British Museum blog

The Viking way of death

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil PriceNeil Price, Professor of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Among the most fascinating things in the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend are the numerous objects from burials and graves. The way that a people treat their dead can say a lot about their attitudes to life, and the Vikings were no exception. Although their graves take certain standardised forms – an earthen mound, a wooden chamber, a buried boat, and so on – in the detail of the rituals it’s clear that almost every funeral was different, a personalised send-off. We know that this was an age of individuals, but what can we understand from this infinity of responses to death? Let’s look more closely at just one example, which in all its unique complexity can stand for all the others.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord in Norway. We know this place as Kaupang, it just means ‘market’, but to its inhabitants it was known as Skíringssalr – something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Nearly twenty years of excavations there have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region. But this is for the living; outside the settlement, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord, are the graves of the dead.

One of them seems at first to be a relatively simple affair. In the middle of the 9th century a man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, probably dressed in a cloak because a brooch was found at his shoulder. His chest was pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone bowl and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable.

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early tenth century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

A boat burial from Kaupang, Norway, early 10th century. Illustration by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price

Several decades later in the early 900s, an 8.5m-long boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45-50 when she died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with silver jewellery. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees, a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, on his back but with legs flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Laid out around him were weapons: two axes, of which one was an antique; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows and therefore probably also a bow. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its throat was probably cut, and it seems to have been decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. From her location and posture it is possible that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched the carcass of the horse. She was well-dressed in high fashion. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes, i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’. The bowl contained some unidentified little metal objects, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay across the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Objects of this type have been interpreted as staffs used by Viking sorceresses. From Gavle, Sweden (left) and Fuldby, Zealand, Denmark (right). © Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified as a tool of the sorceresses called a völur, and other female magic-workers, who feature extensively in the Icelandic sagas. Several staffs of this kind can be seen in the exhibition.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking-Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

They died a long time ago and we do not know their names, but these people of the Viking Age faced the same eternal questions of life and its meaning as still puzzle us today. The boat burial at Kaupang was one of their answers.


Neil Price is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Vikings: hearts of darkness?

iron slave shackle, © National Museum of IrelandTom Williams, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

The tidal current runs to and fro […] crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Here, surely, we have a passionate and evocative description of the Vikings: bold adventurers stepping forward onto the world stage, ready to set a blaze on four continents and pave the way for the nations that would rise in their wake.

In fact, this passage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describes the explorers, buccaneers, settlers and merchants – ‘the dark ‘interlopers’ of the eastern trade, and the commissioned ‘generals’ of the East India fleets” – who had set out from the Thames from the 16th to the 19th century, laying the foundations of the British Empire and changing the world forever.

But striking similarities between the Vikings and the British of the early modern and modern age underlie this coincidence of images: societies alienated in politics and religion from their closest neighbours and rivals, possession of a technological edge at sea, bravery, curiosity, a lust for gold and a willingness to use violence and brutality to whatever end. It was a comparison that the Victorians were not slow to identify, though they saw the comparison in a generally positive light.

…much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!

R M Ballantyne, Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings (1869)

But just as the legacy of Empire is constantly being re-evaluated, so too is the impact of the Vikings on the people with whom they came into contact, and the darker side of both has frequently been at the foreground of contemporary thought. The Vikings were happy to acquire goods by plunder and extortion when it was expedient, and to open up new markets for trade by the sword. Evidence from Viking military camps in Britain suggests that trade and manufacturing could go hand in hand with raiding and conquest: perhaps an early equivalent of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’. And just as the early wealth of the British Empire was founded on the horrors of the slave trade, so too were slaves a major trading commodity for Vikings. Written sources give a sense of some of the misery experienced by people subjected to early medieval human trafficking:

Stumbling the survivors
Scattered from the carnage,
Sorrowing they fled to safety,
Leaving the women captured.
Maidens were dragged in shackles
To your triumphant longships;
Women wept as bright chains
Cruelly bit their soft flesh.

