Where did the Vikings come from?
An exhibit currently at Seattle’s Nordic Museum examines the origins of Viking society
As you step into the Nordic Museum’s exhibit rooms of “The Vikings Begin: Treasures from Uppsala University,” you leave the dramatic, well-lit “fjord” hallway and are plunged into darkness. This fits the notion that much about the Vikings is shrouded in mystery, especially where they came from (and also preserves the delicate artifacts on display). As your eyes adapt in the dark, several backlit panels appear explaining that what you’re about to see is a collection of artifacts from Gustavianum, the University of Uppsala Museum.
Together with an animated map and a video, you learn how Viking society dominated Norway, Sweden, and Denmark from 750 to 1050A CE, founding settlements along the shores of the Baltic Sea, the banks of Russian rivers, the British Isles, and the Mediterranean coast. They also visited Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and even North America.
This exhibit contains artifacts from burial sites at Valsgärde, north of Uppsala, Sweden, which were excavated in the 1920s and 1950s. Much of what was found at Valsgärde dates to the seventh and eighth centuries, which preceded the Viking Age. This discovery enabled archeologists to piece together the complex story of why and when Viking society began—hence the exhibit’s title.
The exhibit sets maritime history at the core of Viking society. Before the well-known Viking raids of the eighth and ninth centuries, there was substantial trade of pre-Vikings made possible by open ocean-going sailing ships, similar to those found in later Viking burial sites. You can see a diminutive clinker-built ship in the exhibit that served as the burial “chamber” for two women in the late 600s CE. The sailing history of this small ship isn’t known, but the backdrop behind the boat depicting the open ocean reminds visitors how adventurous the Vikings were.
Other artifacts include intricate bronze brooches from 900 CE, which served as clasps holding up the hangerock (apron dress) of Viking women. There are also brass helmets with intricate designs worked into the metal, a sign of status. Coins collected from Byzantium, Carolingian, and Anglo-Saxon England shows that pre-Vikings valued currency even though they had none of their own.
Vikings traded items such as glass, amber, slaves, grains, furs, and metals. Two glass vessels on exhibit from Byzantium show how far glass-making technology had advanced by the 600s CE.
Animal head decorations were common on helmets, swords, leather braces (arm protection) and on gilded horse harnesses. You have to look closely to see these amazing details. Owning a horse, by the way, meant you ranked highly in society; warriors were even buried with their horses.
The exhibit doesn’t skip over the well-known, brutal Viking raids, but the exhibit emphasizes that violence was a way of organizing social relationships in the martial society.
“The Vikings Begin” has been on exhibit in 2018 at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and is now at the Nordic Museum in Seattle from October to April 2019. It is then slated to open in Minneapolis in May 2019.
Eric Stavney is a graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.