Expanding our view of the Vikings
A more nuanced look at the Vikings
With the exploding popularity of Vikings, in large part due to the entertaining but not often accurate depiction put out by the History Network, one wonders what the public believes about these people.
“Vikings,” an exhibit now debuting at Discovery Times Square in New York, is a breath of fresh air that tries to eliminate the cobwebs, bring forth the light, and balance out who the Vikings actually were. It gives long shrift to women, dispels many myths, such as the wearing of horned helmets, and brings a much more comprehensive look at these people and their culture. As the New York Times writes, “What’s most interesting about the exhibition, though, is the way it places Vikings within the evolving world. It includes, for instance, a shell found on Gotland, the Swedish island, that came from the waters off distant Cyprus, because one thing Vikings were good at was getting around.”
Created by the Swedish History Museum in partnership with MuseumsPartner (based in Austria), this exhibit follows contemporary museum design practice and is organized thematically. It begins with a short film, “We Call Them the Vikings,” and is loosely organized into the themes of Family/Community, Home, More than Worship, The Living and the Dead, Norse Craftsmanship, Away on Business, and Over the Sea.
Perhaps the most important thing to clarify at the onset is that the Vikings did not identify themselves as such. It is a term given to them by others. Much of humanity’s knowledge of the Vikings has been superimposed by words written by outsiders. When a culture has a mostly oral rather than written tradition, this often happens. It is also easy for those others to get it wrong, to foist one’s biases, and to say what is expedient for political gain. The Norse people were certainly not immune to these shenanigans. This exhibit explains that the people of Scandinavia did “go a Viking,” to trade and/or raid. It was an activity, not an identity. They mostly identified themselves as farmers.
I love studying the Viking Age and have traveled long distances to reach museums and archeological sites associated with them. I have stood on the site of Iceland’s Althing and had a bird’s eye view of it from a helicopter. I have journeyed to the northern tip of Newfoundland to first experience Vinland by sea. So, I am definitely a Vikingophile. Full disclosure—I even watch The History Channel’s Viking series.
And I believe that people of Scandinavian descent yearn for more knowledge about the people from whom they are descended. Is this exhibit worth seeing for those of us of Scandinavian descent? You betcha. It contains almost 500 artifacts that have never been seen before outside of Scandinavia.
I was fortunate to have a chance to speak with some of the folks responsible for this exhibit, and their insight added substance to this already significant exhibit. I don’t want to give away too much, but I definitely want to titillate your interest and encourage you to see the exhibit yourself. With that in mind, I will focus on some highlights and some findings that were new to me.
First, it is wonderful that this exhibit includes a rich take on females in Viking culture, who actually had a lot of power and respect. Keys played an important role in regards to women. They were a symbol of a woman’s power and proliferate here, some utilitarian and some symbolic. Additionally, the textile craft of spinning, which was done by women, is more than practical. It is tied to female Fates found in Norse mythology—the Nornir. It is said that they spun the threads of not only human beings but all life, including gods, dwarves, and giants—and could cut it short if they chose to.
The exhibit has a fun section with articles of replica Viking Age clothing hanging up. In front of the display is a way to virtually dress a person of your choosing, like virtual paper dolls. This one had a catch: if you didn’t put on the clothing in the correct order for dressing their layers or for their station in life, your avatar would cross her hands in front of her chest, shake her head, and wait for you to do it correctly. So, it was a fun way to learn not only what people wore, but also that there were different degrees of wealth. It would have not have resonated as well if the actual clothes hadn’t been included. Although you can’t touch the apparel, they evoke a real sense of color, texture, and fiber.
One interesting fact I learned about women’s clothing involved the intricate large brooches worn on their tunics. These were derived from a sword shield used by the Franks, an example of Viking ingenuity and adaptation. On that note I also loved seeing bones made into ice skates. I had no idea that folks had taken to gliding on frozen ice so long ago.
Grooming is also emphasized for both males and females. One text points out that most male graves were equipped with an ax and a comb. Ready for the next life, they expected to continue their work as farmers and warriors, but they also intended to look good.
Besides farming, the Vikings were amazing seafarers. This is evidenced in the exhibit’s introductory film and the first artifact you encounter, a replica of the Gokstad ship.
