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Blonde giants come to York      

07 July 2017

Not General Synod members, but Vikings. Suzanne Fagence Cooper explains

© Anthony Chappel-Ross/Yorkshire Museums Trust

Treasure on show: the Anglo-Saxon Ormside Bowl

Treasure on show: the Anglo-Saxon Ormside Bowl

ST PETER or Thor? Christ or Odin? The Viking exhibition at the York­shire Museum suggests that the ninth century was a time when people in the Danelaw might keep their options open. A poster for the 1978 film The Norseman, pinned on the wall, shouts about “a reckless band of blonde giants”, but the other objects on display are more circumspect. They present a shifting world, full of unexpected exchanges.

Many of the cases are filled with small but delightful things: the soft tawny leather of a boot; a woman’s ring of twisted and polished gold; smooth beads of amber or millefiori glass; a scrap of slate covered in experimental interlace patterns, like a sketchbook; a playing piece of jet, with tiny ears and eyes; a button. Perhaps most pleasing is the au­­tumnal sheen of a silk cap, undyed and very simple, a fragile reminder of the interchange between the Vikings and the Middle East. The silk was imported from Iran, per­haps traded for fur or slaves.

There are a surprising number of Islamic dirhams dug up in the spec­tacular coin hoards that are a strong element of this exhibition. They demonstrate not only the trading links of the Norsemen, but the lav­ish wealth that they held in their British territories. And, above all, these hoards make visible their con­cern for the security of their silver and gold — was it better to bury the treasure, or carry it with them as they travelled from Ireland, through York, to ships on the east coast?

Pots, cups, and bags stuffed with hack-silver and arm-rings have been unearthed across the north of Eng­land. We see the extraordinary riches of the Cuerdale Hoard, the Bedale Hoard, and the Vale of York Hoard — and have to remind ourselves that these are just the things left behind and lost. This is an exhibition about uncertain times.

© Anthony Chappel-Ross/York Museums TrustNorse armour: York HelmetThe display is a collaboration with the British Museum, and it includes one of the Lewis chessmen, as well as massive neck-rings from Russia, and ships’ nails from Sweden. At its heart, however, are local objects dating from around AD 900, when York was the centre of Viking activity in Britain — the city was conquered by a “great heathen army” in 866. More than 40,000 finds were made in the Coppergate quarter alone during digs in the 1970s.

Then there are the many carvings, coins, and weapons found in other parts of York and the surrounding villages. One example is the arm of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross, broken off and re-used as a pagan symbol of triumph, showing a Viking warrior dragging a female captive away.

Another is the grave slab of a wealthy man, made from a recycled Roman building-block: he was buried in a Christian cemetery (now on the site of the York Minster), but his grave was decorated with the saga of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. Was this man a Christian or a pagan when he died? The curators cannot say. Perhaps his faith defined Christ as a warrior hero, who de­­feated sin and death, offering an equivalent to Odin or Sigurd’s vic­tories over their enemies.

Several other objects suggest a spiritual truce or even the emer­gence of a hybrid theology. In the early 920s, just as Athelstan was pre­paring to expel the Vikings from York, a new coin was minted in the city. It was designed to appeal to both sides in the conflict, combining the text “Sancti Petri” and a small cross with Thor’s hammer and sword.

Not everyone, however, was so accommodating. The impressive Vale of York Hoard (discovered in 2007 just outside Harrogate) in­­cludes a number of these “St Peter’s pennies”. But they were packed into a silver-gilt cup that had once be­­longed in a monastery. How did it travel from the Carolingian work­shop where it was decorated with grapevines and running stags to the altar of an Anglo-Saxon church, and then into the hands of a Norseman?

Its last owner seems to have valued the cup as precious, but not sacred. Was it looted, or offered in tribute by the monks to vicious heathen men, or was it part of a more peaceful exchange? The ex­­hibition suggests that all these scen­arios were possible.

© Anthony Chappel-Ross/York Museums TrustThe Seal of SnarrusBut the violence was not all one-sided. The very fine Anglo-Saxon helmet (discovered in 1982) is evid­ence of godly warriors who were fighting “in the name of our Lord Jesus”. Above the brass eyebrows, which taper into a dragon’s head, are two bands of Latin text forming a cross. They protect the crown of the head, with a prayer ending with the sacred letters XPIChristi. Yet again, we can only speculate why this beautiful, costly thing was delib­erately dismantled and buried.

The curators have given as much additional information as they can, through texts, videos, dressing-up cloaks and aprons (child and adult sizes available). There is also an eye-opening virtual-reality tour of a Viking tented city. Still, much of the material raises questions that may never be an­­swered.

It is a shame that there is no exhibition catalogue, and the display is tricky to find and navigate: the exhibition space is punctuated with columns from the ruined St Mary’s Abbey, and is presented on narrow walkways at varying heights. The visitor leaves, passing the Lego long­ship and listening to Wagner’s Die Walküre, and is offered the chance to discover “How Viking are you?” via an iPad quiz. I was rather dis­appointed to discover that I am only 70 per cent Viking.


“Viking: Rediscover the Legend” is atYorkshire Museum, Museum Gar­dens, Museum Street, York, until 5 November, before touring to Notting­ham, Southport, Aberdeen, and Norwich. Adult entry to museum and exhibition £7.50, children under 16 free. Phone 01904 687687.

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