Wednesday, 7 May 2014

2014: Year of the Viking - Vikings: Life & Legend Exhibit + Live Broadcast from the British Museum (Part 3/5)

Ok folks prepare yourself for the ULTIMATE Viking frenzied hyperventilation as I do my fairly ameteur review of the most famous exhibit of the 21st Century Vikings: Life & Legend at the British Museum.

I was fortunate enough to go with a nice history student group and their ultra pro-Anlgo-Saxon teacher on a college trip from where I work on Thor's-Day 20th March. So not too long after the BBC Magazine's Viking Day (see how busy I have been?).

Outside this monolith of British & world wide history - like entering Valhalla!

Inside the Museum and outside the Vikings exhibit gallery eagerly waiting to go in.
Sadly due to the fragile nature of many of the exhibit items and probably more to do with massive numbers of people all flashing their cameras photography was not allowed so I recommend to any that do ago take a pen, pencil and paper. You can make notes as you go round and even have a stab at sketching something that you admire.

You may also like to make sure you are carrying something light, have a bottle of water to hand and wear comfortable shoes as you will be doing a lot of standing and looking in pure wonder at things - firstly because each item has a story to tell you that will change what you think about Vikings and secondly because although groups of visitors are allowed in at set times despite this well planned system touring the exhibit still turns into one very long queue as each individual purposefully and quite rightly takes their time to look at each display. So should you! I implore you to not rush by each object as for most people it takes a certain amount of finances and time if you want to get a 2nd viewing so make every minute in their count. Especially as you won't have the luxury of photographs.

Now there are hundreds if not thousands of individual objects on display in the exhibit from the human remains of the unfortunate mass viking raiding party burial found in Weymouth only a few years ago to tiny piece of hoard silver & gold through to a viking skull with deliberately filed teeth (eeeeesh they were scary for a reason) and even a toy wooden longship/boat a viking lad may have played with and imagined his future adult life. Due to the vastness of the exhibit I'm going to elaborate on a handful of my personal favourites. 

1. The Longest Viking Warship/Longship EVER FOUND - ROSKILDE 6
I WISH I could express how LONG and HUGE and B E A UTIFUL (spacing is deliberate for emphasis) it is - even if only a fifth of the hull wood is there and the rest if conjured on an elegant metal frame. The following details are affectionately and effectively reitterated from the magnificent catalogue/guide book that is in sync with the Exhibit as well as providing lots of more - click this link to go through to the online shop and buy it for yourself - if you don't get to see any of the exhibit this book is still a treasure trove for any keen viking history fan to have.
With the steal frame around the timber remains it measures at more than 37 metres and had perhaps as many as 40 pairs of oars and is thought to be connected with the reign of King Cnut as the wood dates from the early 10th century (1025ish) whom was the King of Norway, Denmark and some parts of Sweden as well as England at the time. From what I can read in the book (Yes I have YET to read it but I do intent to devour it from cover to cover) it seems it was not deliberately sunk in any religious manner and due to the lack of remains it may be more to do with it being an old or damaged ship at the time and was dragged out away from the shore line to be hacked to pieces. But we will never really know the cause of its location or who owned it or who sailed it who built it.
However it has it's own magic and power to sway the imagination through placing the remaining timbers in the frame. For one who has never seen any other longship of any type in any museum before (only seen pictures of the equally beautiful Osberg ship in books) it will take your breath away 100% guaranteed. To see how big it is in the space of the Exhibit without a tall mast and a full sail allows viewers to imagine any kind of raiding party or gang of viking traders/explorers sailing under a sail of any colour or design. I dearly hope someone someday in my lifetime gets the finances and support together to build a replica of this magnificent sea-beast.

2. Viking ladies BLING jewellrey - 2kg GOLD neck ring
This is the Viking equivilent to a GIANT DIAMOND ring but it's made of pure gold and hangs around the neck. This particular item is from the 10th century and found in Zealand, Denmark and has an actual diametre of 35 cms - that's longer than your average ruler! And is made of 2 KILOGRAMS of twisted gold strands as thick as shoelaces. But it's not just the weight and the size of this that impressed me the most - no it's the fact that the lady Viking who owns this is NOT JUST wealthy enough or high status enough to own let alone wear it (it must be cumbersome and heavy) but they were THAT wealthy they could afford to undo one of the gold strands and chop bits off as favours or payment to some loyal servant or ally. Effectively like a mobile purse that you wear. Truly remarkable for the significance it has in their society not to mention the craftsmanship of making the huge thing.

3. Viking mans BLING jewellrey - Brooch the size of a dinner plate
This ball-penannular brooch is not exactly as big as the gold neck ring but it isn't far off simply due to the length of it's needle. Some lads in the group I was wish did make a surprising comment about maybe the Vikings measured their masculinity not just in their swords but the length of their brooch pins. To give you an idea of how long it is the brooch piece, the long curve, has a diameter of 19.5 cms but the brooch needle is 46 cms long!!!! And somehow it was worn on a mans chest holding not just his cloak up but probably several other layers as well. The exhibit thankfully had a rather simple outline of a man wearing it and the needle protruding proudly over his shoulder - you certainly wouldn't want to attack him from behind you might impale yourself. The design of the brooch is fairly simple but the sheer quite ridiculous length of the needle must surely mean it was a brooch worn only on special high status or religious occasions, right? This too is dated from the 10th century and found in Bodin, Norway - so sadly it can't belong to the husband of the wife who owns the 2kg neck ring hehehehe. But we can imagine - I wonder how it would have cost to make or trade?

