Vikings land at British Museum, but without the horns

LONDON Thu Mar 6, 2014 12:06pm GMT

1 of 5. A woman views the 'Lewis Chessmen' at the British Museum in London March 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

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LONDON (Reuters) - The Viking exhibition opening on Thursday at the British Museum has axes, swords, helmets, dragon figureheads and, as its centrepiece, a 37-metre-long (121-feet) Viking warship that is the longest ever excavated.

What might be jarring, though, is that the dragonheads are tiny ones on a brooch; only 20 percent of the wooden ship survived centuries of immersion in the mud of a Danish harbour, so most of what is on display is a huge stainless-steel frame; and none of the helmets in the exhibition is fitted with horns.

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

Pressed as to how definite that is, Williams added: "Archaeologists would never say never, but there's no evidence whatsoever" for horns on helmets.

This is partly what has irked the British press, some of whose reviewers have found the exhibition, given the Vikings' well-earned reputation for rape and pillage, to be a little colourless 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 the corpses of their brethren strewn 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 artefacts compare with things being made at the same time by Baltic and Slav peoples....I felt like crying."

Mark Hudson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said the sombre grey 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.

SCANDINAVIAN UPSURGE

But if Hudson picked up a scent of "Nordic Noir", that was exactly what the creators of the exhibition wanted.

"There's been this huge upsurge in interest in all things Scandinavian recently, in particular the Scandinavian crime dramas, the 'Nordic Noir', and I think to some degree that's inspired people from this country to reevaluate the relationship with Scandinavia," Williams said.

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, and people perhaps are trying to think about why this might be and seeing the historical connections," he said.

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.

The exhibition, which runs until June 22, also 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 maritime technology, manifested in the warship, allowed them not only to cross the Atlantic to Newfoundland but to sail Russian rivers and the Baltic Sea to Byzantium.

"The overarching theme of the exhibition really is cultures and contacts, 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," Williams said.

The exhibition is a joint project of the Danish National Museum, where it opened last year, and the National Museums in Berlin, where it travels next.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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