Thousands of years of history reveal how ancient Viking art and culture redrawn the map of the world

They had names like Thorfinn Skull-splitter, Erik Bloodaxe and Ragnar Hairy Pants. No wonder the Vikings have a rough and bloody reputation.

A new exhibition at the British Museum strives to make people think again about the Scandinavian pillagers whose name means ‘pirate’ in Old Norse.

Through their ships, weapons, crafts, words and even skeletons, ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’ aims to show how Viking energy and ideas redrew the map of the world.

‘They were a global phenomenon,’ exhibition curator Gareth Williams said of the bearded buccaneers who sailed forth in the 9th century to descend on terrified English monks, Irish villagers and Russian peasants. ‘They were raiders and they were traders and they were craftsmen and they were explorers.

A Viking hoard from Cuerdale, Lancashire, is displayed at the British Museum in London


A woman looking at a Viking helmet and jawbone found near Weymouth

A Viking helmet is displayed above the jaw bone of a warrior at the exhibition

Above all, they were sailors and shipbuilders, whose huge longboats, powered by ranks of rowers, took them across the ocean as far west as Newfoundland. To the east, they sailed down the rivers of Russia to the Black Sea and Central Asia.

The Vikings triggered an era of what the exhibition gently calls ‘cultural interaction’ – though it adds that many of those contacts ‘bloody and violent.’

Historian Michael Wood – who will host a live broadcast from the exhibition to 380 British movie theaters on April 24 – said the Vikings spurred a ‘formative, almost propulsive era’ in European history.

‘Dynastic politics, culture, language, economies – they changed the landscape,’ he said.

Seafaring skills take the spotlight in the exhibition, which opens Thursday and runs to June 22. It moves to the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin in September.

The centerpiece of the show is the biggest Viking ship ever found. Dug up on the banks of a Danish fjord in 1997, it is 37 meters (120 feet) long and had 40 pairs of oars. Its scale is awe-inspiring even if only 20 percent of the ship’s timbers remain.

Ulfberht swords are displayed at the British Museum in London for the BP exhibition

A gold neck ring from Tisso, Denmark on display at the British Museum in London

A reconstruction of a Viking long boat containing an original piece of wood

But the most spectacular part of the display goes to its enormous range of Viking bling, including gold and silver brooches, necklaces and arm bands, some of astonishing size. One braided gold necklace on display weighs 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds).

There is plenty to underscore the Norsemen’s bloodthirsty reputation, from their enormous swords and axes to the startling skull of a Viking warrior, his front teeth filed down and the grooves filled with pigment.

There’s stark evidence of violence in the 50 headless skeletons of young men found in a mass grave on England’s south coast – a Viking raiding party that failed.

Viking brooches on display at the British Museum in London for the BP exhibition

A Viking hoard from Hiddensee, Germany on display at the British Museum in London

Items are displayed during the press preview of the ‘Vikings, Life and Legend’ Exhibition at the British Museum

But it also shows the Vikings’ sophistication as explorers, diplomats and traders who dealt in timber, furs and falcons from Scandinavia; whale bone and ivory from the North Atlantic; salt and precious stones from the east – as well as in slaves.

Their roaming brought in goods from around the world. The exhibition includes the Vale of York Hoard, a collection of gold and silver objects from as far afield as Ireland, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, found in northern England in 2007.

The exhibition will puncture some popular Viking myths. They didn’t wear helmets sprouting wings or horns – that was a Victorian invention. The helmets on display are simple metal skullcaps.


The show is the first on Vikings at the Museum in over 30 years, featuring many archaeological finds never seen before in the UK and runs until June


The Vikings were also skilled craftsmen who produced fine metalworking carved with intricate designs which were among the greatest artworks of the early middle ages

A gold weather vane (left) is displayed during the press preview of the Vikings, Life and Legend Exhibition

The Vikings’ terrifying image stands in sharp contrast to the way they saw themselves: as down-to-earth people who valued honor, friendship and good humor above all.

A 1,000-year-old book called the ‘Havamal,’ a trove of Viking folk wisdom, advises that ‘the best thing in life is to be alive and happy’ and says people should leave nothing behind after death but their good names.

Eventually these restless travelers settled down and adopted Christianity, establishing kingdoms and dynasties in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Vikings settled in across Europe, populating the island of Iceland and becoming progenitors of people including the Rus – from whom we get the name Russia – and the Normans in what is now Normandy in northwest France.

Their legacy lives on in the DNA of millions of Europeans, and in the English language, through a hoard of words including berserk – from the Old Norse berserker, a ferocious warrior.

Their traces are still being found. The exhibition includes the contents of a Viking warrior’s grave – he was buried alongside his ax and sword, inside a boat – unearthed in northern Scotland in 2011.

Viking touches persist in the modern world, sometimes in surprising places. On millions of smartphones, the ubiquitous symbol for a standard form of wireless communication is a rune representing a 10th-century Norse king: Harald Bluetooth.


A collection of Anglo-Saxon coins from Tyskegard in Denmark, dating back to 1000AD


Coins are displayed during the preview of the Vikings, Life and Legend Exhibition


Seafarers: This Viking brooch in the shape of a ship shows how the Norsemen viewed themselves as a race of travellers who voyaged as far as the Middle East and North America


Sophisticated: This gold jewellery belonging to the National Museum of Denmark is evidence of the Vikings’ rich culture and great wealth – much of it obtained from violent raids on European countries

Worship: A talismanic figure of Odin, king of the gods, accompanied by his two ravens Huginn and Muninn


Display: Reconstructed Viking outfits along with metal objects showing the riches enjoyed by the raiders

Hoard: Many finely worked pieces were buried as an apparent ‘insurance policy’ in times of crisis

Variety: The exhibition, which was previously on display in Denmark shows diverse styles of Scandinavian jewellery, including brooches, rings and necklaces


Longboat: The centrepiece of the British Museum’s new Vikings exhibition is the 11th-century Roskilde 6 ship, the longest Viking ship ever found at 36m or 120ft


Silver: A bizarre artifact whose misshapen form suggests it may have been used as bullion for payments


Warrior: Some of the exhibits show how the Vikings saw themselves as fighters above all, who sailed across Europe plundering churches and demanding tribute

Violence: Swords such as this one, whose blade and hilt are covered in geometric patterns, combine the bloodthirstiness of Viking raids with the fine craftsmanship of Scandinavian metalworking