by Baronessa Lucrezia-Isabella di Freccia
The British Museum’s first Viking exhibition in thirty years opened last week and after viewing it, I believe they have more than made up for the absence.
Rather than focusing exclusively on finds from the original lands of the Vikings, the exhibition explores the culture and technology that spanned several continents over the centuries. Artefacts from their wide-flung net of trading partners, foreign settlements and raiding victims are presented; both the goods prized by the Vikings – such as Frankish swords and metalwork – and objects whose style and form they themselves influenced.
The walls were ornamented with quotes from contemporary Norse poetry, history, sagas, and foreign descriptions of the Vikings; whilst both male and female voices spoke in ancient Norse of the same. In the dimmed lighting, it was very atmospheric.
There were, of course, the expected articles of splendiferous gold Viking jewellery – some pieces almost overbearing in their ostentation – but I was also delighted to see a wide variety of the lesser precious metals; several hoards (including the Vale of York Hoard) of silver jewellery, coins and hack metal; and multiple pieces of copper-alloy ornaments and objects. The jewellery in particular is a study and a joy by itself, not only in its aesthetic beauty, but also the technical quality of the filigree, granulation, wirework and forming.
An interesting development I hadn’t known was that the popular trefoil (tri-lobed) brooches resulted from the conversion of Frankish belt strap mounts into women’s jewellery, so highly was their metalwork regarded. Several women’s necklaces of prized beads were displayed too, and I was amazed at just how bright and true the colours of some of the glass beads still were. I was particularly enamoured with a necklace of shimmering gold-foiled clear glass beads, and the pretty Islamic silver dinar repurposed into pendants, fit for both ornamentation and commerce.
Objects of everyday use – bone combs, bronze mirrors, boxes, kitchenware & tools of various materials (most notably a beautiful bone weft beater) – were featured also. One particularly interesting case showed the tools of the trader; balancing scales, weights, ingot moulds and the like, while the accompanying texts discussed the rise and creation of weight measurement and coinage, and the exchange of economic knowledge between the Vikings and those they came in contact with.
Passing from the material to the martial in the exhibition, the biggest display was the amazing remnants of a C.11th 37-metre long warship – a true giant amongst ships for the time – which was found in Roskilde fjord in Denmark. Like many of the artefacts, this has never been seen in the UK before. Screens alongside the ship depict the traditional building of a longboat, and show examples of the materials used, such as horsehair rope and flax sailcloth, that you can touch. The thickness and strength of the horsehair rope was particularly impressive.
Weapons, armour, shields and some rather lovely plunder feature in the last third of the exhibition – although the faint of heart might want to hurry past a couple of the cases, which contain bones from the mass burial of decapitated Vikings from Dorset, including the skull with filed teeth.
Sadly by this stage I had run out of time as the museum was shutting, so I will have to return to thoroughly view that last third. My ticket was for the Friday late evening, which was quite packed and the crowd moved very slowly, especially at the beginning. I recommend if you can do so, visit during the day or late afternoon, and give yourself at least two hours space.
Overall, this is another excellent exhibition by the British Museum, and probably a once in a lifetime chance to see many of these artefacts. If you can make it to London before the end of June, this should be one of your first stops!
Alas, my top recommendation for alcohol in the area, the Grape Street Winebar, has now closed down. There are several (untried) traditional pubs and other winebars in the area however. For food, French bistro Savoir Faire, just around the corner at Bloomsbury St/New Oxford St, has been a favourite dining spot of mine for the past 15 years. Bi Won next door is great for cheap, hearty peasant food or Korean BBQ if you feel like food as entertainment.
The British Museum is in Great Russell St, a short distance from both Tottenham Court Rd and Holborn tube stations. Both Goodge Street and Russell Square tube stations are also within close walking distance. The museum is open late Friday nights until 20:30.
ETA: The exhibition closed on 22 June 2014.