The word Viking was a verb. Norse people didn’t call themselves Vikings, they did it – they went out and traded and raided. I was reminded of that when I too went a viking to recover some knowledge from Melbourne Museum’s new, temporary exhibit Vikings: Beyond the Legend. While there, as it was the opening weekend, I also took the opportunity to attend a talk by Lena Hejll, an archaeologist from The Swedish History Museum, which is the institution responsible for this exhibit, which is its second iteration.
What struck me about the exhibit is the contrast between how Vikings loom so large in our popular imagination, and how little there is left of them. To draw attention to how humans have managed to invent much of our image of Vikings, there is a display demonstrating the 19th century provenance of the horned helmet image many persist with (even the little shop).
They are seen as fearsome warriors, as skilled sailors, as travelers far and wide, and as believers in a particular set of gods, yet this is exhibit spends much time and space showing how the Northerners were mainly concerned with farming. At the talk, I learned even the famed realm of the gods, Asgard, indicates this, as ‘gard’ means farm. Thus, mainly, I thought my Dad would love the plows, and vestiges of other implements, retired farmer that he is. There was even a chart explaining how their livestock were, on average, smaller than today’s breeds.
The exhibit presents what is left of their ships and weapons, which, as it turns out, isn’t much. Ships were wood, and it mostly rots or burns or both. Metal, however, doesn’t. Reassembled in their original positions, ancient rusty nails represent a partial reconstruction. It is a ghost ship.
In a way these nails represent not just the ship they held together, but the totality of the exhibit. For all their achievements, there is little left of Vikings that is tangible (and portable). Most of what is whole on display are reconstructions, such as the clothing, or copies (see below).
So what are these tangible bits and pieces? They are scraps of metal: broken bowls, cooking utensils, ear spoons (they loved these), keys, (Norse women particularly valued keys), tools of their crafts and trades, beads and brooches, toys and pendants. And in addition, there are ice skates made of bones, and scraps from burials, and bits of burned bread.
From these bits and pieces, along with their beliefs, folk memories of their conquered foes, and sources such as the Poetic Edda, runic inscriptions, as well as Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Volga Vikings (from about 921CE) modern people have enough to attempt to recreate an entire complex society and invent/tell/retell stories of their achievements.
We have the rusted remnants of swords and spears, hinting at the myths and legends of great warriors. The hilts are small, not much wider than my own fist, though. They are so unlike the longswords I’m becoming accustomed to. It is hard to imagine a Viking take up a weapon such as this, or to feel its true extent and weight.
Maybe it’s better this way. Not in a scientific sense, but for our imaginations. We have the nails, and the shape they hint at, but to really see the ship, we have to imagine it.
It is work, to see this long since sunken boat’s sails unfurl in the breeze, to read in our mind’s eyes the runes inscribed on its high prow, to hear the gentle lap of the water against it, and the horn calls from those who sailed upon cold Northern seas so long ago.
But such tasks have never been beyond us. Horns on helmets are testament to this, and in fact, such work to imagine the past is our duty. People of the North would call this the work of poets, their Skalds.