History on Display: The Vikings Begin

Photo credit: Joe Michael/Mystic Seaport Museum

While we were at Mystic Seaport, we were lucky enough to see an exhibit titled The Vikings Begin: Treasures from Uppsala University, Sweden. Curated by the Gustavianum Museum at Uppsala University, the exhibit is based on a ten-year research project that began in 2016. Known as “The Viking Phenomenon”, the project is designed to study the emergence of Viking society by looking at Iron Age culture in Scandinavia prior to the Viking era. The resulting exhibit tells a slightly different story than the version of Vikings with which most of us are familiar.*  Among other things, they do a nice job of changing ideas about women in Viking society, with a special emphasis on the upset surrounding the “Birka Man”.**

At first I sputtered a bit: The first Viking raid took place in Estonia in 750? Really?”*** Then I told myself to shut up and learn. Once I calmed down, I was particularly fascinated by the suggested relationship between Viking culture and that in other Baltic countries.**** Subsequent poking around revealed that archaeologists have been studying the connection between Estonia and the Vikings since 2008, when utility workers discovered Viking remains in the course of laying cables. In some ways the real lesson I learned here is that the popular understanding of history often lags behind what scholars are working on. Not a new lesson, but one I have to learn over and over.

The Vikings Begin is visually spectacular. Most of the artifacts on display have never traveled outside of Sweden before. The exhibit will be at Mystic Seaport through September 30. The exhibit will then travel to the Nordic Museum in Seattle and the American Swedish Museum in Minneapolis. Well worth the effort if it comes to a museum near you.

*Raids on the British Isles. Explorers landing in North America. Dragon boats. Etc.

** Who turned out to be the Birka Woman.

***As opposed to the raid on Lindisfarne in 793, which is generally considered the start of the Viking era.

****It makes sense if you look at a map. Suddenly the idea that the Vikings made their way to Russia doesn’t look so surprising.


  1. Mary Grace McGeehan on July 14, 2018 at 9:45 am

    My husband and I have spent several months at Uppsala University over the last three years for his work. We’ll have to check out the Vikings next time.

  2. Gina Conkle on July 14, 2018 at 4:47 pm

    This is music to my heart. Thanks for sharing this. I have a sister in Minneapolis. I may have to visit her when the exhibit arrives there.

    A side note: I’m still amazed at how deeply ingrained the “no women warriors” mindset runs. Just last week, an online lecturer “snarked” about Viking women taking up arms.

    • pamela on July 14, 2018 at 11:05 pm

      I know! Some scholars really tie themselves in knots trying to prove that Viking women never fought.

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