Valgard of Voll, c. AD 1000–1100, quoted in ‘King Harald’s Saga’, Heimskringla (c.1230) by Snorri Sturlusson, 1179–1241; translation by M. Magnusson and H. Pálsson in King Harald’s Saga (Penguin Books, London, 1966, 2nd ed. 2005).

Slave collar. © National Museum of Ireland

Slave collar, St. John’s Lane, Dublin, E173:X119. © National Museum of Ireland

Viking slave shackles excavated in Dublin and Germany bear a startling similarity to those used in the transportation of Africans to the Americas and West Indies in the 18th and early 19th centuries by British slave-traders, such as these in the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

But at the same time, the rapacity and technological edge that made the Vikings so feared were also to effect lasting change on a continental scale. Settlements in Ireland, Russia and Ukraine played a pivotal role in the development of urban civilisation in those regions, and the influx of trade goods and silver from the east contributed in no small way to the economic development of European markets. New settlements and cultures grew out of Viking exploration, sometimes where none had existed before. The birth of an Icelandic nation was to give Europe its oldest living parliamentary system and lead to an extraordinary flowering of medieval literature in the shape of the Icelandic sagas.

The legacy of the British Empire remains highly controversial. But it is even more problematic trying to judge the Vikings by the standards of 21st-century morality. As with all stereotypes applied to large groups of people, labelling the Vikings as heroes or villains, raiders or traders, distorts history and oversimplifies complex phenomena. The Vikings were many things in equal measure, and their diversity of expression, activity and ethnicity is a defining aspect of what Vikings: life and legend seeks to explore.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Made in China: an imperial Ming vase

detail of Ming vase
Yu-Ping Luk, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

Early last year, when the idea of a Spotlight tour to complement the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China was raised, we had to consider which single object from the British Museum collection could possibly represent early Ming dynasty (1368–1644) China. The answer seemed obvious – it had to be a spectacular blue-and-white porcelain vase.

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Press launch in Room 33 of the Spotlight tour and Ming exhibition

Without knowing much about the Ming dynasty, most people will probably have heard of the ‘Ming vase’. The phrase ‘as precious as a Ming vase’ is often used to describe an antique object of great value. The plot device of a priceless Ming vase being smashed to pieces or stolen has been used in films and on television for comic or dramatic effect. The spotlight tour, together with the exhibition at the British Museum, are opportunities for audiences to rediscover this seemingly familiar object and to find out more about the Ming dynasty when it was made.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration. Made in Jingdezhen, China. Ming dynasty, Xuande mark and period, 1426–1435. Gift of Sir John Addis.

The vase that has been chosen for the Spotlight tour is a stunning porcelain flask that was donated to the British Museum in 1975 by Sir John Addis, a former British Museum Trustee and British Ambassador to China. Painted with lotus scroll decoration in cobalt blue, it is inscribed with the reign mark of the Xuande emperor (reigned 1426–35), well known for his love of the arts. Together with his grandfather the charismatic Yongle emperor (reigned 1403–24), the Xuande emperor established a golden age in China during which the imperial and regional courts were centres of culture, military power and contacts with the wider world. The vase is typical of the skill and quality of imperial production in China during the early 1400s.

Apart from its beauty and size, this vase was also chosen as it highlights one of the major themes of the exhibition, the interaction between China and the wider world. While considerable attention has been paid to the contacts between China and Europe from the 1500s onwards, China was already engaged in a network of trade and diplomacy by land and by sea that extended between Japan to the west coast of Africa a century earlier. The imperial court took an interest in and appropriated elements from other cultures, such as by commissioning porcelain with shapes modelled on earlier Middle Eastern objects in metal or glass. This porcelain flask is an example of this distinctive trend.

By displaying this stunning piece from the British Museum’s collection, we hope to inspire people to find out more about Ming dynasty China. It is also an opportunity to rediscover objects related to China in partner museums that may be shown alongside the vase. Each venue will also bring a different perspective to this Ming porcelain vase by commissioning a new artwork in response to it. At the first stop, the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scottish composer Eddie McGuire has composed a new piece of music set to poetry by Tom Furniss. All of us on the project are looking forward to the première of this work on 11 April and we are excited to see what will come next.

