Valhalla in Bloomsbury

Vikings: Life and Legend

an exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, June 22–November 17, 2013; the British Museum, London, March 6–June 22, 2014; and the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, September 10, 2014–January 4, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Gareth Williams, Peter Pentz, and Matthias Wemhoff
Cornell University Press, 288 pp., $35.00 (paper)

The Viking Ship

by Gareth Williams
London: British Museum Press, 96 pp., £9.99 (paper)
Martin W. Jürgensen/National Museum of Denmark
‘Saint Olaf’s sailing race’; fourteenth-century wall painting in the parish church at Skamstrup, Denmark

The Vikings. Were they worth it? Why should these “filthiest of God’s creatures, who do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex,” as a Muslim observer noted in about 920, be the subject of major exhibitions in London and Berlin, with the concomitant miseries of overcrowding, overcharging, and overwhelming the public?

The London show, which closed on June 22 and goes on to Berlin in September, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, not because it was so good but because that is what big exhibitions do. The crowd management was careless, but the customers kept coming, either because of the continuous rain outside, or because schools and parents need this sort of thing to occupy their charges. What they found in this case was a new hangar or barn built onto the old museum. They entered a sequence of small compartments displaying jewelry, carvings, and weapons, with inscriptions like the quote from Ibn Fadlan above on the upper part of the partitions, and cards describing the exhibits very curtly at the height of a young child. Earphones were available, and these explained things at greater length, so that the visitors stood in front of the cases blocking the view until the machine said its piece. The resulting congestion gave an impression of mass engagement, but most people were waiting to get a peep or trying to make their way through.

When they did, they escaped into the long hall, to find the star of the show: a skeleton of light steel rods in the shape of the 122-foot warship described here as Roskilde 6. The original, of which a few planks survive at the bottom of the skeleton, was built in about 1025 to carry a crew of between eighty and one hundred armed oarsmen, and later sunk to block a channel leading into Denmark’s main island. This giant rowing boat, the biggest found so far, was probably ordered by King Canute, who succeeded in dominating both Scandinavia and the British Isles for about sixteen years, and could use the English tax system to pay for his fleet. The length of this vessel thinned out the crowd somewhat: we perched above it and along it and tried to imagine what it looked like when it was not a skeleton. At the far end there was a replica of the big Jelling stone, which a Danish king had had carved, painted, and inscribed with runes to commemorate Harold, the tenth-century king of Denmark and Norway, who is said to have “made the Danes Christian.”

Not all of them, and not very Christian, but epitaphs are not written on oath, and that massive monument, with Jesus standing in the shape of a cross, entangled in…

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