Yesterday I spent several happy hours at the British Museum in London with my twelve year old son, Hal. It has been some time since I have visited the old girl, which first opened her doors to the public in 1759, and it is the first time that I have been since the interior was restructured. Whereas before it was a typical ‘traditional’ museum, room after gloomy room stuffed with more artifacts than you could shake a stick at, the centre of the building has been completely remodelled. It is now a place of light and air, beautiful even, and a building worthy of the priceless treasures contained within.
We were there to take in the latest exhibition, ‘Vikings: life and legend,’ which runs until 22nd June. Before we did so however we spent time in the ‘Celtic’ and Anglo Saxon rooms upstairs. It was illuminating for Hal to see the many exquisite works of art produced in Britain before the Roman occupation. Very little is taught about pre Roman Britain in our schools and the impression most young people have of that time is of a backward people ‘civilised’ by the Roman Empire. To see the sheer beauty and craftmanship displayed in the many gold Torcs and items such as the Kirkburn sword, the Battersea shield (opposite) and the Waterloo helmet were literally an eye opener for my son.
The British room leads directly on to the room which contains the Anglo Saxon artifacts. This has recently been remodelled and for quite a small space it still manages to display most of the finest exhibits from the period. The room now revolves around the treasures from the early seventh century burial mound at Sutton Hoo. Even those with little interest in history recognise the iconic grim helm from mound 1 along with the many other items from this wonderful collection. Also in the room are such items as the Franks Casket and, my personal favourite, a fantastically carved ships prow from the river Scheldt in present day Belgium. Dated to the 4th-6th century it is thought to have belonged on an Anglo Saxon or Frankish ‘pirate’ ship. The dating and location also fits in well with Hygelac’s raid which took place around 523 and was the subject of my novella ‘Dayraven.’ The Liber Historiae Francorum tells us that the Geatish fleet was destroyed in a sea battle in the area. Could this be a physical link to a major character in the Beowulf epic?
Moving downstairs to the exhibition itself I was unprepared for the sheer number of important artifacts which had been assembled from across Europe and the Middle East. The centrepiece of the exhibition are the ship remains known as ‘Roskilde 6.’ One of nine deliberately scuttled vessels discovered in the silt of Roskilde harbour in 1997, appropriately during the construction of the Viking Ship Museum, the timbers have been dated to 1025 and at 122 feet in length this ship is the largest ever recovered from the era.
There really is so much to view at the exhibition, weapons, brooches, actual wands found in the graves of volva and so much more that I have chosen two objects, both fantastic in very different ways, to represent the extremes of glamour and the more everyday, even mundane, contained within it.
The Hiddensee necklace was discovered scattered across a beach after a series of storm tides hit the German Baltic island in the years 1872 and 1874. The gold treasure of Hiddensee consists of the following 16 parts of jewellery with a weight of 596 g fine gold:
1 shell clip (garment clip): 8 cm diameter, 114 g
1 twisted necklace: 44 cm length, 153 g
6 different large cross-shaped hanging pieces of 6.4 x 6.4 to 6.4 x 6.7 cm size, of 34-40 g
4 different small cross-shaped hanging pieces of 4.7 x 5.0 to 4.1 x 5.4 cm size, 20-22.4 g
4 small links: 2.1 x 1.2 cm size, 5-6 g
Although I have seen photo’s of this necklace in many publications over the years nothing prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of the original piece. The fine detail and filigree work have to be seen to be fully appreciated. Thought to be connected with the reign of Harald Bluetooth (940-986) the necklace now usually usually resides at the Kulturhistorisches Museum der Hansestadt Stralsund.
After the fantastically rich Hiddensee necklace I chose to describe something which, if it were not for its great age, would be considered worthless. Many years ago I visited the Viking Centre at Jorvik and whilst there I bought a simple bookmark. It has served me well for thirty years so you can imagine my joy when I examined a small splint of wood in a cabinet to discover the original piece. A 25cm long shard of juniper wood, the original carries the delicately carved prows of forty eight longships. Some are topped by weather vanes and others by beast heads but one carries a royal pennant known on Old Norse as ‘Merki.’ Found in Bergen and dated to the 13th Century it is thought that the scene was carved by a crewman on one of the ships in the fleet of King Hakon Hakonsson who ruled Norway between the years 1217 and 1263. It is an evocative piece, a true bridge across time, as you imagine the man resting on a rock and idling away an hour or so whittling on a warm northern afternoon.
If you are within striking distance of London and are thinking of going to see the exhibition time is running out. It is over thirty years since the last Viking exhibition at the British Museum and I thoroughly recommend that you make the effort to take this, what could be, once in a lifetime opportunity to view such riches gathered together in one place.