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

The Spotlight tour will be at:
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums, 12 April – 6 July 2014
Weston Park Museum, Museums Sheffield, 12 July – 5 October 2014
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 11 October 2014 – 4 January 2015
The Willis Museum, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service, 10 January – 4 April 2015.


The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP
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The lives of others in runic inscriptions

gold finger ring with runic inscription
Martin Findell, Research Associate, University of Leicester

Gold finger-ring, engraved with a runic inscription. Late Anglo-Saxon, found in Cumbria, England. OA.10262

Gold finger-ring, engraved with a runic inscription. Late Anglo-Saxon, found in Cumbria, England. OA.10262

Call it perversity, but in my own research I’ve always had a taste for the unfashionable and the unglamorous areas of runic writing. I get more excited about a name scratched onto the back of a brooch than about a large and richly decorated runestone; and as a historical linguist, I take more pleasure in trying to work out problems of the relationship between spelling, speech and the changing structure of language than in broader questions of cultural history and society. Of course the two are interdependent, and while I concern myself with the troublesome nuts-and-bolts details of language, language is an aspect of culture and must be studied alongside other aspects of culture. Even the briefest and most unattractive inscription is an instance of language use by real people who belonged to a community in which the act of writing had some purpose. Rather than regale you with tales of unstressed vowels, I thought it would be more interesting to share my interest in some of the texts we find written in runes, and what they might tell us about the people who produced them.

One of the most impressive objects in the Vikings exhibition (if somewhat overshadowed by the great Roskilde ship) is a replica of the Jelling stone. The original is at the large royal complex at Jelling in southern Denmark, and was commissioned by Harald Bluetooth to honour his parents and boast of his own achievements. The inscription says “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm his father and Þorvi his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway, and who made the Danes Christian” (translation based on that in the Samnordisk rundatabas).

The memorial text is formulaic, and similar to inscriptions found all over Viking-Age Scandinavia (with a particular concentration in the Uppland region of Sweden, where several thousand have been found). The stone is probably best seen as a political statement, particularly when it comes to Harald’s display of his Christian credentials; lest the viewer be left in any doubt, one face of the stone is carved with an image of the Crucifixion.

The Jelling stone is an inscription made for a king, but not by him. The people who did the actual work – and importantly for linguists, these were probably also the people who made decisions about things like spelling – were craftsmen, possibly attached to Harald’s court, who remain silent in the historical record.

One of my favourite inscriptions lies at the other end of the scale: a short, personal message, informally scratched on the back of a brooch found in a sixth-century woman’s grave at Bad Krozingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The inscription reads boba:leub agirike, “Bōba, dear to Agirik”. Bōba is the name of a woman, perhaps that of the woman buried with the brooch (although not necessarily – valuable pieces of jewellery like this could be passed on as heirlooms, or looted and given to someone other than the original owner), and Agirik is a man. It is likely that he wrote the inscription himself – it is not a work of professional craftsmanship (which the brooch certainly is), and the fact that the message is on the back of the brooch means that it would not have been visible when worn. We have no way of knowing what the relationship between these two people was. They might have been husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister, or related in some other way; but this slender piece of evidence helps to remind us that these were real people, people who knew and cared for one another. It might not tell us much about the large-scale political and religious trends of the society in which they lived, but it brings both the words and objects of the past to life as something familiar, human and all too short-lived.

Martin Findell, Research Associate, University of Leicester. His particular interests are in the problems of understanding the relationship between spelling and sound change in the early Germanic languages, and in the uses and abuses of runes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This post was originally published on the British Museum Press blog. Martin’s book about runic inscriptions has been recently published by British Museum Press and can be found on our online shop.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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The power of gold: communication, identity and transformation


Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

While admiring the stunning works of art in the exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, you might ask yourself who commissioned, owned and used such magnificent gold objects. In most cases, they were mainly in the hands of the powerful elites. However, depending on their final shape, they could have a very different function and meaning. In the exhibition we explore three of the main uses for these gold artefacts.

