Saturday, February 15, 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend exhibit by Michelle Styles

As I love the Viking period, I am totally excited about the Viking exhibit which opens at the British Museum next month. I’ve booked my ticket and am really looking forward to seeing all the objects. That was even before my husband brought home the book of the exhibition which combines some of the latest research and thinking on the Vikings  -- Vikings: life and Legend ed. Gareth Williams.
The exhibit is the largest mounted  for the past 30 years and will be shown at the British Museum, the Museum of Berlin and the Danish National Museum. No word on if it will travel to the US. Among other things, it includes Roskilde 6 which is the largest Viking ship yet recovered. The tale of how the fragments were conserved was breath-taking. It took 15 years and included 48 months of vaccum freeze-drying in nine processes and more than 8,000 working hours so that it can be displayed in a way which makes sense. The conserved wood is mounted on a specially engineered steel frame so the sheer scale of the ship can be experienced. It is thought that Roskilde 6 was a royal ship and very brightly coloured when it was new. This ship was discovered when they were excavating for a new Viking Ship museum.
One of the more interesting facts from the book was about how some Vikings (predominantly in the East) not only sported tattoos  but also filed their teeth. The mere thought makes me wince.   There are reasons why the practice died out.
Teeth feature in much of the recent research because advances in isotype analysis allow archaeologists to discover where someone grew up. It is possible to tell  a bit more about what was actually happening and looking over large populations of skulls and skeletons to determine trends in the general population.
One of the big things that has happened is that Russia and the East have opened up. Under the Soviets, the Viking contribution to Russia was suppressed as  it was all supposed to be Slavic. The word Russia comes from Rus which is a word meaning from Scandinavia, primarily Sweden.  It is now clear that the Vikings did play a significant part in the development of Russia and some of the hordes and other objects are displayed in the exhibit for the first time in the West.
The other interesting bit that I learnt was about the current thinking about the Viking religion. Although some of the major gods and goddesses like Thor, Odin and Loki are familiar names, the actual religion is hugely opaque. Scholars are currently divided on whether or not the writing of the Eddas were an attempt to codify (and potentially discredit) the religion or not.  Much of what we know is contradictory.  It is now thought that the Norse religion might have been much looser and more localised. In other words, it is not like any of today’s world religions and was much more based on social behaviour and tradition.
One interesting aspect is the whole concept of  hamr and hugr or the Viking concept of the soul. There was a widespread belief about the ability to shape shift and that the outer human form or hamr was simply a vessel or shell for carrying the essence of hugr. They also believed that everyone had a fylgur or a follower spirit who would appear in dreams to warn of impending danger. They were inherited in families. Some of these aspects of Viking spirituality can still be found in Iceland. The conversion to Christianity was at time very violent and very political.
Anyway, the exhibit looks very exciting. There will be television programmes etc about the exhibition. You can learn more at the website but there will a live presentation of the exhibit  at cinemas across Britain (no idea about elsewhere) with Micheal Wood narrating on 24 April 2014

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods, including Viking. Her next novel Return of the Viking Warrior will be published in May 2014. You can read more about Michelle and her books on

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