Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum is set to explode some myths about the hordes (and their hoards)

Curator Gareth Williams tells Zander Swinburne the truth about history’s favourite hairy marauders

1. They were horny devils

"Not true. That they wore horned helmets is simply a 19th-century myth. We have few surviving helmets from this period, but none are shown as horned; we also have picture representations and written accounts of helmets, and none of them depict them with horns either."

2. They could have done with a shower

"It's not the case that they were filthy and unkempt; in the exhibition we have a number of combs and even a nail filer we know they used. Combs are some of the most common finds in Viking burials. The Vikings even had little spring-loaded clippers which could trim a beard very nicely. If we look at contemporary carvings, they don't show people with straggly hair and wild beards; there were even Vikings with nicknames such as Citric Silkbeard, so appearance was important. We also have a number of fantastic pieces of jewellery, some very cumbersome, so it's unrealistic to think that they'd go through all that and not care about their appearance."

3. They fought to the death

"Contrary to this image, we found a mass grave near Weymouth, a crew of around 50 people whose bodies were buried separately from their heads. The injuries were all around the head and neck, not the usual range of battle injuries, so what it looks like is that we found a ship of Vikings who surrendered and were then beheaded. The consequences of warfare during this period were severe, whether you were a Viking or an Anglo Saxon. Being on the receiving end was not like playing a computer game."

4. They kept their raids close to home

"Actually, the Vikings didn't keep to north- western Europe at all: they were the first group of cultures to have connections across four continents. We've got accounts of them raiding Morocco and as far east as the Caspian Sea. There's even evidence of them getting as far over as modern Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, as they had a lot of eastern trading contacts. The Vikings were bold enough to sail down into the Black Sea and at one stage attacked modern Istanbul. However, that was the one place where they really did meet their match, when they took on the Byzantium Empire. The Vikings basically came up against napalm, and that's not a good idea in wooden ships. We've found hoards from Russia as well as Islamic coins; representing everything from Uzbekistan to the Irish Sea. We've known about these finds for a while, but only since the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become possible to get a good understanding of just how far the Vikings ventured."

 

5. They discovered America

"Definitely. There's a theory that Irish priests got there before the Vikings, but at the moment it's unproven; so as far as we know, the Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive in America. We know about one Viking camp that landed in the northern tip of Newfoundland [in circa 1000]. They never settled in America – it was one failed attempt, as only a very small number went over there and the group wasn't large enough to be sustainable. If we accept the Saga accounts, they then managed to offend the natives and couldn't stay in the face of such a hostile society when they themselves had such few numbers." k

6. They were slave traders

"Yes they were. We have a slave collar from Dublin and there are accounts of slaves being taken from their homeland. There was a large raid in 870 AD near Glasgow where men, women and children are said to have been taken by raiders. The capturing of women only was quite common, with Saga accounts claiming that Vikings would take numerous female slaves. Work on a site in Iceland showed that male DNA was almost all purely western Scandinavian, but a significant portion of the female DNA was Irish/Scottish."

7. They weren't exactly proto-feminists

"This depends on how you look at it. There is one type of item, found in several female graves, which is a carved whale bone plaque, often found with smooth glass items. This has often been interpreted as a smoothing device for linen – that is, a very primitive ironing board, so their view of the afterlife seems quite sexist: a Viking man gets his sword and axe in the grave, while women get an ironing board. Having said that, Viking women tended to have a lot more freedom than other societies. A Viking woman could hold property in her own right, and could even initiate divorce proceedings, so they actually had a much better position, before Christianisation, than the rest of Europe. It may be the men who went out and won the wealth through raiding, but the keys of the house were kept by the women."

8. Viking men were pumped

"Some certainly were. Skeleton remains are often quite large and they couldn't have rowed big ships such as the Roskilde 6 without being fairly muscular. But they weren't always in perfect health, as we saw in the mass grave we found. One of the skeletons suffered from osteomyelitis, which is a degenerative bone disease. He must have been in constant discomfort and would not have walked normally. The one next to it had broken a leg at a fairly early age; it had healed but resulted in one leg being shorter than the other. So you've got two people in one crew who would have been hobbling around the battlefield, which doesn't fit with the idea of super-fit athletes."

9. The legends of thor and co were just like they are in films today

"Actually, a lot of what we know about the Viking gods comes from a couple of hundred years after the Vikings were around, when it was written down by Christian authors – and what we can see within those texts are elements that seem to be Christian. For example, Odin at one point sacrifices himself by being hung in a tree and is pierced in the side by a spear; sounds familiar, doesn't it? In the exhibition, we have a Christian cross from the 10th century, which has a scene from the Battle of the End of the World and a figure who's almost certainly Odin being devoured by a wolf. What little evidence we have from the Viking age is consistent with the later stories, but those later stories have been mediated by Christians. The problem is that a lot of people still use them as though they are contemporary accounts. Hypothetically, it's like a bunch of future historians doing a serious study of Henry VIII and using a box set of the television show The Tudors as contemporary evidence."

10. The vikings were a unified army

"At the beginning of the Viking age, small groups would go off on raids and over time these groups would band together. By the end of the Viking age, and the invasion of Britain in 1066 by Harald Hardrada, that wasn't a Viking raid, that was a national king invading with a national army. If anything, William the Conqueror coming from Normandy with a bunch of soldiers, most of whom weren't Norman – they were from northern France, the Netherlands, a bunch of latterday Vikings – that was a Viking raid."

The BP exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend is at the British Museum, London WC1, from Thursday to 22 July. The live cinema event 'Vikings Live from the British Museum' is in cinemas nationwide on 24 April

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