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro O00296

Tunjo representing a warrior with bow, arrows and a trophy head in his hand. (exh. cat. p. 120). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O00296

Some were created as offerings to the gods, placed in rivers, lakes (such as Lake Guatavita), caves and other liminal places in the landscape, to mediate for the community. Votive offerings, which included ceramics, stones, and gold figures and scenes, were probably intended to petition the gods or to thank them for their intervention in favour of an individual, group or the wider community. These figurines, known as tunjos, give us a wonderful window into the life of those ancient people, portraying images that ranged from female figures with children to musicians, warriors and chiefs.

Gold objects were also widely used as body adornments. As such they marked the belonging of an individual to a group through a very specific style and type of ornament. They also indicated the status and rank of the wearer within the group. Gold objects acted as very public displays of power and identity with an incredible range of styles and shapes that included diadems, nose rings, ear spools and earrings, pectorals, necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Each group also mastered specific metalworking techniques that gave the final character and look to their pieces.

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC - AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro, O05928

Crocodile-shaped pendant, 700 BC – AD 1600, Late Quimbaya, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 147). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O05928

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro O26176

Anthropomorphic bat-man staff finial, AD 900-1600, Tairona, gold alloy (exh. cat. p. 157). © Museo del Oro – Banco de la República, Colombia O26176

But perhaps the most complex and intriguing use of gold was in rituals, ranging from musical instruments, paraphernalia used as part of the consumption of powerful plants, such as the chewing of coca leaves, to the rituals of transformation. In ancient Colombia people believed that by changing one’s physical appearance one would undergo a total transformation and take on the characteristics of the creature. But what did ancient Colombian people want to transform themselves into? Spiritual leaders wished to transform themselves into the powerful animals that surrounded them, such as jaguars, birds and even bats, to experience the world from a very different perspective. This transformation was aided by gold objects that helped in the long process that might have taken months or even years to achieve. Wonderful necklaces, impressive masks and body piercings, spectacular pectorals and other body adornments helped leaders take those magical journeys to gain knowledge of the world from a very different point of view and later recount back to the community all they has learned and experienced.

In ancient Colombia, gold was a powerful metal, which not only allowed people to communicate with the supernatural and display one’s identity as a member of a community, but it also allowed you to gain a new one.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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The Vikings are here…

Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Lo, it is nearly thirty-five years since the Vikings last came to this Museum, and nobody believed that such an influx of fantastic material from overseas (as well as the UK) could be made…*

To be fair, the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend lacks some of the drama of the original Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793. We haven’t had fiery dragons in the sky (unless you count the Aurora Borealis coming unusually far south), and there hasn’t been much in the way of destruction or slaughter. Nor is it likely that this exhibition will be remembered 1200 years after the event, although in an age of globalised communication, there is no doubt that the exhibition has attracted considerably more notice in the last few days than the attack on Lindisfarne did at the time. Nevertheless, as the largest Viking exhibition in the UK for over 30 years, it has the potential to shape our definition of the Viking Age.

The attack on Lindisfarne is often used as a starting point for a period which extended until around 1050 or 1100. The defeat of the Norwegian Harald Hard-ruler (whose story is so brilliantly told in a new illustrated children’s adventure book by Project Curator Tom Williams) at Stamford Bridge near York in 1066 provides another convenient end date from an English perspective, although it doesn’t have much meaning elsewhere. The idea of a ‘Viking Age’ has formed part of modern historical perceptions since the 19th century, but the interpretation of that period, and of the Vikings themselves, has changed many times since then. One of the most memorable experiences of my own childhood was visiting the great Viking exhibition here at the British Museum in 1980. It brought together an unprecedented collection of Viking material, interpreted in line with what was then current thinking on the Vikings. Recent archaeological discoveries in Viking settlements in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia played an important part in raising public awareness of the less violent aspects of life in the Viking Age. It was an exhibition that helped to define the Vikings for a generation, and the catalogue Viking Artefacts by the guest curator James Graham-Campbell remains an essential reference for any serious study of Viking culture.

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30.  © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30. © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Of course, things have changed since 1980. There have been many new finds, due in part to the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the reporting of metal-detected objects. The Vale of York Hoard, for example, displayed in its entirety for the first time at the British Museum in this exhibition, was found by metal detectorists in 2004. And new material keeps on coming, with dramatic finds excavated even in the course of preparing this exhibition, necessitating rewrites and adaptations as we went along. The mass grave of Vikings found near Weymouth excavated in 2009 and the 2011 Ardnamurchan burial (the first complete example of a Viking boat burial from the British mainland) are prime examples.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. Exh. cat. Chapter 4. fig. 3. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A tiny three-dimensional Valkyrie amulet, found as recently as 2013, demonstrates how up-to-date the finds presented in this exhibition really are. Of course, the star of the show – the remains of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever discovered – is one of the most important and awe-inspiring Viking discoveries of recent times.

Just as important has been the impact of new research, particularly in the areas of ritual and belief and Viking-age economies. Some of this work has been pioneered by those behind the 1980 exhibition, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present their work and set out the state of current thinking for a new generation. As Professor Ronald Hutton astutely observed in his review in the New Statesman, the major overarching themes of the exhibition – global communication, cultural interaction and diversity, technological sophistication – are ideas with a profound significance to the modern world.

Looking back through the email trail, Vikings: Life and Legend has been over six years in the making. Apart from the challenge of delivering an engaging and informative exhibition, we have had the added issues of incorporating a 37 metre-long ship, and being the first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, on which building had not yet even commenced when we started planning the exhibition six years ago. It has been an enormous team effort to get us here; While curators get the media attention on such occasion, the conservators, designers, loans administrators, object handlers and many other staff have equally important roles behind the scenes. The process has at times been exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and he only had to deal with two cities. This exhibition has had the added complication of being planned in three. Despite all that, we have finally reached the point where the exhibition is ready to show to the public, and it is enormously rewarding to see the positive response which we have already had from journalists and those who have seen the exhibition. If the response of the public as a whole is as positive, I think that all of us involved in the exhibition will be very satisfied. And if a single visitor is as inspired by this exhibition as the younger me was by its predecessor, then I shall personally be delighted.

*(With apologies to Alcuin of York.)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum is on from 6 March to 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Vikings in Russia

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow.

Eastern style axe-head © State Historical Museum, Moscow. This axe, with its backwards projecting knob, is typical of weapons from eastern Baltic lands. It was found in Russia’s Kazan region on the Volga river, but is decorated in a Scandinavian style with gold inlay that depicts a sword piercing a serpent from below – possibly a reference to the legend of Sigurd the dragon-slayer.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

The Vale of York Hoard, acquired jointly by the British Museum and York Museums Trust in 2010, contains Slavic silverwork from Russia and Islamic coins from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend opens at the British Museum on 6 March 2014.
Supported by BP

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The British Museum would like to thank the State Historical Museum, Moscow and the State Novgorod Museum for the generous loan of objects.

Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’

Detail of Ein neuer Type ('A New Type'), 1965, Georg Baselitz (b.1938), grey and yellow ochre watercolour, charcoal, graphite and white pastel on paper.
John-Paul Stonard, art historian

On 7 February, the great literary critic James Wood gave a lecture at the British Museum, part of the London Review of Books’ Winter Lecture series, titled ‘On Not Going Home’. He spoke about the condition of exile, of living one’s life away from home, and of the strange unreality of this experience.

His own compelling account is based on the experience of having lived for the last two decades in America (he was born and raised in Durham) – a sort of voluntary ‘homelessness’ that he is at pains to distinguish from the wrenching experience of exile. ‘Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience’, he cites Edward Said, one of the great thinkers on the subject.

