Beautiful storytelling - Viking Voyagers launches in most important show ever held at National Maritime Museum Cornwall

| 24 March 2015

A major new Norse show, Viking Voyagers, has just opened at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

A photo of a recreation of a viking longboat inside a museum
A Viking boatyard, complete with an iconic six-metre faering, lies at the centre of Cornwall's Viking invasion© NMMC
The British Museum, the national museums of Denmark and Ireland and Manx National Heritage have played vital roles in taking tales of the Vikings to Cornwall, where 1,000-year-old artefacts range from slave chains to weaponry and the theatre has been turned into a beach market scene complete with a full-scale replica of a huge coastal cargo ship from 11th century Denmark.

A boat-builder’s yard is deliberately designed for visitors to touch and feel. At its centre, a six-metre Viking small boat – the Norwegian faering – has been built by hand at the Falmouth Marine School, where constructors became apprentice Viking craftspeople.

A photo of various small stone artefacts from viking times inside a museum display case
The show portrays Vikings as entrepreneurs© NMMC
The history of Britain and Ireland was transformed by the impact of Viking raiding and colonisation – we still utter their words in our everyday language such as starboard, berserk, kid and ransack.

What began as small encampments up river grew to be Viking towns such as Dublin, which for a time was the centre of the European slave trade. Cornwall was very much part of the Irish Sea world, and the exhibition offers tantalising evidence of Vikings in Cornwall.

A photo of a circular gold ring against a white surface and background
An arm ring© Trustees of the British Museum
“This show has taken years to develop,” says Richard Doughty, the Director of the museum, calling the exhibition “undoubtedly” the most important ever held there.

“The museum’s legacy of award-winning work has now afforded us the opportunity to access national and international collections, securing loans with major partner museums, and offering Cornwall and the South West a unique first in being able to see these items outside of these national and international institutions.

A photo of a long silver sword
A sword© Trustees of the British Museum
“You might think you know the Vikings but you will have never experienced them in the way this new exhibition promises.”

Dr Tehmina Goskar, the Exhibitions Registrar, calls the narrative “incredibly alluring.”

A photo of a large angular dark green pot
A small bell from a child's burial© Manx National Heritage
“They have left us with a legacy of beautiful storytelling in their Sagas and astonishing material culture.

“Above all, the Vikings were sailors. Their men, women and children thrived because of their skills with boats and seafaring, so with our harbour location, celebrating the sea and small boats, there is no better place to come to hear their stories.

A photo of a viking bronze artefact
A bronze pommel and upper guard from Viking sword (early 900s AD)© Manx National Heritage
“I am completely delighted to bring amazing Viking antiquities to Cornwall for the very first time, some of which have never been on display in any museum before.”

Goskar has worked with Dr Gareth Williams, the world-renowned Viking expert from the British Museum who has been a guest curator of the show.

“It has been an immense privilege and a lot of fun, and hopefully visitors will feel this from the way we tell the story of the Viking Voyagers in the show.”

Thorwald's Cross

A photo of a grey stone artefact from viking times showing a depiction of a warrior
© Manx National Heritage
The transition in the Viking world of Pagan beliefs to the final embrace of Christianity is depicted on this stone. The Vikings brought pagan religion to shores already believing in Christianity and, for a short time, both creeds co-existed before Christianity eventually won.

One side of this stone shows the Norse god Odin being devoured by Fenris, the wolf at the Battle of Ragnorok - the fight against evil and the end of the world for the Norse deities.

The other side is filled with Christian symbolism - a figure with a book and a cross, by a fish and a defeated serpent.  Described as "syncretic art", this side shows a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs, with an inscription reading “Thorwald raised (this) cross”.

This stone is not only a 'page-turn' from pagan to Christian beliefs, it also has that rarest of things - the name of the person who was responsible: Thorwald is written in ancient Norse runes.

The Cuerdale hoard

A photo of various dark grey archaeological objects
© Trustees of the British Museum
This enormous silver treasure was discovered by workmen repairing the bank of the River Ribble in 1840. Records from the time describe how one workman’s spade hit loose coins, spilling them into his wheelbarrow.

He and his companions began to fill their pockets, only to empty them again at the order of the bailiff – but they were allowed to keep one piece each. The hoard was taken to Cuerdale Hall, where it was said to cover a sitting-room floor.

The Cuerdale Hoard consists of more than 8,500 silver objects, weighing 40kg. Most of the pieces are coins, together with ingots (silver bars) and cut-up brooches, chains, rings and other ornaments (hacksilver).

It had been buried in a lead container. Five bone pins, said to have been found with the treasure, suggest that some of it was parcelled up in cloth bags.

Most of the hoard’s coins were minted in Viking-controlled England, while the hacksilver is mainly Irish or Irish-Viking in form and decoration. Other pieces originated from further afield – Scotland, the Continent, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region and the Islamic lands of Central Asia and the Middle East.

In this way, the Cuerdale Hoard reflects the Vikings’ extensive international connections across much of the known world.

A hoard of this size represents extraordinary wealth – probably of many persons rather than one individual. It is likely to have been collected over time as loot, tribute and through trade.

The reasons for the hoard’s burial are not known. It may have been hidden for safe-keeping at a time of unrest, or represents a secure method of stock-piling riches over time.

The latest coins in the hoard enable its burial to be dated to between about 905 and 910.

This, together with the Irish origin of most of the hacksilver, has fuelled speculation that the hoard belonged to Vikings who were expelled from Dublin in 902.

The River Ribble, where the hoard was found, lay directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, offering a convenient place for fleeing Vikings to regroup, and was also on an overland route to York – the powerbase of the Northumbrian Vikings who could be called upon for support. But while this explanation for the Cuerdale Hoard is enticing, it remains unproven.

Runic spindle whorl

A photo of a circular viking spindle
© Portable Antiquities Scheme
An inscribed lead spindle dating to the early 11th century. The whorl is trapezoid in cross-section and roughly circular in plan. An hour-glass shaped hole has been drilled through the centre, measuring circa 8mm diameter at the opening. The whorl is inscribed on the side and base with Norse runes.

This familiar form of spindle-whorl dates primarily to the 6th to 10th centuries AD, although specimens are known from 11th-century contexts. In light of the language of the  inscription, it is significant that this form is typical of Lincolnshire, where it was found.

Medieval lead whorls are more common in northern England than in the south. Both the shape and the material would make this piece unusual in a Norwegian context.

The inscription is in two rows – one around the vertical wall of the whorl and one around the ring on the flat face that would have been uppermost when the whorl was in use.

The forms of the runes, including a dotted e-rune and a particular form of o-rune, suggest that the inscription was made in the earlier 11th century - a date consistent, if only just, with that for the object itself.

The whorl also has a small decorative motif cut on one side of the conical area: this is damaged but resembles a stylised plant-motif. The direction of the runes indicates that reading should start on the vertical wall.

You can read more about what the whorl says at the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

  • You can see Viking Voyagers at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall until February 22 2017.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of the square centre of part of a viking belt buckle
A belt buckle from a Viking burial ship© Manx National Heritage
A photo of part of a viking belt buckle
The buckle was found in Balladoole© Manx National Heritage
A photo of a curved part of a viking belt buckle
© Manx National Heritage
More from Culture24's coverage of the Vikings:

Child grave goods from Isle of Man castle and Viking beach market discoveries head to Cornwall

Archaeologists rethink Viking Yorkshire as hoard highlights plundered Anglo-Saxon sword

Axeheads, burials, knives and more from the Viking cemetery which amazed archaeologists in Cumbria
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