It’s not every day that you can stand in a small room beneath an urban museum and see the sweeping extent of a Viking camp spread out before you. One view showed the silhouettes of great wooden longships bobbing darkly at anchor; another peers into the camp itself, where warriors pass on horseback and the fabric of tents flap in the breeze; a third enters one of these tents, where the shadowy space is illuminated by the glow of metalworking tools.
Sadly, the Yorkshire Museum has not quite uncovered the secrets of time-travel, but the immersive ‘augmented reality’ technology that forms part of their exhibition, ‘Viking: Rediscover the Legend’ comes pretty close. When you bring the special viewers up to your eyes, 3D scenes spring to life in detailed reconstructions based on archaeological research at Torksey (led by the Universities of York and Sheffield – see CA 281), a winter camp occupied by the Viking Great Army in AD 872.
The viewers are a novel and exciting way to engage with the past – their digital reconstructions feel convincingly tangible, and it is hard to resist the urge to reach out and touch the imaginary world around you. Natalie McCaul, Curator of Archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum, says that it is not uncommon to see visitors to the exhibition grasping at thin air – though ‘not too many’ have walked into walls so far.
Although an unmistakable highlight, the virtual reality experience forms only part of the exhibition, which offers a veritable smorgasbord of intriguing, often interactive, insights into life in Viking Age Britain. The exhibition is a partnership between York Museums Trust and the British Museum, and while it closes in York at the end of this week (5 November), the Vikings will then be voyaging to Nottingham, Southport, Aberdeen, and Norwich (dates at end).
Core elements of the displays will remain the same at each venue, but the addition of extra material found in the host region will also add a local twist to each incarnation. Above all, though, the exhibition explores what it means to be a Viking – broadening stereotypes of vicious marauders and revisionist caricatures of misunderstood virtuoso craftsmen, and digging deeper into archaeological evidence, to present a more nuanced picture.
The key theme is transformation; the impact of the Vikings on the areas they inhabited, as well as the impact that living here had on them. York seems to be the natural starting point for the tour of this story, being home to the spectacular remains of an Anglo-Scandinavian settlement whose well-preserved features vividly reflect this hybrid culture.
There is a wealth of finds from the city within these displays, as well as objects from further afield. Hacksilver hoards feature particularly strongly; collections of metalwork that are not only inseparably associated with Vikings, but preserve their world in microcosm – their contents reflect quite how far the Vikings’ cultural contacts stretched, from Anglo-Saxon coins and Arab dinars to jewellery from Ireland and Russia.
Other items carry with them not only historical resonance, but fascinating stories of how they were discovered, from the astonishingly intact York Helmet, which narrowly escaped being destroyed first by a Victorian building, and then by a modern digger; to the ornate Gilling Sword, which was found by a nine-year-old boy in a stream, and is now displayed beside the Blue Peter badge that was awarded to its finder. Beside these metal items, there are also organic treasures – particularly striking is a piece of a Viking saddle, part of the wooden saddlebow, or arched front, of the seat – a very rare survival.
The exhibition draws towards its close by examining modern depictions of the Vikings – from film posters ranging from schlocky B-movies to more recent animated tales like ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, to a case containing Viking-themed memorabilia borrowed from the local community. Interest in the Vikings has clearly run deep for a long time – and with exhibitions like this to showcase their fascinating and complex history (and to bust a few myths along the way), this enthusiasm is sure to continue.
‘Viking: Rediscover the Legend’ runs at the Yorkshire Museum, York, until 5 November. It will then tour to:
Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, University of Nottingham
24 November 2017 – 4 March 2018
The Atkinson, Southport
31 March 2018 – 3 June 2018
Norwich Castle Museum, Norwich
9 February 2019 – 8 September 2019
All images courtesy of the Yorkshire Museum.