by Roderick Conway Morris

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British Museum, London
The Roskilde 6, at 37 meters or about 120 feet the largest Viking longship ever found

The Saga of the Vikings, Expanded

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON, England 30 April 2014


The art historian Kenneth Clark once observed that at some time in the ninth century, one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river.

'Looked at today, it is a powerful work of art,' Clark said in the introduction to his television series 'Civilization' in the late 1960s. 'But to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable - as menacing to her civilization as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.'

'Vikings: Life and Legend,' currently at the British Museum, has at its center an exhibit to evoke the terror that the arrival of the Norsemen once spread: the remains of an enormous 11th-century Viking warship. At 37 meters, or about 120 feet, in length, Roskilde 6 is the largest such vessel ever found.

'The catalyst for the show was the discovery of this huge ship and the fact that for the first time the Danes constructed a remarkable steel frame to support the remains that can be dismantled, making it possible for it to travel to other locations,' Tom Williams, project curator of the exhibition, said. 'We have made the idea of the ship in Viking society and the global network that they built through their mastery of maritime technology the central theme of the show.

The longship was unearthed along with nine other ships in the harbor area of the cathedral city of Roskilde in Denmark in 1997 and underwent 15 years of preservation to its ancient timbers. Thanks to dendrochronology, it has been confirmed that the trees used to construct it date from around 1025 in the area of Oslo Fjord.

Its display here, along with more than 320 pieces and groups of objects from museums in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and Russia, inaugurates the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, the British Museum's first space built for temporary shows. The exhibition, in London through June 22, moves to the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin on Sept. 10. It includes new material never before displayed - a double debt to technology and geopolitics.

'Through advances in techniques such as the use of metal detectors, the rate of discovery of finds has increased vastly over the last few years,' Mr. Williams said. Another major factor, he said, was the change in the political situation, which made it possible to secure loans from Russia and Eastern Europe - 'something that would not have been remotely possible before.' (Although, given the latest events in Ukraine, this kind of East-West cultural cooperation is clearly under threat.)

The geographic range of objects 'has allowed us not only to give a much fuller picture of the Vikings in the East but also the importance of this route for their contacts with the Islamic world - which, for example, was a massive source of silver in the form of dirham coins,' he said.

'Contacts & Exchanges,' the opening section of the show, offers a dazzling array of excavated Viking hoards from locations as far flung as the shores of the Irish Sea and the banks of the Dnieper River. One of the most recently discovered, in 2007, was the Vale of York Hoard from the 10th century, the most significant in the British Isles since the Cuerdale Hoard was found in Lancashire in 1840 (parts of which are also on display here).

Shown here for the first time in its entirety, the Vale of York Hoard contains more than 600 coins, six arm rings, and ingots and scrap silver, as well as a Frankish silver cup, brimming with coins, which was almost certainly originally an ecclesiastical vessel looted from a church. Other objects from as far east as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan would have had to travel thousands of miles along land, river and sea routes before ending up in the north of England.

These British hoards are accompanied by others from Russia, including the Gnezdovo Hoard from Smolensk and the Lyuboyezha Hoard from the Ilmensee region of Russia, both rich in men's and women's jewelry with both Nordic and Slavic characteristics.

Viking raiding and trading, however, were not confined to precious objects, metals and stones. A slave collar from Dublin and an ankle shackle from Mecklenburg in Germany remind us that Vikings were very active slave traders, capturing adults and children in raids, both to sell them or to keep as domestic servants and laborers known as thralls (from which English derives the expression 'in thrall,' or in a state of servitude).

Arab travelers give eyewitness accounts of Vikings transporting slaves down the Russian rivers towards Islamic lands. And DNA evidence from Iceland suggests that while the males are almost all of Scandinavian origin, there is a significant element of Irish and Scots DNA among the females, most of whom probably arrived as slaves.

An elegant pair of scales from Germany suggest more peaceable trading practices. There are also lead weights with unique designs to avoid fraudulent switching during transactions. But the Anglo-Saxon coins set into some of these may have been gained through robbery or extortion.

Scandinavia through much of the Viking age consisted of a patchwork of small kingdoms and fiefdoms. Banded together, they could launch fleets of scores of ships carrying thousands of warriors, as they did when they devastated and occupied wide swaths of England between 865 and 878.

But they were frequently in conflict with one another. One of the most arresting manifestations of Viking one-upmanship was the increasing size of decorative silver and gold brooches. Among the more arresting examples here, from Cumbria, Ireland, the Orkneys, Scandinavia and Russia, one from Norway has a pin 36 centimeters, or more than 14 inches, long.

Viking warships were especially formidable on account of their range and speed, which assured an element of shock to their enemies, and of their shallow draughts, which meant that they could rapidly be beached in coastal shores and penetrate deep inland via river systems. Roskilde 6 was powered by up to 40 pairs of oars and had a draught calculated to have been a mere 83.5 centimeters.

But Viking raiders did not always have it their own way, as demonstrated by the evidence from a mass grave found at Weymouth along the south coast of England in 2009.

Around 50 young male skeletons from the early 11th century, identified by the latest methods of scientific analysis to have been of mostly Scandinavian origin, were unearthed in this mass burial site. They appear to be from a medium-size Viking warship, the crew of which was seemingly cornered, disarmed (few of the wounds are of a type inflicted in battle), stripped and systematically decapitated, the heads having been piled up away from the bodies.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023