Vikings Live

This wa an extraordinary event last night in cinemas round the country – a progamme by Michael Wood and Bethany Hughes highlighting the British Museum’s new block buster show on the vikings. At the outset, the museum’s director was asked why now, the reasons being that the Museum has just acquired a new wing, funded by Sainsbury’s which can present fragile items in a safe environment, but also it has been 30 years since the last one, and a lot of Eastern Europe has been able to research its own history of the Vikings, which has massively expanded our view of their life and culture.

Stuff they showed included manacles found in Dublin. I had a vague idea that Ireland had a history of slavery, but no idea it was so widespread in the Viking age – they claim that some 60% of the genetic code of Iceland’s women is British, so showing how widespread the taking of women into slavery was.

The show  was opened by Denmark’s queen, who can trace a direct line back to the Viking monarchs, which is incredible, and begs a lot of questions over why England, a bigger place, has struggled so hard to produce  monarchs, constantly having to import them.

Valhalla is only for the best of the warriors who worshipped (W)odin, and they were chosen by the Valkyries. Odin was signified on a thrown with two crows, for knowledge and imagination; they flew out into the world and returned with what they had learned, so the British Museum claim to be modern crows.

Cnut is said to have tried to stop the sea, but apparently he had his throne taken to a beach and ordered the tide to stop, to demonstrate to his followers that he was not infalible.

Like the Romans, they fought with shield walls, but the shields made of wood covered with leather. But this stopped them wielding their axes, so turned to short stabbling blades; there is a skeleton of a man with cuts on his thigh, possibly castrated. Ouch!

The curator of the exhibition, a keen historical re-enactor, Gareth Williams, appeared in full chainmail and was soon sweating profusely – he was wearing wool and linen padding, and in one battle the Vikings got so hot they had to remove their armour, but were unused to fighting without all the weight, so were slaughtered

Women don’t relly feature much in all the macho Viking stuff, but there is a carving of  awoman holding a shield and sword. They don’t know what to make of that. There are stories of warriors killed in battle who were found to be women, but these may be myths.

A recent excavation in Dorset found what seems to be a massacre of Vikings – all the skeletons are of young Scandinavian men, with heads cut off and some fingers missing as in defensive wounds. This was not a battle, but could have been retaliation by Britons against settlers for the Viking raids.

The huge royal battle ship is pretty amazing, and there was a lot of talk from yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnson who sailed in one on how flexible and fast they were at sea, also a demonstration on how they were made, by Cornish boat builders. Robin also showed how a sun compass worked and that several have been found in East Europe, so this is no longer a theoretical way they navigated.

I loved the film of some Viking actors  supposedly rowing up the Thames, past Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, their oars barely touching the water, but lots of grimacing and ax wielding clearly having a lot of fun – they were being towed by a tug.

There is also an impressive amount of fantastic gold and silver work – coins, jewellery etc. Two former christian items – an ex reliquary which housed a saint’s bones had runic inscriptions naming the Viking woman who owned it, and also a fine gold necklace had a runic tag on it. A bit rich, given how they came by them.

There were also discussions of how widespread Viking language is in Britain, especially in the North East, and ongoing research on the likelihood that we all have some Viking in us. There was also some discussion as to whether the term Russia is from the Viking name Rus. Putin & Co’s current sabre rattling seems to be an echo of the Viking past.

A brilliant broadcast, shame so few people were there, but poory advertised, and saved a trip to London for the real thing. Here’s details:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/vikings

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