Sunday, 2 March 2014

Vikings at the British Museum

This afternoon I was lucky enough to be a part of the advance rape and pillage expedition to the new Sainsbury wing of the British Museum. The Viking show which opens 6th March is the first major exhibition on these fascinating people at the British Museum for over 30 years. The press release says that 'it features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artifacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland'. They continue, 'new interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders'.

The interest already generated about this exhibition through associated TV/Radio programmes etc. will ensure its overwhelming success. The queues this afternoon were astonishing. The lines of people slowly winding around the conveyor belt style layout were adrenaline sparking, 'just get me out of there' inducing, panic attack awful. But that might just be me.

The exhibition opened with a fascinating background to the Scandinavian people; taking into account geography, language, literature and life style. Essentially, how did these seafarers 'become' the warrior stereotype? As I am a cowardly English person, I avoided the winding slow movement of bodies and dashed past the bling. A quick glance perfected by time spent in a Marrakesh souk revealed that the artistry of these hoards was stunning. Wealth and status was all.

I found myself among the objects of a more domestic nature and a simple wooden platter from 1200s made me stop. The quote from Hávamál n 1270,

A greedy bloke unless he curbs his bent
Will eat himself in to lifelong grief
He's often derided when he cones among the wise
A man who's a fool in the belly

Clearly obesity was something they wanted to avoid even then. I liked the decorated drinking horn holder nearby. These simple objects seemed more 'real', treasured and useful than the piled up valuables in the previous cases.

The next items to strike me were the leg shackles which they used to immobilise their human cargo. Like the Romans and many other civilisation before, slavery was a central part of their economy. Fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. The piles of raw amber and polished jet were a beautiful sight and you instinctively knew that these semi precious stones would have held instant appeal to these gaudy and colourful traders.

From one civilisation to another; the Islamic empire was intimately acquainted with the Viking world. It was quite a surprise to see an Arabic name making reference to a description of a Viking raid. The catalogue (p70-71) has a small piece on this connection and says that two separate regions were involved - Muslim Spain and Morocco as well as the Middle East and Central Asia. The fact that Vikings were called magus/magi is quite brilliant. My mind now imagines violent northern warrior riding camels carrying gold etc...but apparently magi just means 'unbeliever'. Some of the more practical ideas which the Vikings took from this advanced culture was stirrups - the decorated elongated stirrups and horse bridle paraphernalia was stunning.

I had now lost the people and I headed up a quiet ramp. I turned the corner and the second huge room opened out in front of me. The long boat which is the important centre of the exhibition - psychological, physically, culturally - is beautiful in its grace and elegant shape. The ship is extraordinary in comparison to the usual smaller boats and clearly belonged to someone very high status. There is a wonderful exploration of the building of these ships, with films demonstrating the modern reconstructions of a smaller warship.

The far end of this room is illuminated by an ever changing seascape; from morning to evening the sun travels across the sea and the sense of time passing is palpable. Given that the topics in this space cover warriors, religion, Gods, magic, death and Christianity, this change in atmosphere is rather moving. The stone carving which stands, outlined against the projection is breath taking, a lovely curatorial touch.

I was fascinated by the religious aspects. So much of what we know now is imagined from Wagner and romantic sources of the c19th. I had no idea that shape-shifting was central; after death, men became bears and wolves, sea creatures and birds for women. Streams, lakes and groves were places of worship. Thor was important for seafarers as he controlled thunder and lightening. Odin as leader of gods represented warriors, prophesy, magic and had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Norns were female beings controlling the fate of the world. I could go on...magic was practiced by powerful women.

Death is shown in the ship shaped pattern of stones, and the wooden ships which have rotted away leaving only the rivets. This small ship burial of a warrior affected me more than the awe-inspiring king's long boat looming above me. The space that the non-boat inhabited was the place of someone's interment, a grave, a place of peace for a warrior. It was beautifully presented.

Finally, Christianity reached the North and all artistic invention and development ceased. They incorporated Christ into their pantheon of gods,and the imagery and style changed very little. The rather Byzantine crucifix has that air of languid, unemotional unimportance. Unlike the power reflected in the tiny pre-Christian animal carvings close by, which is stronger by far. We end on the tomb/egg symbolism which is a perfect place given our emergence from Winter into Spring

The photography was also a highlight. Images are important in exhibitions because they say so much. The dramatic and often inhospitable landscape contributed much to the success of  this civilisation, so to see it is vital. It colours and animates what could be a dark opening space. Yet the photos aren't all glaciers and frozen waterfalls; Dorset's rolling hills provide a gentle backdrop to the slain Viking force.

The exhibition will be a triumph whatever is written. I will be going to see it again simply because there is so much I have yet to enjoy. I wonder if the space is awkward because this is a new building? Teething issues? I hope that future exhibitions will remove the walls and open up the 'conveyor belt' walk around? If it wasn't for the exquisite exhibits and the worthwhile text base sources, this space would be incredibly hard to like. Still, I would give this a 'go see' recommendation - tell me what you think!

The Vikings opens 6 Mar and runs to 22 Jun at the British Museum.

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