The Vikings. Tall, blond, blue-eyed, bearded, bare-legged, brutish men wearing horned helmets and animal furs slung over their shoulders. Romantic but wanton and violent sea raiders who terrorized Europe during the misty Viking Age a thousand years ago.
This is the familiar image of the Vikings from schoolbooks, Prince Valiant comics, Hollywood movies, Scandinavian travel ads and television comercials for Erik cigars. But it is now being disputed by leading European scholars with revealing new evidence gathered in recent years from important excavations in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia.
They depict the Vikings as important medieval traders and merchants, technologically advanced boat-builders and seafarers, wide ranging colonists and city-builders, artistic carpenters and metalworkers, and even family-loving farmers and homebodies.
"The Vikings have had a bad press," contends David M. Wilson, director of the British Museum and an authority on the Vikings. "They were not just robbers and rapists," he says, although he does not dispute that they were "brutal men in a brutal time."
The British Museum has mounted a major exhibition of the new evidence about the Vikings, which will be on view in London through summer before moving to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Its opening has been accompanied by a spate of books, articles and a BBC television series that amounts to a 20th-century publicity campaign to remake the image of the Vikings, who held sway in northern Europe from roughly 800 until 1100.
Referring to the tin Viking helmet in the exhibition, one of only two found in excavations so far, Wilson pointed out that it did not have horns. Horned helmets may have been worn by ancestors of the Vikings, according to the experts, but they went out with the Bronze Age. The Vikings also wore long pants to protect them from the northern cold and cloaks made of wool from their own sheep rather than animal skins.
It is even wrong to refer to just any Scandinavian of the Viking Age as a "Viking," a word possibly derived from the Scandinavian term for going off on an adventure -- or "on a viking." It should be applied only to the minority of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes of the time who sailed away to steal their fortunes.
"To refer to all Scandinavians of the first millenium as Vikings," the noted Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl argues, "is as unfair as referring to all 17th-century Englishmen as buccaneers."
While the majority of Scandinavians stayed home as fishermen or farmers and gradually created the Scandinavian nations we know today, adventurers, traders, outcasts and outlaws set forth from the fjords and rivers of the north, beginning in the 8th and 9th centuries. They ranged in their revolutionary longboats west to the British Isles and across the North Atlantic to America, south to France, Spain, Italy and North Africa, and east along the rivers of Europe into the heart of what is now Russia.
Their distinctively graceful ships of curved wood represented a technological breakthrough. Powered by either sail or oars, they were swift and flexible. Although confidently oceangoing at a time when most mariners hugged the coastline, they were shallow enough to navigate rivers or slide right onto banks and beaches rather than having to drop anchor in deep water or tie up to a dock.
This enabled raiding Vikings to suddenly swoop seemingly from nowhere upon their victims, beaching their craft quickly and jumping out fighting before escaping with plunder and captives as quickly as they came.Wilson and others believe this made the Vikings seem that much more horrible than other equally nasty marauders roaming Europe in a fearsome age.
Monks in secluded, moneyed monasteries on the English and Irish coasts were among those who found themselves prey to attack without warning. It was the monks, the authors of contemporary history, "who gave the Vikings a bad reputation at the time," Wilson points out, because the Vikings were then Pagans and included rich monasteries among their targets. "Ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne with plunder and slaughter," reports one chronicler, describing a Viking raid in 793 on a large, important monastery on the northestern coast of England.
Penetrating most of what had been the Roman Empire, the Vikings pulled down London Bridge, repeatedly besieged Paris, attacked the splendid Moorish cities of Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba, plundered towns along the Rhine and Rhone rivers, preyed on ships in the Mediterranean and served as mercenary guards for the glittering Byzantine court in Constantinople.
But they also traded off furs, wool, stolen treasures and slaves for jewelry, fabrics and other goods of more developed societies, some of which they retraded as middlemen. Those who settled down in trading centers from York to Kiev integrated themselves with local populations and became respected merchants and administrators, according to the archeological evidence.
They established the first significant urban settlement in previously agrarian Scandinavia, and founded the ports of Dublin, Cork and Limerick in Ireland, from which they ruled the coast, leaving the interior to the unconquerable Irish. A major excavation on the bank of the Liffey in the heart of Dublin has uncovered remains of wharves, buildings and artifacts of the Norwegian trading center that centuries later became the Irish capital.
Norwegian farmers and sheepherders colonized the Shetland, Orkney and Faroe islands north of Britain, as well as Iceland and Greenland. They founded a new Scandinavian nation on Iceland, establishing the first European parliament there in 930, and started agricultural settlements on Greenland that lasted 500 years before mysteriously disappearing.
