I live within a short walk of a museum mostly dedicated to local history and archaeology. Of course, this is in York, which has played a significant part in several crucial events in English and British history. The Romans had a military base here; it was an important site for the Anglo-Saxon church; it was one of the biggest cities in medieval England, with a large abbey which was destroyed during the Reformation; one of the first great railway lines passed through here; and just a few weeks ago both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn chose the city for some pre-election speeches. So an exhibition about a period of national and international history is one about local history too. Viking: Rediscover the Legend, a major exhibition put together by the Yorkshire Museum and the British Museum, is on in York now and will remain here until the 5th of November, when it will set sail for the University of Nottingham Museum, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery, and Norwich Castle Museum. At York, entrance is included in the standard admission charge, which means that those of us with a YMT card can go as often as we like, and I have been making great use of this facility.
The exhibition is situated in the downstairs part of the museum, which is normally the medieval room. It is, admittedly a slightly cramped space in which to stage such a large event, given that it is mostly made up of the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, in which the museum is located; but then, when you think about how many monasteries the Vikings destroyed, it’s kind of an appropriate setting.
Most of the exhibits have been taken from the combined collections of the two museums. Although the Vikings travelled far and wide (one of the videos points out that they had contacts with four continents, a fact that I had been basically aware of, but I was still astounded to hear it put like that), the emphasis is placed on their invasions in Britain and Ireland, and in York and Yorkshire above all. Yet for all that, the main narrative of the exhibition is one of long-term settlement and cultural synthesis.
Scandinavians on the move
The opening part of the exhibition is concerned with how, between 800 and 1050, various peoples came to leave their Danish, Swedish and Norwegian homelands and go raiding, initially amongst religious houses in the Scottish islands and Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Here, Scandinavian society is characterised through artefacts of war and peace – an axe, a sword, a warrior’s arm ring, but also women’s jewellery, and a rattle used in ceremonies to honour their many gods. From a short, informative video featuring an expert from the British Museum, I learned that the Vikings’ success had a lot to do with the design of their boats – strong enough to withstand long sea voyages, but also shallow enough to get down rivers and deep inland. But their culture was about trading as well as raiding: a number of Arabic coins found in Scandinavian possession attest to that. But most striking of all in this part of the exhibition is a small eighth-century bowl found in Ormside, Cumbria, decorated with religious scenes and presumably once belonging to a monastery, which was later transformed into a Viking’s cup.
Anglo-Saxon England under threat
Reused objects are a fascinating and recurrent theme in the exhibition, which continues by focusing on life in the threatened kingdoms of Britain and Ireland (the division of the islands at the time being portrayed on a handy map): particularly arresting is a Christian cross from Weston, north-west of Leeds, which was later recarved with an image of a Viking taking a female hostage, interpreted as possibly one who was forced to return with him to Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxon part of the exhibition does, of course, give an excellent opportunity to show off the Yorkshire Museum’s star exhibit, the York Helmet; yet some other finds, some also excavated in nearby Coppergate, are no less fascinating. I was particularly taken by this amusing little whalebone handle, for example, and this selection of strap ends.
I would have liked a little more detail on how both were used – sometimes seeing an object out of context in a museum can make it difficult to envisage its use in real life. Still, the Gilling Sword (dating from the ninth century and discovered in Gilling West, North Yorkshire), which survives complete with its decorative mounts, helped me to contextualise something I had seen elsewhere: the fantastic collection of similar mounts in the Staffordshire Hoard (now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
Conflict and confluence
The largest part of the exhibition, however, focuses on the impact of the invasions, and on the long-term settlement that followed. Hoards of silver and coins are prominent here – the huge Vale of York hoard, discovered locally in 2007, which attests to the wide trading links of the Viking world; and the similar Bedale hoard: but was this buried by a Viking who’d struck lucky, or by a not-so-lucky Anglo-Saxon who buried his treasure in the hope of returning later? We don’t know – and, indeed, invaders and invaded grew to resemble one another in several ways. The Vikings, unused to minting coins of their own, copied Anglo-Saxon designs. In some cases they didn’t quite manage to reproduce them successfully; in others, they started to combine Latin with Norse, and pagan symbols with crosses. A grave cover was decorated with the Norse story of Sigurðr slaying the dragon – and then buried beneath York Minster, probably containing the body of a convert to Christianity.
Following a battle with the kings of Dál Riata and Pictland in 839, the Vikings conquered the northern and western isles of what is now Scotland; a few decades later, they landed in East Anglia, ultimately controlling half of England, as well as parts of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish coasts, including Dublin. The invasion of York took place on All Saints’ Day, 866: important enough under Anglo-Saxon rule, the city now grew to become ‘the largest town in the Viking world’: this was a fact that I had not realised and which surprised me. Viking York is depicted as a city of trade and cultural interchange, represented through the small items that make up everyday life: jewellery, shoes, ice skates, even toys.
Be your own Viking
The middle part of the exhibition is also notable for a large magnetic version of the Viking boardgame Hnefatafal and the opportunity to dress up as a Viking and try out some wooden swords, which were being fearsomely used by a pair of children on one of my visits. But if dressing up isn’t realistic enough for you, then why not take a look through a virtual reality helmet? There are four of them located in a side room, each one designed to give a different view, in all directions, of an encampment of the Viking Great Army in Yorkshire in the 870s – tents, crackling fires, animals, the stars above and the ground below. It even has some kind of nosepiece to allow you to breathe in the scent of burning wood (although I noticed that the heady aroma of animal manure was absent from the nasal reconstruction).
Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings’ image in popular culture is represented towards the end of the exhibition – everything from Nazi recruitment posters (‘Northmen, fight for Norway!’) to Lego longships to ‘sexy Viking’ romance novels (yes, they’re a thing). But there is no attempt here to define who exactly the Vikings were: instead, we are reminded that
The Vikings of Britain were not the same as the people in Scandinavia. What it meant to be Viking changed as people travelled, settled, mixed and were influenced by the cultural connections and contacts they made. They were transformed by their contact with this island, and they transformed it too.
The objects chosen to create our final view of the Vikings before the exhibition ends reflect these transformations. This is a tenth- or eleventh-century stone commemorating the foundation of a church (in what is now Castlegate, York) by two people, perhaps a couple, with the Norse names of Grim and Aese.
Cultural confluence in all its forms is the story of this exhibition: in the aggressive recarving of a religious monument to commemorate an invasion; in the inaccurate reproduction of native coinage; but also in the peaceful infusion of Scandinavian style into household objects, and of Norse legendary symbolism into Christian iconography.
But who could leave without wanting a tiny peek into the face of a Viking, itself carved by a Viking? This tiny bone plaque dug up in Clifford Street, York, has become quite literally the face of the exhibition: