Blood and treasure: Viking conquest of the North revisited

York Helmet held at the Yorkshire Museum.
York Helmet held at the Yorkshire Museum.
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Two of the most significant collections of Viking age treasure in Britain are being brought together for the first time in Yorkshire. Phil Penfold takes a look.

It is a story of blood. Of conquest. Of great and noble deeds, balanced by treachery and betrayal. A tale that will tell of great works of art, amazing achievements and unbelievable accomplishments. And socks. Actually, quite a few socks. The Viking: Rediscover the Legend exhibition which opens in a few days’ time at the Yorkshire Museum in York is a collaboration between the popular institution and several other leading bodies, including the British Museum in London.

York Armring held at the Yorkshire Museum.

York Armring held at the Yorkshire Museum.

After it closes later in the year, it will go on a journey that takes it to the four corners of the UK – to Nottingham, Merseyside, Aberdeen and Norwich. And it has international significance.

For every one of those moves, many thousands of artefacts will be packed carefully, and transported securely. At every venue, they will be displayed alongside local treasures of the period, putting the Viking invasion and settlements into a wider context.

Along the way thousands of visitors will learn the story not only of the conquest of these islands, but will also probably have a chuckle at the tale of those socks.

One of the star exhibits is a magnificent solid gold torque. It weighs 324g, and is now bent out of its original circular shape into a rather wavy curve. It is delicately stippled with tiny raised points that curve, serpent-like, over the surface. The detail is amazing, and once it would have been worn on the arm of a much-favoured nobleman, or possibly a king.

The Gilling Sword held at the Yorkshire Museum.

The Gilling Sword held at the Yorkshire Museum.

Conservatively valued at around £500,000 in terms of its gold content alone, it is priceless in terms of its historical importance.

“A few years back, a lady and her daughter turned up at the front desk and asked if we’d like to have a look at something that they’d found at their home in York,” says Natalie Buy, curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum. “The lady’s husband had recently died, and they’d been carefully going through his things.

“It turned out that he had been a builder, and had worked on sites all over the city. Going through his sock drawer in the bedroom, carefully wrapped up, they’d found this lump of gold, and they were, to put it mildly, rather surprised.

“He’d never mentioned it to either of them and were completely unaware of its existence. He could have discovered it 20 years before they found it, or two weeks before he died. We just don’t know.

“The end of the story is that it was donated to the museum, and it is now given pride of place as an item of great rarity. But it just shows that, along with all we know about the Vikings and their lives, there is still much that we have to discover – and much that we almost certainly never will.”

Other items in the exhibition have a much more detailed provenance. The celebrated Viking helmet which was found in Coppergate, ironically right in the middle of the excavations of what was to become the Jorvik centre, belonged to a warrior called Oshere – his name is engraved on it, along with an inscription commending him to God.

It is from the eighth century, and may well have been passed from father to son on a number of occasions, before it was hidden. And there is evidence that it was used – and useful to its wearer, for there are blade marks over the top of one of the eyebrow arches. Discovered in May, 1982, and made of iron and brass, when the mechanical digger lifted it out of the earth on the very last day of the excavation it escaped being crushed into oblivion by a hair’s breath.

In contrast, one of the heaviest and largest items on display will be a giant stone tomb top which for centuries stood in York Minster. We know who that belonged to as well. Under it, at one time, was Sigurd and there are carvings of him slaying dragons, and, in one rather gruesome invention, cooking and eating the heart of one captured beast.

“Here’s a very pagan story which was placed in a very Christian spot,” says Natalie. “I can’t help wondering what the clerics of the time thought about it as they had to pass it on the way to mass every day. But it is a perfect example of what this exhibition is trying to do – showing how the Vikings adapted to us, and how the original inhabitants of these islands assimilated them. How the two, over time, learned to live together.”

Andrew Woods, curator of numismatics at the Yorkshire Museum, says: “When you ask someone about the Vikings, they will immediately come up with a few lines about pillage and looting and slaughter, and if you asked them to draw a Viking, the image, more than likely, will be of someone in a tin hat with a horn on either side, wearing a lot of fur and brandishing an axe. And that’s about it.

“We want to show that, yes, there was a lot of fighting, there always is in a conquest, but that these were also highly cultivated people, explorers, inventors, artistically hugely creative, and that they were men, women and children, just like us. And they didn’t just arrive – and then vanish off the face of the earth when the Normans turned up in Sussex in 1066. No society, no culture disappears entirely.

“One of the major Viking legacies that we still have today is the names of many of our towns. If it ends in ‘by’ – like Selby – it means that the original settlement was quite near to a big farm or house. If it ends in ‘thorpe’, then the farm or house was slightly smaller. In essence, the exhibition is all about how the Vikings transformed Britain, and how, in turn, they were transformed by it.”

A great example, says Andrew, is right there in his field of expertise. Scandinavians didn’t use any form of coinage, instead they paid for the things they needed with ingots of metal – never ever gold, but mainly silver. And they would break up brooches to use as payment as well. However, after the death of the King of Northumbria in 867, which was the turning point in the Viking conquest, the incomers became fascinated by the coinage.

“For a start, it showed who was in power, and a picture of the monarch on a coin fed a pretty large ego. So they started minting their own coins – which could have the regal head on one side, and the hammer of Thor on the other. But the inscription would be in Latin. One culture slowly adapting to another. And that is extremely useful to a historian, because we can then fix timelines of events by the people depicted.”

Many of Yorkshire’s famous hoards – like the astonishing Wold Newton discovery – will be included in the exhibition. Each has its own mystery – why it was buried, and by whom? Andrew believes that they were almost certainly buried when there was news of an impending invasion, or civil unrest. “Then you wonder why someone never went back for them,” he says.

Other treasures will see the light of day after being in storage for some time. All are being re-interpreted by the use of audio commentaries and interactive displays. And there’s even a Viking longboat where visitors can try their hand at rowing.

“Let’s not forget that these were people who actually went to four continents. They used furs from Russia, spices and silks from the Middle East. They didn’t just come over here, cause a bit of a bloodbath, and then refuse to go home,” says Andrew.

Natalie is particularly fond of some of the exquisite metalwork that has been selected for show. “There’s one little bowl that must surely have been used by monks at a monastery, which was looted by some warrior, and then he selected a craftsman to turn it into an elaborate but lovely drinking cup.”.

And why did they choose York as a major settlement? “It’s a very good question, but a very simple answer,” says Natalie. “It was because York already existed. It was a centre of administration, at the core of the Kingdom of Northumbria. Why go to all the trouble of building somewhere new, when the infrastructure was there?

Viking has been three years in the planning and over the coming months, the image carried on all the publicity and marketing for the event will become familiar to many thousands of people. “I love him,” says Natalie. “It’s a little carved caricature of a head, on bone, and it sits easily in the palm of your hand. Probably a belt buckle or tie. Who carved him? Who knows? But he’s got a cheeky little look to him. He’s going to be the face of York this year.”

Viking: Rediscover the Legend, Yorkshire Museum, York, May 19 to November 5.