As a big fan and member of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, I’m always interested in seeing what special exhibits they’re hosting and what’s coming next for one of the premier museums in Colorado. When I saw they were doing a Vikings exhibit focused “beyond the legend” I was definitely interested. You know all the myths about mighty, violent blonde men pillaging every coastal area they could reach, not just encompassing the British Isles, but even as far as Greenland and into North America. That’s a lot of exploration and aggression in an era that was more characterized by agrarian communities and feudalism.
On the Good Friday holiday (April 14) my pals and I all met up at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) and headed up to the special exhibits area on the third floor to go beyond the mythology with The Vikings: Beyond the Legend.
And I have to be candid and share that it was interesting but not what I expected. The exhibit is focused on the small when I was expecting large, imposing displays. After all, the legend of Vikings is writ large on our cultural history thanks to the rich Norse mythology with Thor, Odin, Tyr, Freyda Frigg and the rest of the Viking gods and goddesses. Hollywood has definitely contributed to the legend too, and Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) remains a key member of The Avengers in the cinematic series of the same name.
The space always offers some drama with its black carpet, black ceilings and hundreds of white spotlights. It ends up looking like a starry night, quite appropriate for an exhibit about a culture a thousand years in the past:
Once you set expectations that it’s an exhibit writ small, not large, however, there’s lots to see, including a lot of individual items that have rarely left Scandinavia to travel anywhere overseas. The Museum says that there are over 500 pieces in the exhibit!
Learning about those and trying to piece together the reality of a culture that was defined by the tension of being agrarian explorers and the profound shift from Norse to Christian, begins to offer some enlightenment about the real Vikings and their world.
More than anything, Norse culture was defined by the sea, from their settlements by the water’s edge to their mastery of boats and boat design. The exhibit featured two meticulous reproduction boats made using original Norse tools and techniques. Check out the simple weave of the reproduction sail below:
Outside the exhibit where there was a much higher ceiling was another vessel that was bigger and more what we imagine as a Viking ship, but I’ll get to that photo a bit later.
One of the more interesting exhibits is also one of the more abstract:
You have to check the exhibition notes to learn that this is “a “ghost ship” represented by a sculpture of 219 hanging iron rivets from an authentic aristocratic burial ship. All the wood from the boat disintegrated, leaving only the rivets situated in the ground.” Pretty cool, eh?
The bulk of The Vikings: Beyond the Legend is all about small things, however. Pendants, jewelry, housewares, tools and other items of daily life that could survive a thousand years buried in the Earth. Here are some of my favorites:
This is a pendant generally accepted to be a representation of the goddess Freyja, found in Norway. It’s about the size of a penny and is just one of dozens upon dozens of pieces that show off the amazing metallurgy skills of the Norse craftsmen.
Of all the Gods and Goddesses represented, it was clear that Thor held a special position in Norse mythology and many of the most delicate pieces were representations of Thor’s hammer (it even has its own name: Mjölnir). Here’s a lovely example that’s about the size of a coin:
You can see the extraordinary detail work on this silver piece. Quite stunning, really. This one was found in Scania, Sweden, though few of the items in the exhibit had an actual find date which might frustrate young archeologists.
There was much more fine silver jewelry, pieces that would be appreciated as prized artisan jewelry even a thousand years later:
It’s hard to tell from the straight-down photographic angle, but the left item is a copy of a pendant shaped as a “bowler chair”, the original having been found in Uppland, Sweden. The right is far more sophisticated to me, however, a female figurine pendant in silver that represents the valkyrie, Odin’s handmaidens who conducted the slain warriors from the battlefield to Valhalla. It’s an original and was found in Södermanland, Sweden. Again, these are about the size of a penny, if that.
Not every item was in its own tiny case, however, but they were all organized by function. Here’s a display of various tools used by the Vikings to work with wood and produce leather goods:
There were also volunteers dressed in traditional Norse outfits, walking around and interacting with guests. A young man dressed as a warrior complete with shield caught the attention of many youngsters of both genders, eager to talk to a Real Viking.
Note: Viking is actually a word that means “trade trip or raid”, so the people’s of the time thought of themselves as Norse or Scandinavian, not as Vikings. Any more than we’d refer to a long-haul truck driver as a member of the tribe “road trip”.
One young lady kept a group of guests young and old enthralled with her splendid tales of Norse Gods, the trickster Loki and many other traditional Norse tales:
Next to her on the stool is some sort of game with stones and a board inked onto leather. I was most interested in this as a gamer, but wasn’t about to bring the wrath of the Gods on my head by interrupting her tale! If you know what game it is, please let me know in the comments.
Other volunteers manned “touch” areas where there were replica items that younger hands (and anyone else interested) could touch and experience, including this tiny jelling cup:
The cup is smaller than a modern shot glass and I had to look like what a “jelling cup” was, and it’s quite a story. Jelling is a city in Denmark and was the spot where, in 965AD, “King Harald Bluetooth proclaimed that the Danes had a new religion: Christianity. Between the two burial mounds, the North Mound and the South Mound, he erected a wooden church, with a burial chamber under its floor.” The Jelling Cup, then, was likely a sacramental cup and marked the arrival of Christianity to the Norse peoples.
Appropriately for our visit on Good Friday, much of the story of the Viking culture revolves around the transition from their belief in the Norse Gods and Goddesses to them becoming Christians. Be on the lookout for the Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) pendant that also incorporates traditional Christian iconography (crosses) too. In a single piece, it represents the end of the Norse and the rise of the Scandinavians. It is historically profound.
The fine filigree work and extraordinary ability with metals reflected in even the more mundane elements of Norse life, including this beautiful (reproduction) belt buckle from about 550AD:
Again, it was part of the hands-on exhibit so having an original piece would have been inappropriate (not to mention how much the original piece must be worth!). I’d wear this belt buckle today!
While the Norse Gods are famous today, people are just as fascinated by the runes, and in death chamber after death chamber, it’s tiny “rune sheets” of metal that tell the story. Here’s one, way way bigger than life size:
As a point of reference, this is about 1″ x 1.5″ in total. From Öland, Sweden, these runes have been translated to mean “I carved this protection for you here, Bove…” (it continues on both sides of the tiny sheet).
Another thing we can thank the Norse culture for may surprise you: the names of the days of the week. Not only are most of them based on Norse Gods, but they’re remarkably similar across languages, as one of the exhibits highlights:
Here’s the etymology: Monday = Moon’s Day, Tuesday = Tyr’s Day, Wednesday = Wodan / Odin’s Day, Thursday = Thor’s Day, Friday = Frigg’s Day, Saturday = Saturn’s Day and Sunday = Sun’s Day. Three of these are Anglo-Saxon (Saturday, Sunday, Monday) and the rest are Norse Gods or Goddesses. Cool, eh?
At the end of The Vikings: Beyond the Legend, we appreciated the story that the exhibit told of an ancient culture wrestling with a lust for constant expansion and exploration with a transition from a primitive polytheistic belief system to the monotheism of Christianity. That the story is told in the small through artifacts is a bit underwhelming – a Viking long boat or burial mound would have been splendid centerpieces – but the exhibit rewards those who really pay attention and seek to understand the journey this small but important culture traveled in its hundreds of years of existence.
And, finally, outside the exhibit was a Viking long boat, in front of which I posed with my friends Matt and Steve:
I’m the guy in the middle, in case you’re not sure who’s who!
Disclosure: DMNS provided free tickets for my friends and I to attend the exhibit in return for me writing about it here on my blog.