Eirik the red, who left Norway for Iceland "because of a killing," according to the Icelandic sagas, gave Greenland its name in a real-estate agent's ploy to persuade others to join him there. His son, Lief Eirikson, a fur trader and cattle ranger on Greenland, helped establish Christianity among the Norse settlers there before sailing west to discover America and trying unsuccessfully to colonize Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Britain, Danish Vikings fought their way to a truce with Alfred the Great that gave the invaders the formerly Roman city of York and the northern third of England. It became known as "Danelaw" because Danish "law," a word the Scandinavians added to the English language, ruled there. Other Danish words and family and place names endure there today, and the administrative subdivisions the Danes left behind survived until this century.
Across the English Channel, Viking invaders consolidated northwestern France into the powerful province of Normandy, named for the "Northmen" who stopped their assaults on Paris only after the French king aceded to their control of Normandy. Nineteen days after the Anglo-Saxon King Harold defeated and killed the last Scandinavian monarch to invade England, Harald Hardrada of Norway, in 1066, Harold himself fell at Hastings to William the Conqueror, whose Normans invaded from France in ships of distinctly Viking design.
Swedish Vikings roamed eastern Europe, settling among the resident Slavs in important trading centers like Kiev. Other trading peoples called these Vikings the "Rus," a corruption of the Finnish words for the Swedes, which may have been the derivation of Russia.
Most of this was known to scholars from sketchy accounts of the Vikings' contemporaries and from Scandinavian sagas retelling tales handed down from illiterate Viking ancestors. But significant new proof -- preserved long ships, jewelry, coins, implements, workshops and dwellings -- has emerged from important excavations in places like Dublin, York, the Danish Viking commercial center of Hedeby in West Germany, and the brief Viking settlement at L'anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. The ongoing dig in the English cathedral city of York has uncovered a Viking street with the remains of shops, houses, storerooms and courtyards.
The British Museum exhibition, its first joint venture with the Metropolitan in New York, has brought together more than 500 of these scarce Viking artifacts from 45 museums in England, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and West Germany. "There has never been an exhibition like this before and probably never will be again," Wilson said, because so much has been loaned by so many other institutions.
The only thing Wilson felt he could not ask for was one of the unearthed Viking ships now carefully preserved in an Oslo museum. Instead, standing in the courtyard in front of the British Museum is a faithful replica of a Viking longboat made in the ancient way by craftsmen on the Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, where elements of a mixed Viking-Celtic culture survive to this day.
Wilson has been working on the show since he became director of the British Museum three years ago, when the idea was suggested by the Metropolitan Museum and by the Times newspapers of London, a co-sponsor along with the Nordic Council of the Scandinavian Nations.
"We wanted to express what the Vikings were like in the round," Wilson explained, standing in front of a reconstructed wood-and-thatch Viking house of the kind that stood in Hedeby in the 10th century. "We wanted to show their home life and cultural life. The Scandinavians were self-assured about their culture and didn't take in too much from the many peoples with which they mingled."
Judging from what is on show here, almost everything in the Norsemen's lives had an artistic touch to it, from the flowing lines and finely sculpted prows of their longboats to the Viking warriors' armor, from men's and women's jewelry to church doors and tombstones. Animals, birds and images of various pagan gods dominate the designs.
Although there is much fine work in metal and wood in the exhibition, Scandinavian culture of the Viking Age was simple -- the same attraction Scandinavian architecure and design holds today. Sophisticated, world-traveling Arab and Jewish traders of the time were unimpressed with Viking culture or pagan habits, such as free divorce or the casting out of unwanted children, retained for a time even after the Vikings converted to Christianity. But they were taken, as the legend makers have been ever since, by the Norsemen's rugged handsomeness.
Hedeby, in its prime around 950, was described by Ibrahim al-Tartushi as a "town poorly provided with property or treasure. The inhabitants' principal food is fish which is very plentiful. The people often throw a newborn child into the sea rather than maintain it. Furthermore, women have the right to claim divorce; they do this themselves whenever they wish. There is also artificial makeup for the eyes; when they use it beauty never fades; on the contrary it increases in men and women as well."
After encountering the "Rus" along the Volga, Arab historian Ibn Fadlan wrote, "Never had I seen people of more perfect physique. They are as tall as date palms, have reddish hair and fair skins. They wear neither shirts nor coats with sleeves. The men wear cloaks with one end thrown over the shoulders, leaving a hand free. Every man carries an axe, a sword and a dagger, and is never seen without them." It's an image that may prove difficult to remake.