Wood’s brilliant lecture raised many questions that illuminate the works of art included in the book and exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation. The title might make you think of the Berlin Wall, and the political division that ended in 1989; but the sense of division is of something much deeper, much more personal and psychological.

All of the six artists included in the exhibition were born in eastern Germany, but sooner or later moved to make their lives in the West. Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke were born in the eastern territories, lost to Germany in 1945, and were forced with their families west. Blinky Palermo moved with his foster family at the age of nine. Georg Baselitz transferred from East to West Berlin during his training (before the borders closed in 1961), just as Gerhard Richter completed his training as a Socialist Realist in Dresden, before moving to Düsseldorf and starting over again, working, as he (ironically) termed it, as a ‘Capitalist Realist’.

The most dramatic case was that of A.R. Penck, who crossed the East-West German border on foot in 1980, after years of working underground in opposition to the East German State. He had already made a career in the West, thanks to the dealer Michael Werner, who would smuggle his paintings out (by car), and showed them in his Cologne gallery. It seemed inevitable that one day Penck himself would follow.

The lives and works of all these artists were inflected in different ways by this experience of migration, and by the political division of Germany. I think of James Wood’s comment on his own experience of living in America, and the ‘light veil of alienation thrown over everything’. I wonder if this ‘veil of alienation’ might explain the way in which those such as Baselitz and Richter saw West Germany, somewhere apart from their ‘heimat’ – that untranslatable German word which suggests the intimate connection with the landscape in which one was born and raised.

For the philosopher and critic György Lúkacs (cited by Wood), the modern novel was an expression of the ‘transcendental homelessness’ of the modern age. Modern life was defined by the experience of exile, and the novel was the most direct expression of this experience. ‘Transcendental homelessness’ seems to float over the images created by Baselitz in his early series of drawings, prints and paintings of ‘heroes’, lonely figures walking through desolate landscapes. It is a feeling of restlessness that I also sense in the way Markus Lüpertz and A.R. Penck made drawings, producing vast quantities, as if constantly searching for something, some form of resolution. Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter’s early works are marked by a cool irony, and a feeling of keeping a distance from ‘art’ itself — Richter used photography, Polke an absurdist humour, as a way of avoiding ‘going home’ to older ideas of making art. And the myths that have gathered around the life and work of Blinky Palermo, whose name is itself a token of not-belonging (he was born Peter Stolle, and went through a number of change of surname, before alighting on the pseudonym as a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie), make of him one of the most romantic, and elusive artists of all the ‘Baselitz generation’.

Listen to James Wood’s lecture via the London Review of Books website

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

This post was originally published on the British Museum Press books blog

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More than just gold

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Gold glitters in our exhibition, Beyond El Dorado, power and gold in ancient Colombia. To our modern eye those pieces convey ideas of richness, wealth and a fascinating world that disappeared a long time ago. Exquisitely crafted, they are testimonies of the complexity and sophistication achieved by those pre-Hispanic people. Objects that seem at first glance made of gold are much more complex and are in fact made of metal alloys. In most instances they combine, in different degrees, gold, some natural occurring silver, and copper, a combination known as tumbaga. These metals were symbolically charged in pre-Hispanic times, being associated with the sun and the moon respectively. Their combination produced a microcosm, a balance between opposites in the rendering of each object.

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

The creation of alloys also allowed for differences in colour, ranging from reddish to golden tones. Each object had its own particular colour, shine and finish thanks to the mastery and skills of the artists that produced them. Some even show contrasting colours in the same object, producing beautiful patterns and details.

Small ingots of tumbaga, in the shape of round buttons, were crafted in unique objects either by hammering or casting them (or by a combination of both techniques). Ancient Colombian artists mastered both techniques to an unprecedented degree, creating exceptional works of art.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC – AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Hammering metal was a delicate process. Metal becomes easily brittle when hammered and they have to be repeatedly cooled and dipped in water before the final form is achieved. The thin sheets of gold were then cut, decorated (for example by repoussé) or joined by clipping or folding several sheets together. Exceptional three dimensional pieces were created, as for example the wonderful jaguar seen in the exhibition (above). Claws, tail and jaws are articulated and even the nose ring is made of a rare alloy of platinum and gold.

