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Book Review : Vikings Life and Legend – edited by Gareth Williams,Peter Pentz,Mathais Wemhoff.

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The Vikings Exhibition at British Museum is the first major UK Exhibition on the Vikings in over thirty years and presents a wide range of new information and artefacts from not just Britain and Scandinavia but also from Eastern Europe and beyond.

Anyone who has attended the exhibition cannot fail to be impressed, not least by the remains of the impressive ‘Roskilde 6’ the longest Viking Ship yet discovered.

However, one of the difficulties of the exhibition is providing enough information that complements the wonderful array of Viking material.

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Vale of York Hoard, 10th century, North Yorkshire, England (Silver-gilt, silver and gold)

British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York – © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is where the books that often accompany exhibitions are often invaluable and the Vikings life and legend book from the British Museum offers a wide range of information that attempts to explain some of the complexities of the Viking Age.

Not many books have a foreword written by Royalty, but Her Majesty Queen Margrethe of Denmark makes some very important points when she remarks “ The many new finds have given us further information about the people of the Viking age, their thoughts and deeds. Yet we certainly do know everything, and such information may throw light on the darkness. It is here, at the transition between knowledge and darkness, in the twilight, that the imagination steps in and dreams begin”

Anyone writing about the Vikings age is faced with the dilemma of people’s perception born of centuries of legends and propaganda of Vikings as raiders and killers, more recent research may have celebrated Vikings as traders, settlers, explorers and shipbuilders but the old perceptions show little sign of going away.

This book takes the sensible approach of considering all facets of Viking life and seeks to explain some of the complexities that will perhaps challenge many of our perceptions.

The book is built around four themes – Contacts & Exchange, Warfare & Military Expansion, Power & Aristocracy, and Belief and Ritual. Each theme explores the period between the late eighth and late eleventh centuries which saw an unprecedented movement of people out of the Scandinavian homelands.

Unsurprisingly the Vikings is seen purely as a Scandinavian tradition, however new evidence has shown that their reach was much wider and included areas of Eastern Europe. This often explains how the trading routes spread to the Baltic and the Byzantine empire.

The range and scale of trade is often illustrated when a hoard is found and they often include items from the Mediterranean and Islamic world.

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Lewis Chessmen, late 12th century, Uig, Lewis, Scotland,Walrus Ivory.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

In the section on Warfare some of the myths of Vikings are explored, although a naked Berserker may spread panic and fear to isolated communities such as monks, there is evidence that the Vikings as an unbeatable fighting force may have been exaggerated and a number of Vikings graves have been found where they were massacred by the local tribes.

Most of the success of the raiders seemed to be based on the speed of the attack and retreat rather than outright conquest. This itself reflected on the power structure of the early Viking age when a multitude of Warlords dominated with relatively small fighting forces. It was only when the Kingdoms were unified that larger expeditions were undertaken.

The section on Belief and Ritual explores how the ‘heathen’ Vikings eventually became part of the Christian world, the finds from Viking ritual sites and graves marked the gradually spread of Christianity.

The Vikings life and legend book is a well written, comprehensive and informative picture of how recent finds are slowly changing our perception of the Viking Age, the numerous lavish illustrations and references offer considerable insight into the Viking world.

If you are interested in this world and wish to understand some of the its complexities , this book would be a useful purchase. Although it is seen as a companion piece to the Exhibition, it is equally useful as a informative guide to one of the most intriguing periods of European history.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to buy a copy of the book press here

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 Exhibition : Vikings Life and Legend at the  British Museum – 6th March to 22nd June

Exhibition – Vikings : Life and Legend at the British Museum – 6th March to 22nd June 2014

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Vikings: Life and Legend
Location – Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
From the 6th March 2014, The British Museum presents its first major exhibition on Vikings in over 30 years, supported by BP, which will open the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. The exhibition has been developed with the National Museum of Denmark and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) and focuses on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th century to the early 11th century.
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The Vikings are viewed in a global context that highlights the multi-faceted influences arising from extensive cultural contacts.
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The exhibition features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.
At the centre of the exhibition are the surviving timbers of a 37-metre-long Viking warship, the longest ever found and never seen before in the UK.
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The ship, known as Roskilde 6, was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the course of work undertaken to develop the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997. Since the excavation, the timbers have been painstakingly conserved and analysed by the National Museum of Denmark. The surviving timbers – approximately 20% of the original ship – have now been re-assembled for display in a specially made stainless steel frame that reconstructs the full size and shape of the original ship. The construction of the ship has been dated to around AD 1025, the high point of the Viking Age when England, Denmark, Norway and possibly parts of Sweden were united under the rule of Cnut the Great. The size of the ship and the amount of resources required to build it suggest that it was almost certainly a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut to assert his authority over this short-lived North Sea Empire.

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Visiting London Guide Review

It is safe to say that for many years the Vikings have been portrayed as bloodthirsty looters and pillagers, this large new exhibition at the British Museum attempts to offer a wider interpretation by also showing evidence of the Vikings as traders and explorers.

The jewellery and swords also shows that amongst the Vikings were talented craftsmen and metalworkers, but they operated in a violent world shown by the skeletons of executed Vikings.

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Centre of the exhibition is full size stainless steel replica of one of the largest Vikings ship ever found,  within the steel frame is around 20% of the original ship.

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The large number of exhibits are attractively placed around the exhibition within multimedia screens that show aspects of Viking life.

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The British have a strange relationship with the Vikings, on one hand many in this Island are descendants of the Viking hordes whilst for many others their descendants suffered from their attacks.

If the Viking history casts a shadow over British and European history, exhibitions such as this one, at least helps to provide some of the elusive answers.

The exhibition is the first  to be held in the British  Museum’s new Sainsbury’s Exhibition Galleries and runs from  6 March – 22 June.

Details and   tickets: britishmuseum.org/VikingsExhibition

Admission charge £16.50 plus a range of concessions.

Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.