There are also examples of the different types of ships Vikings built for different purposes, such as the Knarr, used for cargo. One can watch the virtual construction of a ship, known as the “horse of the sea.” Many Viking ships have been found, but according to the exhibit’s text, “no sails have survived from the Viking times.”
One thing unique in this exhibit was the inclusion of the environmental impact resulting from ships’ construction. The Vikings deforested all of Iceland within 50 years. It took 600 horse tails to produce the rope necessary for one boat.
The craftsmanship section is built in a circle and has huge curlicued figures, reminiscent of wood shavings, dividing each station. Here gold and silver shimmers. The beauty and intricacy of the pieces on view here are worth the visit alone. Take your time in this section, so you can truly absorb the skills these people possessed and realize the extent to which beauty was a core value in this society—utilitarian objects always incorporate good design and embellishment.
Here you will also find a wonderful tactile object—a replica Viking Age sword. Its weight is calibrated to what would have been used at the time. It was much heavier than I expected, which made me realize the strength and skill needed to wield it effectively.
This exhibit encompasses two floors. At the end of the first floor is a section where one can sit and hear a storyteller sharing Viking myths, a lovely touch. This was tied to the “More than Worship” section on the second floor, which is a treasure trove. Norse cosmology is beautifully incorporated into a lovely and informative circular space, explaining the main gods and how the Vikings organized their world. At the center lies Yggdrasil, the tree of life. The technology at this site allows you to see a visual layering of their world and to go into depth about the creation of the world and their beliefs.
Vikings came into contact with many other cultures and religions, the most influential being Christianity. So people would often mix and follow precepts from both religions. One lovely indication of this mix is the display of three Viking Age crosses.
Deer, ubiquitous in Nordic folk art, were included in this section, as deer became a symbol of Christ in Scandinavia. I found this fascinating and wondered if was at all influenced by the Sámi story of creation. The Sámi believe that a white deer sacrificed itself to create the world. Its veins became the rivers, its horns the mountains, its fur the forests, and its stomach the oceans.
One interesting museum text stated, “Scandinavian people had things in common—elements of language, art, myth, and gods, but they did not share one single culture or religion. And evidence reveals many differences, for instance in clothing, and jewelry, and in the way people buried their dead.” Of course, this all makes sense, as Scandinavian geography can be isolating. They also traded with a variety of cultures, often settling where they once traded and somewhat blending into the existing culture.
In Scandinavian death rituals, you see cremation, burial mounds, and the Christian underground burials. People went to different places in the afterlife, mostly based on gender. Females and children went to Hell, which is very cold. However, a woman warrior would accompany her male companions to Valhalla. Another interesting fact is that bread was often sacrificed. “Bread is often found in graves, but it is not clear why it was placed there. The oldest preserved bread dates from the 5th c.,” says the museum text.
This section has a marvelous tool that allows you to virtually uncover a Viking burial grave. Cleverly, they have included four screens, eliminating the long lines that often wrap around this type of technology. In view of the dig is an ephemeral collage of white nylon line interspersed with nails. If you examine it closely you can see the outline of a Viking ship—in the manner that it would be found when excavated. It is often the nails of a ship that remain, rather than the wooden planks, which often disintegrate. It is the strata of the nails that creates the elegant shape of this ghost ship.
Sound is included in many of the exhibit’s displays, and I thought it was a nice touch; it was evocative and made the farms and trading towns come to life. Usually, a museum is quiet and contemplative, but this enhanced the experience and brought a sense of place that artifacts cannot.
I organized this review on artifacts and exhibit texts that fit together for me from both floors. I would suggest you enjoy the flow and see what connects for you. This is a very extensive exhibit. I spent almost three hours at it and recommend that if you have the opportunity to see it, you also give yourself enough time to enjoy all it offers.
I asked Sophie Nyman, Director of Exhibitions from the Swedish History Museum, to explain to our readers why they should see this exhibit: “This exhibit is special because it gives a broader image of the Viking Age, not as one dimensional, but multi-faceted. It uses the stereotypes you have in mind, but gives them much more depth, details, and facts about the Viking Age. It was such a skillful society. Their image has been of one of brutality. We have wanted to show the diversity—the role of the women, the craftsmanship, the concept of going very far away, how you navigate, the internal life of myths, gods, and sagas, and how they are a very important part of life. When you go out from this exhibit you say, ‘Aha, I didn’t know that.’”
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.