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Vikings plundering savages or tradesmen?
The Vikings are paying a visit to the Netherlands. They arrived at the beginning of May and intend to stay until October. I decide to travel north and check it out for myself. I'm curious to learn more about these Vikings and like to see what they've brought with them. I take the train to Assen, the capital of the province Drenthe in the north of the Netherlands and decide to pay the renewed Drents Museum a visit.
New wing of the Drents Museum
Photographer: J. Collingridge
In the winter of 2011 the Drents Museum reopened its doors after an extensive renovation. Queen Beatrix attended the official opening and was among the first to enter the extended building. The new wing, a design by Erick van Egeraat, is a large and light space of about a thousand square meters. The ceiling is high, the walls and floors are shining white. It's first exposition was centered around China during the Tang dynasty. As part of the celebration and because of the focus on China a giant luminous dragon was let in the Vaart, a small canal in the city center. The people of Assen were invited to watch the ceremonial opening in presence of the Queen and for the occasion the city was decorated with Chinese lanterns.
At the end of April this year however, the Chinese gave way to another people. Folk who are known as brutal, bloodthirsty plunderers. We call them Vikings. They have arrived in Assen, which is their first stop on a European tour. A replica of their 8 meter long ship is lying in the museum pond.
Sword, iron. 750 - 1100 AD
The blade is decorated with inlaid gold and bronze.
Location: unknown, Sweden. Length: 94.5 cm/ Width: 10.0 cm
More than barbarians
More than one thousand years ago the Vikings traveled to Europe as well. A visit to the Drents museum learns us that they didn't just ransack the place and return back home with their loot.
What did the Vikings do then, when they arrived at the western and southern European shores? And what about the people who remained behind in what we call now Scandinavia? What kind of folk were they and what were the circumstances they lived in? The exhibit tries to answer these questions and provide the visitor with a more nuanced image of Vikings. Because, truth be told, the dominant image is that of a barbarian, a pirate who came to plunder and cause havoc. But that is not the whole story. There is much more to tell, so let us start at the beginning.
Pendant (Freya, silver) 750 - 1100 AD
This silver pendant is generally assumed to resemble the pregnant goddess Freya.
Location: Aska, Östergötland, Zweden. Length: 3.7 cm/ Width: 2.8 cm
The Vikings are coming!
The Vikings came to Europe in what we now call the Dark Ages. They took advantage of the turbulent period in Western Europe which had embarked after the fall of the Roman Empire. The period in which the Vikings thrived runs roughly from 790 till 1100 AD.
The men from the north arrived with their boats at the European shores. Because of their small and slender ships they had no trouble following rivers and entering the mainland and Mediterranean that way. On their journeys they were exposed to new and different cultures. They traded goods and sometimes plundered the lands they entered. They took their trophies and merchandise back with them to Scandinavia. This way the culture of the people living in those Northern areas got influenced by other ideas, habits, beliefs and religions.
The exhibition shows some of the beautiful handicraft the Vikings created. The displayed treasures of jewelry, the decorated swords and other weaponry, the clever tools and crafts, offer a good resemblance of the Vikings skill and expertise. Wood was an important material, they used it to built their houses, ships and carts. There are videos and photographs throughout the room on which the daily Viking life is reenacted. Canvas pictures of landscapes decorate the high white walls. Light boxes provide information in English and Dutch. The texts are illustrated with images and maps.
We learn that the people in the North were farmers. They cultivated crops and kept cattle. To gain food they also went out fishing or hunting. Vikings lived together as a household, with the rest of the family nearby.
They believed in several gods, among them Odin, Thor and Frigga. A corner at the back of the exhibition wing is dedicated to the Viking gods. Here the visitor can learn more about them. Something I wasn't aware of is that we still use the names of the Viking gods to indicate the days of the week. For example, Thursday is named after the God of thunder, Thor, who creates rain, lightning and storms with his hammer when he is angry. The most important god, Odin, who is also known as Wodan, is the namesake of Wednesday. The same counts for the other days of the week. Another corner explains about the runes the Vikings used for making inscriptions. Examples of the runes are on display. Among them a replica of a gravestone found in Sweden. So, do you still think all Vikings were brutal and bloodthirsty, ravaging the European mainland as savages?
Pendant (Thor's hammer, silver, with filigree ornament) 750 - 1100 AD
Location: unknown, Sweden. Length: 3.0 cm
Going on Viking
We have adjusted the misperception of Vikings that depicts them as mere brutes, but there are other presumptions that have shaped our image of them. Some of these presumptions are wrong and the museum tries its best to take these away as well.
For example, did you know the Vikings discovered what we now call the United States, centuries before Columbus arrived at the continent? Or that the region of Normandy is named after the Northern men, a name also used to refer to the Vikings. Or take the English word window, it is derived of the Viking word for the holes they made in the walls of their homes to let in fresh air and sunlight, a wind's eye, a window.
A persistent myth that gets busted is that Vikings wore helmets with horns. They did nothing of the kind. There aren't many helmets found in excavations and the ones that were found didn't have any horns. The image of the fierce Viking wearing a iron helmet with horns is a 19th century Romantic creation and after that period the image stuck. Nowadays it is still used in popular culture and for most people today a Viking seems naked and incomplete without his horned helmet.
Last but not least, did you know that the people we call Vikings didn't consider themselves one united people at all? Moreover, they used the word Viking as an activity or a verb, not to describe a person. They used it as a reference to the plunder and trade missions. When someone was away on his ship to Europe to trade and gather goods, he was on Viking.
At the end of the exhibition wing there is a loft designated as a play area for children. The kids can climb upstairs and go play. There they can write their names in runes. They can draw and color, make a puzzle or dress up like a Viking.
Not only children, but also grownups have the opportunity to play. You can hold a sword and feel its weight and grip. You can see the clothes Vikings wore and touch the fabric they're made of. On one of many the computers it's possible to dig out a treasure and on another you can test your newly acquired knowledge and take a quiz. If you're tired after all these impressions and images you can sit down and listen to one of the Viking sagas being read to you.
The treasures, ships and daily life of the Vikings can be admired until the end of October in Assen, the Netherlands. Children under the age of 18 can enter for free.
The museum is open Tuesday till Sunday from 11.00 till 17.00.
For further information visit the website.
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