Vikings! The Untold Story

February 27, 2013


On Monday I wrote about the Night of the Vikings event I attended in Edinburgh last week. The occasion for that event was the National Museum of Scotland’s current exhibition ‘Vikings! The Untold Story‘, which brings together over 500 amazing objects from the world-renowned collections of the Swedish History Museum.


When you think of Vikings, you think of big scary barbarians with scraggly beards and horned helmets, raiding and plundering their way along the European seaboard in their longboats, right? Well, think again, because the exhibition challenges you to suspend everything you’ve ever believed about the Vikings. First of all, there’s no such thing as ‘The Vikings’! Yes, you heard right. The idea or Vikings as a homogenous community is a 19th century invention. Secondly, they weren’t that big, their beards weren’t that scraggly, and as for their helmets…well, we’ll get to that.


Meet the Vikings sets the scene by addressing the question who or what exactly a Viking was. The ‘Viking Age’, which roughly lasted from 750 – 1100 AD, was a term invented by Scandinavian archaeologists in the 19th century, but there was in fact no such unified group of people. ‘Viking’ itself is an Old Norse word meaning ‘trade trip’ or ‘raid’, so you would ‘go on a Viking’. The rest of the time you’d just be a plain old peasant or trader. So there you have it, that’s your Viking bubble burst. But instead of this being the end, it’s just the beginning of the untold story this fascinating exhibition has to tell about the complex and diverse cultural Norse society living across Scandinavia at that time.


So, back to that idea of big scary barbarians. Well, sorry to disappoint you again, but the Vikings (I’ll just keep calling them that to avoid confusion^^) were only 5’6” on average (5’2” for the ladies). And they may be best known for their raids, but they were also into buying, bartering and trading and loved to surround themselves with beautiful things such as an Indian Buddha statue or exotic jewellery. They also took great care of their appearance, as we know through items such as combs, mirrors, tweezers and ear spoons (!), which are on display in the exhibition. And the torcs and costume brooches that they wore reveal differences in fashion and signalled regional identity. Not that barbaric sounding after all.


In Family Community and Homes – Colourful & Bustling we learn that land, farming and family were at the heart of Norse society, and that women ruled the household! Keys worn by the lady of the house were not just to keep their storehouses and barns under lock against thieves, but were also worn as a sign of power. Children, on the other hand, did not seem to come off so well. Only half of them reached the end of childhood and they were generally considered low value, though some Norse myths ascribe them superhuman powers. But both children and adults had to contend with harsh living conditions, and skeletal remains show evidence of diseases and hard physical labour. Families lived either in single farm settlements or villages. They enjoyed music, both for pleasure and ceremony and used plants to create coloured textiles.  And while we may associate runes with commemorative stone inscriptions or sacred amulets, they actually also used them for every day purposed such as personal messages or even graffiti.


More than just Worship takes a look at religious beliefs. Visitors can familiarise themselves with the Norse gods, several of whom gave their names to days of the week in Nordic languages, Dutch, German and English. Exhibits include pendents, amulets and written evidence of ancient Norse practices. Offerings to the gods as a kind of ‘home insurance’, e.g. in the from of so called thunder stones, were common. An old poem reads “he who carries one will not be struck by lightning, not the house the stone is kept in”. Most surprising to learn is perhaps that in a period of religious change, older Norse customs and beliefs were kept alongside a new belief in Christ. Eventually, however, they became less important and were abandoned.



By far the most impressive section of the exhibition, in terms of re-imagining the Vikings, is Norse Craftsmanship. Looking at some of the amazing and beautiful objects on display, you’d think the ‘Vikings’ would much rather be remembered for this than for that little bit of pillaging they did on the side. Their astonishing skills cover everything from iron, steel and precious metals; bone, horn and wood; to leather and textiles, clay and glass. Objects on display include jewellery and combs, glass beads and gaming pieces, decorative mounts and fittings, wood carvings, and weapons; as well as tools such as bone needles or bronze moulds, which they would have had to make first. There’s even the remains of a blast pipe from an iron furnace.



Most popular images of the ‘Vikings’ picture them at sea in their longboats, and the last three sections of the exhibition all prominently feature the sea. The Living & the Dead looks at different burial customs, which often involved the body being placed in a ship – especially for aristocratic funerals – which was then burned or buried. The absolute highlight object of the exhibition has to be the ‘boat’ displayed here, which in fact consists entirely of the surviving iron rivets which have been suspended by nylon string to recreate its shape.



Away on Business looks at Vikings in Scotland and across Europe, their trade routes, settlements and political connections which resulted in a cultural melting pot of political ideas, religious beliefs and the trade of luxury goods. And, finally, in Over the Sea we learn that besides the long boat war ships, they also had other ships for other purposed, such as ocean going trading ships or coastal and river sailing ships. And an obsession with silver an beads, though it is unknown how much of what was found was plunder and how much payment for traded goods.


For those you like a more interactive way of engaging, there are plenty of activities to get your hands on. A series of touch screens allow visitors e.g. to help Torbjörn the Viking find the right clothes, tools and accessories for different occasions; watch the creation of the world according to ancient Norse sagas; excavate a Viking boat grave; build a ship a longboat or play a game of hnefetafl. There are also various bits of film footage, a replica sword to handle, magnetic runes to write your name with and audio posts with some Norse myths to listen too. At the end of the exhibition you can text your new found knowledge with an on screen quiz.


As you can see, there’s a lot more to the Vikings that meets the eye. If you’re anywhere near Edinburgh before 12th May, you should definitely check out the exhibition for yourselves. I visited first thing in the morning, and half an hour later it was already really busy, showing just how popular it is. Just make sure you leave your horned helmets at the door. Because those are actually also a 19th century invention. Sorry.


Photographs taken with kind permission by the National Museum of Scotland.

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4 Responses to “Vikings! The Untold Story”

  1. Serena Says:

    Sehr interessante Erläuterung und wunderbare Photos! Leider kann ich nicht diese faszinierende Ausstellung besichtingen…



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