In pictures: New Vikings exhibition opens at National Museum of Scotland

Vikings: a major new exhibition of more than 500 objects. Picture: Neil Hanna
Vikings: a major new exhibition of more than 500 objects. Picture: Neil Hanna
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A new exhibition on the Vikings opens in Edinburgh today – and it shows the Norsemen as they really were and how women played a big part in their society. By Rhiannon Williams

When we think of Vikings, the first image that springs to mind is of ferocious, bearded warriors rampaging across Europe, leaving burning buildings and weeping villagers in their wake. But now a new exhibition aims to shed light on the lives of this fascinating people, dispelling more than a few myths and stereotypes along the way – and revealing how women had a far more significant role in the Viking world than most of us will have been aware of until now.

Opening today at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, Vikings! explores all aspects of the Viking age, from their spiritual practices and traditions to their everyday home and family life. It showcases a collection of more than 500 objects, including jewellery, weapon fragments, carvings, precious metals and household items in partnership with the world-renowned collections of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm.

Additional artefacts from the collection of the National Museum of Scotland are included in the rich and diverse relics. By bringing together these objects, archaeological evidence, interactive displays and innovative interpretation, the exhibition aims to tell us who the Vikings really were and paint a vivid picture of how they lived more than 1,000 years ago.

There are no horned helmets in the exhibition, though, as this was an item the Vikings never actually wore. Similarly, the term ‘Viking’ was actually an activity rather than a term for the people themselves. Men and perhaps even women and adolescents, would go out ‘on a Viking’, which could be the sort of pillaging raids that we commonly think of, but could also refer to a more peaceful trading expedition.

The majority of Vikings were mainly farmers and traders, who, far from their bloodthirsty image, valued their appearance and personal hygiene. The discovery of fine-tooth combs designed to be hung from a belt, ear spoons, glass mirrors and even tweezers suggests that the Vikings were an image-conscious lot. The Vikings were, it seems, a far more innovative and developed society than we’ve been previously led to believe.

“It is important to show that it wasn’t just male warriors travelling around conquering new land,” says Maria Jansén, Director of the Swedish History Museum. “It was much more trade-based, and not everyone was a Viking. The word ‘Viking’ was more like something you did once in your life, or someone you called a Viking when he was doing something in particular. You can see here that most of the men during the Viking age were actually farmers, and the farm and the home was a central point of life in the Viking age.”

Engraved pendants, brooches, glass beads, amulets, rings and decorative keys are all examples of the Vikings’ enviable craftmanship skills, but these were no mere trinkets. Ms Jansén explains that the symbolism of the jewellery helps us to understand the role of women and how they lived their lives. She says: “At the farm the woman had a very important role to play. For example, the aristocratic females would wear keys as brooches to symbolise the power of opening the farm. You couldn’t use them, they were merely symbols of the power that she ran the farm.” Recent archaeological finds show that these women ruled the households, were able to become extremely rich and powerful in their own right, and were buried with their jewellery and finery to join the afterlife.

The life and times of Viking children is also explored, which would have been, Ms Jansén says, “a really tough life”. Among the artefacts is a large sword discovered alongside a skeleton in a grave. Scientists initially thought it was a warrior, but tests revealed the body belonged to a boy between the ages of eight and 13, suggesting children trained in combat from an early age.

Scotland has long represented a key part in piecing together the history of the Vikings and how they lived. Between the 9th and 12th centuries Scandinavian seafarers settled Orkney and Shetland, stormed an island monastery in Iona and established colonies in mainland Scotland. The links between the two cultures of the Norsemen and the Celts is one Ms Jansén is keen to emphasise within the exhibition.

“Since the new findings about the Viking age and ways of living, we thought it was important to spread the messageto other countries that have Viking connections or interest in the Vikings,” she says. “I would say that Vikings, apart from Abba and Ikea, are the biggest Scandinavian export. In Scotland, the Viking age and era has a lot of shared history with Scandinavia. You can see throughout history in Scotland traces of the age and ornamentation and names of different villages. That’s why we’re very happy to be able to show this shared history, especially here in Edinburgh.”

• Vikings! is open from today to 12 May at the National Museum of Scotland. Entry is free for members. Tickets cost £9 for adults, £7.50 concessions, £6 for children aged 12-15 and under 12s get in for free. The exhibition will be accompanied by a programme of events for adults and families, including a lecture by historian and broadcaster Neil Oliver on Thursday 28 February.