Swashbuckling Vikings are written out of history

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The Independent Online
THE Vikings have had a bad press. Far from raping, looting and pillaging their way round Britain, they settled down as industrious farmers, sophisticated traders and respectable family men. They did not wear ferocious horned helmets beloved of Hollywood film directors and Danish football fans and they were not all big bullies with bulging biceps. A surprising number were small, puny and under-fed

That, more or less, is the version of history to be presented to schoolchildren in a new CD-Rom launched yesterday which aims to dispel myths about the Scandinavian raiders. Three of the leading Viking museums in Europe - the national museums of Scotland, Denmark and Ireland - have combined to produce the CD-Rom for 7- to 14-year-olds with the support of the European Commission.

Anna Pedersen, curator of Denmark's national museum, said: "One of the myths about the Vikings is that they were a wild and ferocious people who swept through most of Europe plundering, taking away loot and taking away people.

"But they have been victims of a bad press. We have had the writings of the people who were attacked. If someone had interviewed the Vikings, they would have had a different story to tell. They might have pointed out that a lot of the places they took over were easy to attack."

When historians began to look at the archaeological evidence as well as the written accounts, they discovered that the picture of the raping and pillaging Vikings was misleading. Once they had raided, they often settled down for years. There were farms in Scotland and a prosperous trading settlement in Dublin.

The Victorians, it seems, are partly to blame for the Vikings' bad image. According to Mike Spearman, head of multimedia at the national museum of Scotland, they were responsible for the notion that Vikings wore horned helmets. Archaeological evidence about the helmets is limited but none has been found with horns. Horned head-dresses have been found but they belonged to an earlier period. Nor did Viking warriors have decorated shields.

According to Dr Pedersen, all Danish schoolchildren are taught that the Vikings wore hornless helmets, but that does not stop souvenir shops in Copenhagen selling thousands of figures with horns every year.

In the last century the Up-helly - a celebration of burning Norse boats - began in Shetland but there is no evidence that this was a Viking tradition. Commercialism and films still perpetuate the myths.

Dr Spearman enjoyed the film The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis but describes it as like Braveheart, "a case of Hollywood inventing history for us".

Others myths are also hard to dispel. Investigation of burial grounds, he says, shows that the Vikings were not a tall, well-built race. Many of the remains suggest that many were small and did not get enough to eat. Indeed, Dr Spearman argues, "evidence shows that they were probably very similar to races such as the Picts who were already settled here. It is very difficult to see the difference between a Pictish settlement and a Viking one in terms of its equipment and lifestyle."

He says: "We are trying to use the wider scientific evidence to put forward a more rational view of the Vikings. We have to make sure that the next generation has a better idea of the truth. It was a very complicated society and they were a sophisticated people. We have to build them up on their own terms. For instance, they regarded slavery as a fact of life."

The CD-Rom, Looking for Vikings, is being sent free to all Scottish, Irish and Danish schools next month. Additional copies will be available at a basic charge from all three museums. It begins with some the false images associated with Vikings and goes on to show some of the archaeological discoveries of the last 150 years - including an eighth-century Celtic graffiti-inscribed reliquary discovered in Norway, a complete Vig boat and swords found at burial sites in Dublin, Jutland and the Isle of Eigg and a silver thistle brooch from Ireland. The programme is available in English, Danish, Irish and Gaelic.

The Vikings are probably best known as fierce raiders of other people's lands

Oxford Children's Encyclopedia