LONDON The British Museum is about to trash the popular stereotype of the horn-helmeted Viking marauder, with a thorough look at the warrior society that left its mark across parts of the world.
"Vikings: life and legend" is the first major UK exhibition in 30 years to explore the impact of the sea-going Scandinavians who pillaged, traded and travelled from the Arctic circle to North America in the 8th to the early 11th centuries.
The March-June 2014 show will transform the image of the bloodthirsty raider - taken from accounts of their victims - to a more rounded picture of a warrior people who were also great traders, mariners and artisans.
"They may be thugs, but they're thinking thugs," British Museum Director Neil MacGregor told Reuters, saying that new archaeological discoveries and scientific advances had increased understanding of the Viking appetite for war, but also trade, shipbuilding, craftwork, culture and empire-building.
Exhibition curator Gareth Williams said the show would re-examine Viking identity, their global trading network, magic, religion and the role of the warrior in Viking society.
"Raider or trader. It's not either or, it's both," he said.
Viking loot, with hoards of jewellery, gold and precious objects from as far away as Afghanistan, will help visitors understand the power and prestige of the Norse world.
"One of their most favourite ways of expressing power was basically bling," Williams said.
The warrior mentality which drove them to plunder Europe will not be ignored.
"Dying in bed was seen as disgraceful," Williams said. "That depended on how you died in bed, but battle was seen as preferable."
The surviving timbers of the longest Viking ship ever found, known as the Roskilde 6, will be at the heart of the exhibition.
The 37-metre (120 ft) ship, excavated from a Danish Fjord in 1997, demonstrates the shipbuilding skills which allowed the Vikings to extend their influence.
Visitors will also get to learn about religion and why the seated figure in one statue of shape-shifting chief god Odin appears to be wearing women's clothes.
"He's not just a shape-changer," Williams said. "He's also a cross-dresser."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)