History on Display: Vikings

As those of you who hang out here in the Margins know, I’ve had my head down recently working on a big project. No new blog posts! No road trips! No museum visits.! No history just for the fun of it!

As soon as I got a moment to breathe, My Own True Love and I headed to an exhibit at the Field Museum that’s been calling our name for a while: Vikings.

Organized by the Swedish Historical Museum, the exhibit is an answer to every misconception about Viking culture that ever caught the public imagination, beginning with the word Viking, which was not the name of a people but a description of an activity.* As the exhibit makes clear, the Scandinavian region was home to several related cultures over a period of some three hundred years, give or take a decade.** People weren’t Vikings, they went a-viking: which included travel and trade as well as the infamous raids immortalized by Irish monks. Most of the people we think of as Vikings were farmers not raiders.

Here are are some of the exhibit highlights (which may tell you as much about my own history nerd fascinations as the exhibit itself):

  • A small Indian bronze of the Buddha was found in a Viking cache, emblematic of the fact that those guys really traveled!
  • The only contemporary accounts of the Vikings we have are those written by eighth century Irish monks and an tenth century Islamic traveler named Ibn Fadlan, who ran into a group of Vikings in Russia****–neither unbiased nor familiar with Viking culture from the inside. The first accounts that we have written from the Viking perspective date from around 1220 CE: the works of Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. Writing well past the end of the Viking era no matter how loosely it is defined, Snorri is the source of most of what we know about old Norse religion and practices. (More on Snorri in the coming months, I guarantee it.)
  • Viking boatThis recreation of a Viking boat from the outline of the hardware with which it was made. In my imagination this is how an archaeologist sees things, building a complete image from the smallest remains.  (You’ll have to come to the exhibit just to get a better look at the boat, which is far more cool than my limited photographic skills would suggest.)
  • It came as no surprise that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. I was, however, surprised to learn that the first known appearance of the horned helmet appeared in 1876 in the first appearance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Possibly no other costume designer has influenced the world view of so many. (I would like to point out that though the exhibit regular proclaimed itself a NO HORNS zone, that prohibition did not carry over to the gift shop.)

In short, Vikings is a gorgeous combination of archaeological artifacts (many of them never before seen outside Scandinavia), historical recreation, and interactive museum technology–well worth a visit. The Field Museum is the only US stop for this exhibit, which will run through October 4, 2015. If you’re in Chicago, make time to see it. If you’re interested seriously interested in Vikings, it might be worth a special trip.*****

*Despite its inaccuracy, I’m going to continue using the term, which has become useful shorthand. Feel free to substitute Old Norse etc in your head.
**The canonical start and stop dates are the raid on the monastery at Lindnisfarne in 793CE and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, at which King Harald of England successfully defended is kingdom against an invasion by Harald Hardrada of Norway.*** In fact, as is often the case, archaeological evidence suggests the periodization is fuzzy at both ends.
***Less than a month before the Battle of Hastings, when another group of Viking descendants invaded England from France.
****Medieval Muslims could give the Vikings a run for their money as far as traveling went.
*****Gina Conkle, I’m looking at you.

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