Living in East Anglia we are well aware that over a 1000 years ago Scandinavian longboats could be sighted rowing up the marshy waterways to invade our islands.
I grew up in a village called Danbury, and went to the local school in the nearby town of Maldon (Maeldune) on the River Blackwater. “Maeldune” is the Saxon spelling of Maldon and means “a cross on the hill”. At school we learnt about the local area’s Saxon heritage supported by archaeological finds and the ‘The Battle of Maldon’ as recounted in the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ and the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’. The battle took place in AD991 between the Saxons living around the River Blackwater and the Vikings who raided in their famous longboats.
Last week I went to the British Museums’s Exhibition about the Vikings. Known as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with all the accompanying publicity we knew it would be busy even with the ‘timed’ entry (vigorously policed by the staff) – and it was. The first two rooms were dark and overcrowded with tiny pieces mounted in minimal, sparse arrangements. I know one of the agendas pursued by the curators was to dampen down the ‘Vikings as raiders’ legacy and present a more rounded version of Viking culture, but once you’ve seen a couple of oversized brooches they really aren’t that exciting. And, there wasn’t a single example of jewellery to compare with the Anglo-Saxon pieces found at the early 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo. (Incidentally available to see for free in a new gallery display in the main part of the BM.)
Nevertheless, I quickly glanced my way through these rooms until I opened the door into the main new exhibition hall. And, there it was, the boat, Roskilde 6 (archaeologists’ site nomenclature). Firstly, none of the press photos do it justice. The ship’s size (37 metres long) is the longest longboat discovered so far and the metal re-construction is beautiful encouraging you to mentally extend the few original surviving wooden planks of the Roskilde 6.
But most stunning and evocative was the way you could stand at one end and see the whole boat stretching away across the North Sea as the wave filled view gradually changed from dark and menacing into a gentle evening sunset. I was quite transfixed by the arrangement and the clever use of video. It wasn’t like a fairground trick, but a gentle prompt to your historical imagination. All of a sudden I was considerably impressed by the Vikings’ skill and energy for exploration.
Sorry – I did ask – but it was strictly no photography, but here’s the magnificent purse lid from the early 7th century, Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Smaller longboat than the Viking one, only 27 metres, but you can see it’s all part of the Northern European cultural continuum.)
6 thoughts on “The Vikings – but I’m an Anglo-Saxon”
Damn those photo-Nazis! And I’m sure you had to pay through the roof for the pleasure too.
Yup, £16.50 for the pleasure. The daft thing was I’d photographed the Lewis Chessmen back in February when they were in the main museum, but this time it was a no go. Of course they want you to spend more money buying the catalogue at £25! And there’s never a picture of the one thing I’m really interested in. 😡
The Vikings! I don’t know very much about the pre 11th Century Britain and am very intrigued by the exhibition. The entry fee of £16.50 sounds rather hefty. Do you think it is worth the money? X
I’m not really sure – the ship is really the only ‘wow’ piece. And my friends who have visited Norway say their displays of longboats are better, cleaner and less cluttered. I think people who already know quite a lot about the Viking culture and want to fill in their visual gaps probably got more from the exhibition as a whole than I did.