Speaking to media gathered Thursday evening at the American Swedish Institute (ASI), archaeologist Neil Price admitted that people have a certain stereotype regarding the typical Viking: “Maritime, male, and violent.”
American Swedish Institute
Included with museum admission; $20 preview party
An exhibit of artifacts now on display at ASI pokes holes in those preconceptions, while also serving as a chilling connection to the brutal realities of life during wartime in the late Iron Age.
As Price explained, Scandinavian communities were forced to turn outward: a pair of calamitous volcano explosions blanketed the sky with sulfur, devastating agriculture and killing as many as half of the region’s residents.
While the Vikings ultimately ventured west, their eyes first turned to the east, across the Baltic. The artifacts in “The Vikings Begin,” a touring exhibit installed at ASI until October 27, come from those early years — many from before the Viking period really began.
Drawn from the collection of Uppsala University’s Gustavianum museum, the “Vikings Begin” pieces are out of Scandinavia for the first time since they were buried in boat graves (pretty much what they sound like) between 1,500 and 900 years ago.
The collection now in Minneapolis is small compared to the sprawling standards of “blockbuster” touring shows, but the pieces are displayed for maximum impact in the darkened upstairs rooms of ASI’s Turnblad Mansion. There’s more in the Osher Gallery off the venue’s main entrance, including a replica of the type of boat Viking warriors were buried in.
As you’d expect from Scandinavia (there’s another stereotype), “Vikings Begin” is exquisitely designed, with subtly animated text displays and wall-size screens displaying evocative recreations of Viking life. Yes, there’s blood…but there’s also a sorceress, which the Vikings revered. One of the most fascinating artifacts on display is a carved animal head that was mounted on a staff used by one of these women.
Women also occasionally fought among male Vikings (Hägar the Horrible notwithstanding), but it was men who likely wore the fearsome helmets on display and wielded the subtly worked swords arranged in a nearby case. One of the helmets still has its fearsome mask intact, hiding the face of the Scandinavian taking a swing at you.
If you’ve entertained any fantasies (or fears) about Viking life, it’s fascinating to imagine these helmets being carefully constructed — with details rendered in relief, so in flickering firelight they would seem almost to move — and a quiver of arrows being arrayed where they still lie in formation on a preserved section of an original boat.
Believe it or not, Price had complimentary things to say about the verisimilitude of the mead parties seen in Game of Thrones, but the drinking vessels on display at ASI are delicate glassworks imported from Italy, with lines etched horizontally so you didn’t quaff more than your share when a libation was being passed communally.
“Vikings Begin” is a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with authentic artifacts from the era that gave rise to one of history’s most storied societies. Sometimes the truth is even more formidable than fiction.