This summer “VIKING 2013” presents us with four new angles on the Vikings. The third one is about an economy of gifted splendour…
There is no doubt that the Vikings had access to highly accomplished artists working in metal, wood and ivory. Beautiful artefacts have been found in archaeological excavations and as stray finds, witnessing to peculiar tastes as well as differing styles. A lot of the most magnificent finds are exhibited in the third part of the exhibition. Here an abundance of beautiful artefacts are paraded, probably many of them used as gifts. Some – the Bamberg and Cammin Shrines – may even have been made specifically as intended diplomatic gifts. This is also believed was the case with the so-called Hiddensee treasure, which is thought to have been made in the workshops of Harold Bluetooth and maybe gifted to some of the Slavic magnates, with whom he was related and who presumably helped him out, when his son, Swein Forkbeard, was revolting against him.
Much of it may have glimmered from afar. The material culture of the Vikings – of which we here see some of the real treasures – was however definitely meant to be paraded amongst friends and seen close-up. Some of them were simply so delicately wrought, it is believed that youngsters must have made them.
This intensity in decoration also dominated ships, homes, halls and household utensils. The best place to get a feeling for this is of course in Oslo at Bygdøy where the treasures from Gokstad and Oseberg are exhibited. In Denmark, where only pitiful remnants have been found, this is generally overlooked. However Runic Stones and other stone-carvings – as witnessed here by a copy of the Runic Stone from Jelling – were also highly decorated and tell us, that “Clean Nordic Design” is a much later and modern invention from the 20th century. To quibble a bit about the reconstruction of Ægir at the exhibition in Copenhagen it is perhaps of some note, that a somewhat late source remembered about Canute the Great that he “had a dragon-ship, so large that it had sixty banks of rowers, and the head was gilt all over. Earl Hakon had another dragon of forty banks and it also had a gilt figure-head. The sails of both were in stripes of blue, red and green and the vessels were painted all above the water-stroke; and all that belonged to their equipment was most splendid.”(Quote from the Saga of St. Olav by Snorri Sturlusson 1225. Chapt. 146 )
It is understandable that the curators of the exhibition have chosen not to embellish the steel-reconstruction of the ship. In its stark beauty it renders us speechless in itself. But we should never forget that the ships were thought of as mighty dragons, winged birds or thunderous gods…and made to look like that.
Read about the different sections of the exhibition here: