There's more to Vikings history than brute force, Alberta exhibit shows

The Vikings have travelled to where they've never been before — landlocked Alberta — as part of a touring exhibition at the new Royal Alberta Museum.

'You can't get away from the more brutal aspects of who they were'

The 37-metre Roskilde 6, a partially preserved viking ship, is part of the exhibit, Vikings: Beyond The Legend. (The Canadian Press/Image courtesy of MuseumsPartner)

The Vikings have travelled to where they've never been before — landlocked Alberta — as part of a touring exhibition at the new Royal Alberta Museum.

Come for the swords, stay for the ship, and learn about how history's famous Norse marauders and pillagers were also artisans, farmers, and weavers of spellbinding sagas and poetic narratives.

"You can't get away from the more brutal aspects of who they were, but they also were amazing storytellers. They had a very rich literary tradition," said Natalie Van Deusen, a University of Alberta professor specializing in Scandinavian studies and literature of the period.

Van Deusen makes the comments as she strolls through more than 650 Viking era artifacts at the touring exhibit, called Vikings: Beyond the Legend, in Edmonton.

Brooches, swords, chain mail

The collection, with pieces on loan from the National Museum of Denmark, recreates the age of Vikings, who used their shallow longboats to roam throughout Europe and beyond from about 800 to 1050 AD.

The exhibit includes coins, brooches, swords, chain mail, helmets and other priceless trinkets of the era, as well as interactive and multimedia attractions.

Visitors can try on Viking clothes, test rowing skills on a virtual Viking boat, feel the weight and heft of a replica sword, or spell out names and words and see them transliterated into the cuts and cuneate slashes of the rune alphabet.

The highlight is a stainless steel and preserved wood recreation of the skeleton of the Roskilde 6. At 37 metres, it is the largest Viking warship ever found.

It was dredged up more than 20 years ago in Denmark's Roskilde fjord, with about 25 per cent of its original wood still intact, enough to be able to estimate the total size of the craft.

It carried 78 rowers and 100 marauders and is believed to be from around 1025, showing the confluence of size and shallow draft that allowed the Vikings to travel far in great numbers.

'A more prestigious weapon'

Then there are the swords, worn and brittle but still intact after near-perfect preservation for centuries in the Danish bog.

Viking swords were heavy and blunt, used for slashing and hacking, crafted to one's height. In some ways, they were akin to the modern iPhone: pricey, adapted to fit you personally but also very utilitarian; part of who you are, and never leaving your side.

"A sword was often a more prestigious weapon. The more upper class warriors would have them," said Van Deusen.

"The lower class may have had an axe.

"But a sword belonged to a specific individual. They didn't generally get passed down. People were buried with their swords."

People were buried with their swords."​​​​​​- Natalie Van Deusen

In the religion section there is also a recreation of the Jelling Stone, a painted rock as tall as an adult human and shaped like a massive blob of Jell-O, depicting in pictures and rune symbols Denmark's conversion to Christianity under King Harald Bluetooth in 965.

What you won't see are horned Viking helmets, which were never a thing but became part of the Viking myth when popularized in artwork in the 1800s.

Alas, added Van Deusen, while female Viking warriors were celebrated in stories and sagas, there's little evidence they truly existed.

She said women had some rights, including the right to divorce, and authority over activities in the home.

"But they had no political power. They couldn't be chieftains. They couldn't be warriors," she said.

"We want to know that there were these strong women who were fighting. And maybe there were, but they would have been the exception."

This is the first international exhibit for the Royal Alberta Museum, which opened less than a year ago in the city's downtown. It runs until Oct. 20.

The Royal Alberta is the largest museum in Western Canada, with 39,000 square metres, including 7,600 square metres of exhibition space.


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