4. Odin in your pocket - or in this case as a minature pendant
Now I know Odin All-Father has a talent for disguises and shape-shifting as much as Loki and Heimdall but this minute silver figurine which could have hung on a chain/leather necklace is only 1.75cms tall and 1.98cms wide - that's right it's could fit inside a thimble! Yet the detail of it is AMAZING! Modern jewellers would probably need a special microscope to engrave such features upon Odin's clothes, his beard, his eyes (correction 1 eye), the wings of Hugnin and Mugnin sitting either side of him and even the beast figureheads on the posts of his high throne. I can't start to imagine in all honestly how the super talented viking who wanted this made would start going about carving out a mould for the molten silver to be cast in due to its minute size. The catalogue does suggest it could alternatively represent a Volva - a Viking Sorceress/Witch but with two clear ravens either side it to me at least can be none other tha the All-Father, High-One, One-Eye himself. It is supposedly dated between 800-1050 and found in Zealand, Denmark. Any viking who wore this as a pendant/amulet or carried it with him on raids or travels was surely hoping for some favour from the god.

6. Valkyrie in your pocket - yep turns out there is one for the lady vikings
This although listed 6th does not imply in anyway a drop in admiration for this particular object. This battle-maiden, sword-maiden, shield-maiden or Valkyrie (debate is still going on) is slightly bigger than the silver War God she serves at 3.4cms heigh but that is still ridiculously small (did the Vikings ever consider they might loose her? Or is she part of a personal collection?). She is gilded with silver and has black neillo inlay on her round shield (yes hence the name shield-maiden) in her right hand (quite correct) and she is holding an erect sword (hence sword-maiden) in her left. She is clearly a female figure due to her long hair being tied into a kind of ponytail at the back (yes she is in full 3D detail) and her v-necked vest and skirt like attire on her legs. She is slightly damaged at the bottom and ironically enough the damage makes it look like she got peckish and took a bit out of her shield (similar to the Beserker peices from the famous Lewis Chessmen set - also viewable at the exhibit). The catalogue describes her as a 'possible valkyrie' which is primarily because Valkyries have only ever been found in stone carvings depicted as offering mead to warriors or indeed Odin in a Valhalla like scene or mentioned in Sagas with a mythical and therefore fictional origin. But to me at least if a male viking wants a silver figurine of Odin why should a woman viking want a figurine of Freya (none have yet to be found for this particular Goddess) or a Valkryie (which are female warriors closely linked to Freya) to hopefully bless them with protection or a good harvest why their men are away annoying their international neighbours? Or discovering Iceland/Greenland/New Foundland? It makes sense to me and seems only fair as so many Catholics wear the cross or carry a St Christopher coin.

Yes - I was there - I went in my viking fancy dress not historically accurate I know - I honour the norse myths more than the vikings themselves (notice Hugning & Muning on cloak corners and runes down the front - more detailed embroidery at the back). But I never turn down an opportunity to show my viking side.

This LIVE broadcast tour of the exhibit is a true stroke of GENIUS! Whoever suggested it at the British Museum needs a 100% pay rise! It is a truly fantastic way of bringing the exhibit to the many hundreds if not thousands who can't afford to go in person or who have other committments. Plus for those who have seen it is an extra bonus and the awesome thing about it is the one-to-one nature of the many fab presenters and experts and even guests who were involved.

Meet the presenters

They all gave the exhibit a real buzz and helped explain and even show lots more behind several of the exhibit items including the Vale of York hoard which is Gareth William's personal favourite having plucked one of the hundreds of coins out from one very old ceremonial silver bowl. But speak of Gareth, he too really siezed the opportunity to show his Viking Side for just as we entered the section where they were discussing viking warriors who should appear in full battle gear with axe and sword and helmet and chainmail and shielf and even a horn?! GARETH WILLIAMS! Turns out from a young age he got into re-enactment which he revealed is the best way of testing and learning how things were used. The other highlight of the Live broadcast was the amazing camera work when showing off Roskile 6 - so many different sliding and moving angles set to dramatic music almost brought me to tears (honestly!) because it reminded me how beautiful and magnificent it must have been in its prime. Judith Jesch, whom I had met briefly the week before at the BBC History Magazine's Viking Day was also in attendance and even discussed the role of women in the Viking Age as well as the debated issue regarding female viking warriors and Valkyries. It was a shame we couldn't take notes due to the black out conditions with the cinema but I know every single person who watched it Live learnt something new and hopefully went away with a refreshed attitude towards Vikings and their role in British and international history as every stage or story behind the segments of the exhibit was talked through. I WISH the broadcast could be released on DVD because I would greatly enjoy watching it over and over again as a momento of this true ONCE IN A LIFE TIME exhibit.

So if you are beginning to release how much you are missing out on because you can't attend or/and missed out on the Live broadcast I say this BUY THE CATALOGUE it is a very suitable and magnificent alternative which discussed many of the exhibit items and provides even more that weren't there.

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