History · Vikings

Review of the “Viking” museum exhibit

Just when you thought the reputation of the Norsemen was getting rehabilitated, along comes this article from Smithsonian, giving a good overview of what sounds like an awesome museum exhibit, “Vikings,” opening next month in London and then moving on to Berlin. The article has a pretty silly tone, but the exhibit itself sounds first-rate. (Much more at the link.)

By focusing on the violence of Viking society, the new exhibition revives the traditional image of Vikings as Dark Age bad boys—Pillage People, if you will, who bullied Britain and France, and even made it as far as Baghdad.

The showstopper is a Viking warship whose surviving timbers are on display for the first time. One hundred twenty-one feet from prow to stern, the boat was capable of carrying 100 troops at speed. It was discovered by chance in 1996, about a lance throw from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. “Warships of this kind are comparatively rare finds, and this is the largest known,” says Neil Price, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It serves as a symbol of the Viking raids, and also an indicator of the sophistication of the societies that launched them.”

With the publication of Peter Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings in 1962, a cuddly makeover began to change the popular perception of the Nordic voyagers. “We Danes call that softening stueren,” says Anne Sorensen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum. “The expression means ‘to clean something up enough so that it is appropriate to discuss in your living room.’” The reboot coincided with what Pedersen terms “a great investment in settlement excavations.” Suddenly, the Vikings were peaceful farmers, shrewd traders, artists and craftsmen of considerable subtlety and sophistication, early multiculturalists.

Norse poetry—the “waves on the shore of the mind-sea,” as the Vikings described it—was reclaimed as some of the most carefully constructed and beautifully rendered of any ancient civilization. “This attempt to present ‘new’ Vikings to the world was quite successful,” allows Price, “but it also tended to act as a kind of replacement—the old violent Vikings had become instead caring, sharing ones.” What Williams dismisses as a “fluff-bunny” rehabilitation reached its reductio ad absurdum in the Monty Python sketch in which fun-loving Vikings at a café in the London suburbs chorus “Spam, Spammity Spam, wonderful Spam.”

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