However, it was the casting of metals that was developed most in ancient Colombia. Using the lost wax technique, artist modelled the final piece they wanted to achieve in beeswax (from stingless bees). Once the wax figure was finished it was covered in fine clay and charcoal, leaving pouring channels. The whole mould was fired and the melted wax poured out. Its place would be taken by molten metal, which cooled slowly as it solidified inside the mould. The mould was then broken and the final metal piece polished and finished.

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC - AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC – AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Ancient Colombian artist even created hollow objects following this technique, for example flasks and containers. Great skill was needed to produce them. The figure was modelled in clay and charcoal, and a thin layer of wax was applied to cover the final result. Over this another layer of clay would be added, and wooden pegs were inserted to fix the inner mould to the outer one to keep them in place when the wax melted. Controlling the flow of the metal to every single detail of the piece, its slow solidification, and then freeing the figure without damaging it was challenge that could only be achieved by the most experienced hands. Exquisite works of art, seen in this exhibition, were the result of incredible knowledge, care and time invested in their making.

Videos showing goldmaking techniques created for the exhibition

  1. Depletion gilding (dorado por oxidación)
  2. From wax to metal (de la cera al metal)
  3. By hammer and fire (a martillo y fuego)

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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El Dorado: a title and a myth

View of Lake Guatavita
Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Curators usually think very carefully about the title of an exhibition. In a few words we have to convey a key message to catch people’s attention and to draw in the crowds. Our current exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, was no exception. At the British Museum we felt we had to include the words ‘El Dorado’ in the title. This Spanish term, which means the ‘golden one’ or ‘the gilded one’, is familiar to many, but very few know what or who El Dorado was. Perhaps this is part of its mystical aura; the inevitable attraction of the unknown?

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

Throughout the centuries, El Dorado was described by some as a man fully dressed in gold regalia. Other people believed he was a ruler or even a city covered in this precious metal. Some believed it was a golden kingdom. In fact, El Dorado was none of these. It was a myth that grew over the centuries that seems to have originated from the gold-thirsty Europeans in their exploration of the New Continent, soon to be called America. From 1499 the Spanish explorers and conquistadores reached the Caribbean coasts known today as Colombia and were especially dazzled by the quantity of gold being used by indigenous people. The King of Spain even named these lands ‘Castilla del Oro’ (Castile of Gold). But this Dorado was always elusive, always further south, or further north, or more towards the east; never being reached by the many expeditions and men that invested their live in this futile search.

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Some chroniclers placed El Dorado in the Colombian landscape, and few even ventured to link it to Lake Guatavita. This wonderful lagoon, nested in the green Andean highlands about 35 miles north of modern day Bogota, became the focus of attention for explorers and treasure hunters for many centuries. Accounts by Juan Rodriguez Freyle (1636) picture a vivid image of one of the rituals that took place in this lake. When a Muisca ruler came to power, and after much ceremony and fasting, he was taken to the lagoon where he was stripped of all his clothing. His body was covered in gold powder and placed at the center of a raft with attendants adorned with colorful feathers and gold ornaments. As the raft sailed towards the center of the lake, the crowds sang and danced and aromatic resins were burned. When the boat reached the center, a banner was raised, everyone fell silent and offerings of gold and emeralds were thrown to the waters of the lake. But there was much more than just gold offered; the truth behind the myth was far more fascinating. Excavations in the early 20th century have shown that wonderful ceramics, stone necklaces and other materials were also deposited in the lake.

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

This lavish ceremony was probably only one of many that took place in Guatavita. And this lagoon was only one of the sacred locations throughout the Andean landscape where Muisca rituals took place (including rivers, caves, rocks). There is much more than just a myth to be explored; there are rich cultures, unique objects and exceptional belief systems, which all go beyond the power granted to gold in modern times.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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