The British Museum has opened its first major exhibition on Vikings in over 30 years, tailor-made to showcase the brand-spanking new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.
DigVentures were invited along to the opening, and we sent self-professed 48th generation Viking (something to do with being born in the Danelaw?) to find out more
It’s a developers worst-case scenario: you start building that desperately needed extension, only to discover a jaw-dropping archaeological find that brings the entire job to a standstill. Bad news all round…unless of course you happen to be building a new extension to the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, and whilst digging the foundations, chance upon the largest Viking ship ever found.
Call it the serendipity of discovery, call it the irony of ironies, but that is exactly what happened in 1997, when archaeologists undertaking a standard watching brief on the museum’s new extension (itself built to hold an earlier find of Viking vessels) discovered a treasure trove of nine ships.
The largest and most spectacular of these was ‘Roskilde 6’, and the surviving timbers (representing approximately 20% of the original ship) have been re-assembled to form the centrepiece of the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition ‘Vikings – Life and Legend’. Featuring a cast of thousands of other show-stopping Viking treasures, the co-star of this most cinematic of shows is the building itself: a new, purpose-built gallery space designed to host major international touring exhibitions. And it doesn’t disappoint.
With over 1,000 square meters to play with, the new space feels like the museum equivalent of Spielberg’s ‘Industrial Light and Magic’. The space provided the curators with a high-tech blank canvas, and walking through the maze-like galleries gives ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’ a distinctly modern feel. It’s even paced like an Oscar winner; a big scene-setting opening with beautiful artefacts from as far afield as Ireland and Uzbekistan, followed by a walk through of some of the key themes in Viking Age studies. Emerging from the dark corridors of backlit treasures, by the time Roskilde 6 opens into view, the effect is physical. The last time she graced these shores, Roskilde 6 was part of a fleet carrying an army of hungry warriors thirsting for treasure, and the sight of the ship’s silhouette against the digitally projected waves of the cold North Sea is an evocative spectacle.
Dating to around AD 1025, the high-water mark of Viking influence, the scale suggests that Roskilde 6 was almost certainly a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut the Great to assert authority of his short-lived North Sea empire of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. With original timbers fitted into a steel frame that recreates her full 36-metre length and form, Roskilde 6 is the physical and symbolic centrepiece of the exhibition.
The fundamental achievement of the Viking Story is one of reach and cultural connections, with an unprecedented global trading network that stretched as far North as the Arctic Circle, as far South as Morocco, as far East as Central Asia, and as far West as Canada. Without the necessary sea-faring technology represented by finds like Roskilde 6, the extraordinary range of pan-continental objects brought together for this exhibition would have never come to pass.
Under the directorship of Neil MacGregor, the British Museum has built a solid reputation for ambitious show-stopping exhibitions. ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’ is up there with the best, exploring new finds and developments from a distinctly global perspective. I counted several finds recently excavated by friends in the last five years, not least the Ardnamurchan ship burial discovered in the western highlands in 2011 (Nice one, Ollie and co!). Exiting through the gift shop (selling everything from Viking rubber ducks to earnest academic tomes) it felt like this was a story that was only going to grow in the telling. If the next Viking exhibition isn’t planned for another 30 years, who knows what might come to light. Anyone need an extension?
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