This screening is a fascinating chance to see behind the scenes and learn about the major blockbuster exhibition currently on at the British Museum in London until 22 June . It is the first ‘Viking’ exhibition by the British Museum in thirty years and is the major opening exhibition of the new Sainsburys wing of the Museum. It ranges over four continents and spans a thousand years . Items include tiny fragile delicate coins and brooches and also – a , if not the major highlight of the exhibition – a spectacular reconstruction of Roskilde6 , the biggest Viking ship ever found.
We learn how these great warriors still influence our modern lives. There are quite a few surprises in store as we discover how they created a complex international maritime trading network covering four continents from Cornwall to Russia, Byzantium to Iceland .( Very handy maps are used ). Viewers also learn about our direct connections to the Vikings through language, poetry, names, place names and even our DNA. ( The exhibition was opened by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark ,who can trace her heritage back to Viking ancestors) .Featuring British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, this special cinema event takes audiences on an informative private tour presented by historians and broadcasters Bettany Hughes and Michael Wood. Curator Gareth Williams brings the exhibition to life, alongside experts on Viking ships and swords, burial and beliefs, language and legacy. The exhibition includes swords, axes, coins, jewellery, hoards, amulets and religious images .The broadcast includes stunning close-up photography of exhibits and the construction of the prow of a giant Viking ship. There is also in conclusion,an atmospheric torch-lit recreation of a Viking burial ceremony in the Museum’s grounds.
The screening is divided into different sections (‘ Women’ ,’Raiders’ ,’ Warfare’ etc ) with Hughes and Wood discsussing different areas of the exhibition. We learn about various sorts and sizes of Viking ships, the latest theories on how they managed to navigate on the very long voyages, what they might have taken with them as food etc .Particularly at first the Vikings were after plunder and treasure not trade . Each section is introduced by a growling Scottish actor to increase the atmosphere . We learn about the Viking treatment of slaves (we see slave collars )and women ; tiny wooden toy boats are also included in the discussion about Viking children.
The terrifying raids and destruction of British towns and churches are central to this exhibition and we trace the eventual transformation of the Vikings towards Christianity .There is a section on the old Norse gods thought that the Vikings originally believed in and tiny fragile and delicate statues of Odin , silver badges depicting Valkyrie etc that have been found. A carved, eighth-century “picture stone” from the Swedish isle of Gotland shows a longship ferrying a dead warrior to Valhalla, the hall of the god Odin, where Vikings who die bravely in battle will feast until they are called to fight in the last battle, Ragnarok.
Much is made of the horrendous destruction of Lindisfarne in 793 and how this sent shock waves around the known world. There are some other extraordinary objects shown ,a gold reliquary box for example with rune writing . Particularly at first the Vikings were after plunder and treasure not trade.
Hughes enthuses voluminously over a very detailed gold church cup (possibly communion cup ?) that is part of the exhibition. What is noted is the decoration the Vikings included on the surface where possible of almost all objects (eg the Viking Ship brooch we see at the start of the film , necklaces , arm bands etc etc ). The interweaving of animal and abstract forms – which to our modern eyes looks typically ‘Celtic ‘ not really ‘Viking’ – was characteristic of art throughout northern Europe in what used to be called the Dark Ages. More examples of Viking craftsmanship are discussed , including large brooches used to fasten women’s aprons and an exquisite gold horse’s bridle, which was often delicately ,extremely intricate.Also findings of ‘Viking treasure hordes’ ,coins etc.
Gareth Williams has much fun as a Viking warrior , talking about Viking warrior armour and warfare including helmets , chain mail , shields , ‘designer swords’ etc and what a Viking would have worn , how it fitted , how designs changed , the equivalent value today etc .Also Viking tattoos, teeth filing ( to scare opponents ) and Viking funeral services . Walrus ivory figures of warriors chewing the edges of their shields depict “berserkers”, who fought naked in a trance state, according to the ancient sagas, striking terror into the hearts of the people they attacked and harassed.
Roskilde 6, the amazing ship, is a centrepiece of the exhibition and film. 37 metres long in its reconstructed totality, although only about a fifth of the hull we see is its original timber – is huge, breathtakingly beautiful ,spectacular , thought provoking and profound. It encapsulates not just the nautical ingenuity and martial prowess of the Vikings but their art and beliefs, too.We see its painstaking glorious reconstruction over months .
This sweeping exhibition aims to give us an idea of the Vikings both in maritime endeavour and exploration: these were not just mad killers but intensely curious explorers who even colonised the icy wastes of Greenland.
Running time 90 mins ( approx) no interval
Vikings live from the British Museum screened 8,9 June at the Dendy Newtown and other selected cinemas
For more about Vikings Live at the British Museum, visit http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/vikings/vikings_live.aspx