural connections of the Viking Age make it a remarkable story shared by many countries, not least here in the British Isles. New discoveries and research have led to a wealth of new information about the Vikings so it is a perfect moment to look again at this critical era.”
Reviewed by Patrick Harrington
Vikings: Life and Legend
Until 22 June then at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 10 September 2014 – 4 January 2015.
Details: 020-7323 8181