Viking hoards at the British Museum

If you are looking for evidence of the reach, and breadth, of Viking culture, the Vale of York hoard is a fine place to start. Part of the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend, this remarkable collection of objects discovered in 2007 is one of the most important finds of its type in Britain.

Buried around 920, the hoard consists of a Carolingian cup filled with gold and silver objects from all over the Viking world. Gareth Williams, the exhibition’s curator, says what you see is “effectively the whole of the Viking world in one cup. The cup itself is Frankish; there is metalwork from the Irish Sea, there are fragments of Russian jewellery and Islamic coins from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Thor’s hammer is on the coins but the cup is a Christian vessel. You’ve just got everything there.” And, Williams notes, this hoard was uncovered by an amateur with a metal detector.

An exhibition on Viking culture on this scale hasn’t been seen for several decades but it will be worth the wait, thanks to a wealth of new finds. The centrepiece will be a great ship, known as Roskilde 6, discovered in Denmark in 1997 – fittingly, during excavations to expand the Viking Ship Museum on the Roskilde fiord. It’s hard to conceive of the scale of the ship until you stand in front of it: 37m long, it had 39 rowing benches for 80 men; the total crew would have numbered about 100. Built of Norwegian oak, the surviving timbers – displayed in a steel frame that elegantly demonstrates what the vessel would have looked like – date from 1025, the height of Viking power, when Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden and England were united under the rule of Cnut the Great. Nothing so large would be built again for centuries. The ship’s size indicates that it could have been a royal warship. “Was it built to celebrate this great North Sea Empire?” Williams asks. “That’s a strong possibility.”

The peoples and culture of Scandinavia in the Viking age – 800-1050, the period that this exhibition covers – are generally thought of as “pagans”, in contrast to some of the Christian peoples they conquered. But finds such as the Vale of York hoard make the picture much more complex.

“The symbol of Thor’s hammer is found on coins in the hoard”, says Williams, “but the cup is a church vessel. There is a vine scroll around the top of it, a decoration often used in Christian medieval art, which fits with it being, perhaps, a pyx” – a container for the consecrated host. And then there are the Islamic coins in the hoard. “What is the most common written inscription appearing anywhere in Viking Scandinavia?” Williams asks, the twinkle in his eye revealing he knows how startling the answer is. “ ‘There is only one God’ – found on coinage brought back from Muslim lands.” Sometimes Thor’s hammer has been scratched over the inscription – the Vikings were nothing if not practical. Indeed, it might have been such practicality that led Cnut, after he took control of England in 1016, to marry the conquered Ethelred’s Christian widow, Emma of Normandy, mother of the future English king Edward the Confessor.

Another find, the Hiddensee hoard, from the Baltic, offers further evidence of how sophisticated these people were. “The island of Hiddensee would have been in Slavic hands in the Viking age,” says Williams. The hoard consists of a set of gold pendants and a brooch – more than 600g of gold in total – probably manufactured in Denmark towards the end of the 10th century but evidence of intermarriage between Vikings and Slavs. The delicacy of the work is breathtaking. “If anyone has a view of Vikings as barbarians, that they can only damage, they can’t create, take a look at this stuff,” says Williams. “It might have been made as a diplomatic gift: we know that the 10th-century king, Harald Bluetooth, took a Slavic wife.”

These extraordinary people took their ships, and their influence, far across the world, into four continents, not only to what is now Britain and northern Europe but also to North America, and towards Spain and Portugal and into the Strait of Gibraltar, which led them to north Africa and the Mediterranean. Via the Baltic sea they could reach the great rivers, which would lead their shallow-drafted ships into what is now Russia and Ukraine and towards the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Byzantine empire, as far as Afghanistan.

The show will enable visitors to look beyond the almost cartoon image of the Vikings that has been prevalent since the 19th century. The role of women in the Viking world is not often considered – though Viking women could own property and divorce their husbands in an age when this was not possible in most societies. Among the objects on show are two iron staffs, one from Denmark and one from Sweden, which were originally thought to be for stirring cooking pots; more recent analysis has led to the conclusion that they are the tools of the völva, or sorceresses, referred to in Old Norse writings.

Although the Roskilde ship was launched a thousand years ago, the culture that created it still lives inside our own, with its remnants all around us. A slave collar found in Dublin is a reminder that the Vikings were raiders and traders, something that gives a certain perspective on modern history, too. And the Vikings were the victims of violence as well as its perpetrators: a mass grave of about 50 skeletons – roughly the size of the crew of a Viking warship – was discovered in 2009 in Weymouth, Dorset, in southwest England, during excavations to build a road. The bones date from the early 11th century and isotope analysis indicates that the victims were most likely to have come from Scandinavia. The bodies had been beheaded. There, as Williams says, “we are literally face to face with the Vikings”.

This month, Williams and I travelled to Shetland where, along with looking at the remains of some of the many Viking longhouses that can be found on those islands, we took part in the Scalloway Fire Festival. After a great procession through the town, men with imposing beards dressed in chain mail and shining helmets, burning torches held aloft, proceed to burn a wooden longship they have spent the past year building, and send her flaming out to sea. In truth this “Viking” ritual dates from no earlier than the Napoleonic period but if you speak to the people taking part, they will tell you how closely connected they feel to their Viking ancestors. Norn, a Norse language, was spoken here until the 17th century; the local dialect still preserves some of its elements. The Jarlshof, just adjacent to Sumburgh airport, is a historic site revealing evidence of 4,000 years of human habitation, including the first Viking longhouse to be found in the British Isles. Michael Johnson, a member of the “Jarl squad”, or the group chosen to lead the festival in any given year, traces his family back to Norway in the 13th century.

Serious historian though he is, Williams admits that taking part in the fire festival was surprisingly resonant for him. “I spend a lot of my time trying to dispel myths and misconceptions about the Vikings, and in a sense that festival perpetuates a false image. And yet it was enormously enjoyable, and the very fact that people do it is based on a genuine sense of connection to the past. I knew all those things on a sterile academic level but that’s not the same as witnessing it in person, and taking part. You read accounts of Viking approaches to hospitality, and it fits very nicely with that. We see the Vikings as warriors and killers – that’s what we get from their victims – but in the sagas, late and unreliable as they may be, you get a sense of mead-swilling camaraderie, and that’s not far removed from what we had.”

There won’t be any flaming torches or burning ships at the British Museum but the presence of the Vikings, their culture, their beliefs, their warrior ways, will be brought to life.

‘Vikings: Life and Legend’, a BP exhibition at the British Museum, London, March 6 – June 22,