A new exhibition at the British Museum brings the Vikings back to these shores – with the centrepiece being an enormous Viking warship. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough visited the exhibition with Matthew Sweet, and explains some of the history behind its exhibits in a BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.
At the start of the exhibition, a pair of walrus tusks highlight how these great beasts served as sources of wealth and raw material. These artefacts also allow us to trace the Viking colonisation of Greenland, where the animals were found.
Greenland was home for the Vikings for 500 years, before sea ice made the old routes to the rest of the Norse world less navigable. In the sagas – in which Eleanor specialises – the increased depiction of shipwrecks, trolls, and monsters reflect a growing anxiety as the culture began to fragment. At the same time, in English society, myths and sermons express concern about the invaders from the north, who started their campaign with the plundering of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland.
These fears are dramatically brought to life by the Norse sagas and Anglo-Saxon tales that Eleanor reads from. She explains how these encode hints and information about seafaring navigation, and portray the storms and mists that Viking explorers and raiders encountered increasingly during the little ice age.