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


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)