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”