A Map is Worth A Thousand Words

THOBIM cover 2oday marks the publication of A History of Britain in Maps. Apart from the joy of working with such wonderful visual records of British history – nearly 100 of them – the process of compiling of the book has been marked by amazing discoveries which have really underlined how rich are the stories woven even the humblest seeming maps. Who would have thought that the very first ever published weather map – in The Times in 1875 – is tied up with a double suicide and the theory of evolution? Its compiler, Robert Fitzroy, had been the captain of the Beagle, the vessel on which Charles Darwin made the key discoveries in the Galapagos Islands that eventually developed into his evolutionary theory. On his return to the United Kingdom, Fitzroy developed an interest in weather forecasting, setting up a network of weather stations that could alert mariners to looming storms and, so it was hoped, preserve their lives. Unfortunately, he also attracted the attentions of a jealous naval establishment, including a biting report written by Francis Galton, who, coincidentally, was Darwin’s cousin. He became depressed by this and also by guilt that as a religious conservative he felt over his role in facilitating Darwin’s work on evolution – Fitzroy believed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused not by their failure of the “survival of the fittest” test but by the very simple and obvious problem that they had been too large to fit through the door of Noah’s ark. Finally, one spring day in 1865, Fitzroy locked his study door and blew his own brains out. In doing so he became the second captain of the Beagle to take his own life; Pringle Stokes who had skippered the vessel on a previous voyage to Patagonia had been so afflicted by melancholy brought on by the relentless bleakness of the regions around Cape Horn that he, too, had shot himself. Weather – and evolution – it seems, could be fatal affairs and the story is exemplified by a simple line map in a British newspaper.

From a 2nd-century AD cup that bears a schematic representation of Hadrian’s Wall to a map charting the distribution of votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum, my research took me across two thousand years of British history, covering themes as diverse as population growth, disease, civil wars, invasions (both feared and actual), rebellions, the growth of the railways, the first ever-route planners (from the 17th century) and, of course, that perennial British preoccupation, the weather, it’s been a real pleasure to discover all the fantastic stories hidden in maps of Britain’s past!

The Raven has Landed!

The long awaited British Museum Vikings exhibition has finally opened in the new Sainsbury Galleries. I went along on the first day; so how does it match up to the hype? The centre-piece of the exhibition is the more than 37-metre long Roskilde ship, an astonishing survival from the Viking age, whose timbers were lovingly dried out and preserved by archaeologists after being raised from the waters outside the port in 1996. The vessel was sunk in 1070 to block a navigation channel and deter raiders from attacking Roskilde and now, encased in steel supports, the 20% of the original ship’s timbers which survived look like mottled skin stretched over a ghostly metal frame. This is the biggest Viking longship to be discovered by archaeologists and to see it “moored” in Bloomsbury is an extraordinary sensation.
There is an amazing range of artefacts from the Viking world on show, from delicate amulets of Valkyries to an enormous brooch (over 650g in weight) and, of course, a collection of long double-edged blades and axe-heads, grim reminders of the violence those who travelled in the longship inflicted on their prey. Not all the Norsemen made it home, and one of the most striking exhibits on show in the exhibition are the remains of some of the 4 dozen or so Scandinavian males found in a drainage ditch near Weymouth, most of whom had been decapitated. It truly was a violent age. The most poignant of the exhibits, though, is one of the more commonplace; a set of toy wooden boats, little longships perhaps once played with by children while their fathers were out raiding, dreaming of the plunder and, more important to a Viking, the glory they would win when full grown. As the Havamal (a collection of epithets says) “Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves shall die, but I know one thing that never dies: the reputations of each one dead”

The Vikings are Coming!

This Thursday the Vikings are arriving in Britain and a Viking longship will be seen in London for the first time in a thousand years. 6th March will not, though, mark an unheralded resumption of the raids that died down in the 11th century, but the opening of the much-anticipated British Museum Vikings exhibition. With the display of the Roskilde 6 ship, one of the largest to grace Scandinavian waters in the era of the raids, and a host of other artefacts on show, this is the most important exhibition on the Vikings for a generation. I will be reporting back on it at the end of the week, but be sure not to miss it.

The other major event of the week is of course, the publication my own book, The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World, also on 6th March. It’s taken over four years to complete, and it’s a gratifying coincidence that I’ll be able to celebrate its launch by going to the British Museum and gazing at one of the longships.