National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Exhibition review: Vikings! An Untold Story - Look, no horns! The Norse axemen get an image makeover

3.00

 

Asked to describe a Viking, most of us would reach for an image of a wild-haired, hulking Dane in a horned helmet, probably wielding a battleaxe. But we would be wrong on almost every count on the evidence of an exhibition mounted by the History Museum in Stockholm, now at the National Museum of Scotland.

For a start, the word Viking signifies a journey rather than a person. Women and children as well as men might sail off "on a Viking" on the perfectly peaceable premise of trading goods on distant shores (witness the little bronze buddha from the Swat Valley unearthed on a recent dig in Sweden, along with cowrie shells from the Red Sea).

A hulking Dane? – yes, possibly, though historians now know that the Norsemen settled as widely as Kiev in the east and Cork in the west, and almost certainly intermarried with local populations. And the wild hair and beards we imagine may well have been tamed. A comb, fashioned from bone or horn, often with its own folding case, is to be found in almost every Viking warrior hoard.

And finally, that horned helmet (those who prefer to keep their myths intact should look away now): it's a romantic invention of the 19th century, popularised by Wagner's Valkyrie. Excavations have only rarely yielded Viking-era helmets of any kind, but never one with horns – sorry. So, stereotype demolished, what's left for the imagination in this show?

Truthfully, not a lot. Whereas the ancient Egyptians (subject of a memorable exhibition in the same museum last year) seemed to have spent their lives calculating how to preserve their booty in death and beyond, the Viking culture took no such heed. The dead of high rank were often launched on a boat and burnt, along with the deceased's belongings, leaving little behind but the boat rivets. And there are heaps of those: the exhibition's designers have cleverly strung hundreds of iron nails together with translucent thread to trace the 3D outlines of a full-size Viking boat: beautiful as well as informative.

Silver brooches – weighty, fist-sized and used as fastenings – have survived, and strings of coloured beads – prettier than you'd expect from a culture traditionally depicted in shades of ash, rust and bone. Recent digs (source of most of the 500 objects on show) have also turned up bronze tweezers, a wash basin, a glass mirror – and, once more overturning the wild berserker image – delicate spoons of bone or horn.

The exhibition helpfully fills gaps where archaeological evidence is missing. Tunics and cloaks woven in heavy, scratchy wool are displayed for visitors to handle, while a light-hearted computer game offers the chance to "dress" a shivering mannequin. "Good choice! Thank you!" says his thought bubble as you select a warming woven wool hat.

Most instructive is a digital game in which you have to source the materials needed to build a Viking boat: 23 mature oaks for the keel timbers, 50 pines for the oars, 130 tons of wood for the charcoal to smelt the iron for rivets .... Now you know why Iceland has no trees.

To 12 May (0300 123 6789)

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

    Structured Finance

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

    SQL Server Developer

    £500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

    C#.NET Developer

    £600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone