Vikings! at the National Museum of Scotland dispels myths about horned raiders

By Jenni Davidson | 21 March 2013

Exhibition review: Vikings!, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until May 12 2013

A photograph of a silver Thor's hammer
Pendant, Thorshammer, silver. Filigree ornamentation. Unknown find spot, Scania, Sweden© National Historical Museum, Sweden
We think of the Vikings as a vicious and violent group of people, sailing from the North in their dragon boats to pillage defenceless coastal villages and monasteries.

It’s not entirely untrue, but that is only one facet of life in early medieval Scandinavia and our modern perception of the Vikings has been largely shaped by the writings of those on the receiving end of such predations.

In fact, the term Viking more accurately described an activity rather than a people. It could involve raiding and piracy, but might, equally, just mean going on an overseas journey.

It was only during the 19th century that archaeologists coined the term Viking Age to describe the entire historical period from around 700 to 1100 AD.

A photograph of a bronze male figurine
Bronze figurine generally accepted to be a representation of the god Frey.© National Historical Museum, Sweden
To call the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition Vikings!, then, is something of a misnomer, because it actually focuses on daily life and society in Scandinavia - Sweden in particular - rather than abroad.

The aim of the exhibition is to challenge the popular perception of the Vikings and demonstrate the wealth of culture and craftsmanship there was in Scandinavia during the Viking period.

Vikings! explores different aspects of Viking Age civilisation through a selection of objects on loan from the National Historical Museum in Stockholm, as well as pieces from the National Museum of Scotland’s own collections.

Some of these objects are rather surprising, showing the incredible distances the Vikings travelled, as well as the diversity of cultural influences available to them. 

Perhaps the most remarkable item is a 6th century bronze Buddha figure from the Swat Valley in modern day Pakistan, which found its way to Uppland in Sweden.

The standard of native craftsmanship was very high too, from intricate gold and silver filigree on brooches to pendants and colourful glass beads. A tiny silver crucifix - the oldest found in Sweden - still looks shiny enough to be brand new.

Other religious items mix Old Norse and Christian religious imagery, showing the syncretism as society moved from one belief system to the other.

Different sections of the exhibition deal with family life and the home, class and gender roles, belief, burial practices, craftsmanship, ships and travel.

Half of a Viking Age ship has been imaginatively reconstructed. Only the rivets survived burial, but they have been hung on translucent threads to form a ghostly vessel.

It doesn’t look very watertight though. I wouldn’t try going on any pillaging expeditions in that one.

More pictures:

A photograph of a cat carved out of amber
Figurine in the shape of a cat. Amber© National Historical Museum, Sweden
A photograph of a necklace of coloured beads
Beads of bronze, glass and gold in a set of six rows. Gravefind, Stora och Lilla Ihre, Hellvi, Gotland, Sweden© National Historical Museum, Sweden
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