British Museum blog

The Vikings are coming…

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery
Tom Williams, Project Curator: Vikings, British Museum

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Iron axe-head found in the Thames at Hammersmith, Viking, 10th-11th century (1909,0626.8)

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

© National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum. © Paul Raftery

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The installation of Roskilde 6 at the British Museum

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

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
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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15 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Mary Josefina Cade says:

    The frame on its own is beautiful. What an amazing way to display the surviving timbers. Is this the actual gallery where the ship will be displayed?


  2. Allen Berg says:

    I can not thank all of you enough for this work, bringing such an important part of human history to the public. My ancestors are Icelandic, Vikings, this is such a wonderful way to enlighten visitors to the Museum. And viewers online about your very interesting and important work. Thanks again, Allen Berg


  3. Reblogged this on History of Britain and commented:


  4. Christopher Feeley says:

    Going to see it today and really looking forward to it.


  5. Suzanna Harris says:

    The artefacts here are excellent in scope and quality, and the Roskilde ship is a wonderful exhibit, as is the big screen with a film of the open sea. But the walls of this gallery are grey
    and blank, and would benefit from more large photographs of the landscapes and seascapes
    inhabited by the Vikings.
    The the labelling is very hard to read, too small, wrong colours and should be a serif typeface.
    It is difficult to work out what pieces are referred to in the texts – it need numbers for individual
    pieces or collections. a strain for the eyes, especially with the low light level of the exhibition.
    I do not know why almost no use is made of enlarged photographs of decorative/informative
    small objects – they simply cannot be viewed properly. The properties of the precious metals
    used would be apparent from photographs too, and provide some colour and vibrancy.
    More use of video could have been made – I would have liked to know about the recent
    voyage to Dublin, with evidence of the ship’s seaworthiness. I should have liked to know
    whether the ships had cabins or shelters and where and how they were constructed. And
    what wood was used, how it was treated, and much more. Also why and how some ships
    and utensils have been preserved till the present day.
    I found the exhibition cramped and irritating up to the last gallery, and then disappointing.
    It show a wonderful collection amassed with great international co-operation; but with
    more consideration for the public and better evaluation at the planning stage it could have been displayed, and thus enjoyed, so much better.
    The Vikings are not brought to life here. The exhibition is cold and grey like the sea on the gallery screen. The British Museum could learn much from Jorvik in York. Not nearly good enough, British Museum.


  6. Haven’t seen the show or catalogue yet, but can someone explain the reason for the inclusion (at least according to the BM images site) the lovely early 17th century Ottoman school album ‘A briefe relation of the Turckes, their kings, Emperors, or Grandsigneurs, their conquests, religion, customes, habbits, etc.’?


    • Hi Daniel, It’s a lovely image, but unfortunately incorrectly included in the Vikings theme. It’s now been removed from the selection by our Images team. Thanks for spotting this.


  7. Jan Barnett says:

    Do not even bother to go to this. We couldn’t see a thing it was so crowded with barely space to walk let alone see. Had booked timed admission but left and demanded refund . Apparently this has been a problem from the word go . Surely a museum as experienced as this with crowds could have judged this better. Very disappointing especially as I had taken a day off to attend.. Will not be going to the museum for a special show anytime soon.


    • Dear Jan. Many thanks for your feedback, which has been passed on. We apologise that your visit experience was not what we wanted it to be. The visitor response in the first days of the exhibition was unprecedented. Our planning for working in the new space has been comprehensive, but together with visitor comments, we have identified a number of changes that we shall put in place to ensure the experience is better in future.


      • Matthew Lee says:

        Trip Advisor comments seem to be unanimous in expressing the view that it is impossible to see early displays – very crowded, no queue management, captions not easily viewable. My experience yesterday was exactly the same. I suggest you need to do something now or more people will be highly disappointed and want their money back.


  8. Bob Wallace says:

    I completely agree with Jan’s comment. The entry was grossly overbooked and our visit with very little enjoyment. If you are a VSP (very short person) with excellent eyesight in twilight you may well be able to read the labels and creep through the endless almost stationery queues, it might be worthwhile. Otherwise stay home.


  9. Zara says:

    I found this really disappointing. I had a nine year old with me and neither of us could see any of the first few rooms – entered on a pre booked ticket at £16.50, I expected at least to be able to see the materials. The audio guide script was rather monotonous and I was surprised there wasn’t a special one for younger visitors – just the usual ‘family trail’ leaflet, not very inspiring. Beginning with tiny brooches etc was dull. No story, just endless repetitive objects. The best room at the end was impossible to grasp, the scary helmets and skulls lost in the gloom. I had hoped my kid could find her own way through the exhibition to engage herself, but it was impossible to even move freely through it – and we are a family who love exhibitions and history. What a missed opportunity.


  10. Chris MacGregor says:

    My wife and I paid a visit to the exhibition on Monday and although very crowded we managed to work our way round and see everything we wanted to see reasonably successfully.
    The flow of the crowd was held up considerably by the use of the multi-media commentary and a large pram which was unfortunate but my wife and I were able to get to see everything we wanted to so we had a generally good experience.
    Could I suggest more attention to flow management needs to be thought about and put in place, may be slightly longer time slots with fewer people allowed at a time. I know that could cause problems but everyone would stand a better chance of seeing everything they wanted of this wonderful exhibition.
    The quality of the exhibition is truly wonderful and well worth the perseverance and patients of the crowds.


  11. generalgtony says:

    I visited last week with my brother, who ,incidently, lives in Denmark. He wnet to the exhibition that was held thirty years ago.
    We enjoyed the whole experience thoroughly. it is very difficult for any exhibition, that is going to be this popular,, to manage the flow of people. Young children did blot out some of the labelling for us because it was low down and we did have to wait sometimes to get a closer view of some exhibits but we were patient and got to see everything in the end. It is always interesting to say to yourself, What have i learned? when you exit an exhibition and we came away having engaged with all the themes and interpretations. This is the sign of a great well organised well researched exhibition presented in an understandable way.


  12. scienceviking says:

    Sharp elbows and carrying a sword whilst dressed as a Viking both helped and hindered when I visited the exhibition. Sharp elbows, because they were necessary to be able to move at a reasonable pace and get to see everything (joking), and the Viking costume slowed me down considerably as the public thought I was one of the staff and asked a lot of questions. Luckily, this is just the sort of thing I love to do.

    I was amazed by the Roskilde 6 ship. I have read about how thin the timbers are that make the strakes of the ship, but to actually see how thin they really are in such a large ship, it’s almost unbelievable. There’s still a general misconception that the Vikings were little more than illiterate barbarians whose sole talent was killing and plundering. I hope that the technological marvel of Roskilde 6 shows just how wrong those misconceptions are.


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