British Museum blog

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
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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This photograph shows a mountainside in #Angola featuring large engravings which may be thousands of years old. This rock art is found at Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume, one of a group of four rock art sites located in the south-west corner of Angola, by the edge of the Namib desert. The area is a semi-arid plain characterised by the presence of several inselbergs (isolated hills rising from the plain). Of the four sites, Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume is the largest, located at the top of an inselberg, 726 metres in height. There are large engravings on the slopes of the outcrop, most of them consisting of simple or concentric circles and solar-like images.

Our #AfricanRockArt image project team have now completed cataloguing 19,000 rock art images from Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa, and will be completing work on sites from Southern African countries in the final phase of the project. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our African #rockart image project and the incredible images being catalogued.
Photograph © TARA/David Coulson. Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

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Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Watch the incredible discovery of this colossal statue, submerged under the sea of thousands of years. This colossal 5.4-metre statue of Hapy was discovered underwater in what was the thriving and cosmopolitan seaport of Thonis-Heracleion. It once stood in front of a temple and would have been an impressive sight for traders and visitors arriving from the Mediterranean.

Come face to face with the ancient Egyptian god Hapy for yourself in our‪ #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016.

Colossal statue of Hapy. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt. About 380-250 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. The discovery of this stela, which once stood at the entrance of the main entry port into ancient Egypt, was an extraordinary moment. Its inscription detailing taxes helped solve a 2,000-year-old mystery!

This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through the cities of Thonis and Naukratis, and it originally stood in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis.

A bilingual decree found in 1881 refers in its Greek inscription to ‘the Temple of Heracleion’ and in hieroglyphs to ‘the Temple of Amun-Gereb’. Together these objects revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the same place.

Learn more about the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition.
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that the #SunkenCities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptian cities were believed to be lost.

Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. The amazing rediscovery of these lost cities is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

See more magical moments of discovery in our #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

#archaeology #diving #ancientEgypt
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