The Vikings’ Bad Boy Reputation Is Back With a Vengeance

A major new exhibition is reviving the Norse seafarers’ iconic image as rampagers and pillagers

This double-edged iron sword was found in Denmark’s Tisso Lake. (Carsten Snejbjerg)
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Price says the hastily arranged mass graves seem to have been dug after a Swedish Viking raid that ended with the presumably victorious Scandinavians burying their casualties with honor before returning home. “The discovery serves to remind us that the Vikings’ targets were not restricted to the nations of Western Europe,” he says, “and also as material evidence for just how richly armed and outfitted the raiders may have been.”

In England, on the other hand, two recent finds demonstrate that Viking offensives could also fail badly. Mass graves excavated in Dorset and Oxford contain scores of men who plainly have been executed. Stable isotope analysis of their teeth has established that most of them were Scandinavian. Price concludes that these casualties were “unsuccessful raiders taken prisoner by the locals and punished for their assaults.”

The behavior of a typical Viking suits the architectural style of the Viking Ship Museum: Brutalism. The raw concrete structure crouches on the shore of Roskilde, a tidy cathedral town established by Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark during the latter part of the tenth century.

The museum houses five Viking ships that were scuttled in the Roskilde Fjord, strategically blocking the approach to the harbor. The oaken galleys remained undisturbed until the 1960s, when they were excavated from the seabed, preserved and painstakingly pieced together in what may have been earth’s biggest jigsaw puzzle.

The wreck in the current exhibition was uncovered along with eight medieval cargo ships during dredging operations to build an extension for the museum’s historic-ship replicas.

Tests suggest the boat was built from oak felled around the year 1025 near Oslo, possibly for King Cnut the Great, conqueror of England (1016) and Norway (1028). Only about 20 percent of the warship remains—a chunk was destroyed when unsuspecting workers sunk an iron sheet wall into the silt—but the remaining timbers span the entire length of the keel.

The ship’s slim lines represented the most advanced technology of the time. Which is all the more remarkable considering that, lacking drawn plans, the Viking built ships by “eye,” and had no written word except the runes scratched on signs and memorial stones. Sorensen reckons that technological expertise gave Norse seafarers their edge. “They lived on islands,” she says. “And on islands you don’t get anywhere unless you row or sail.”

She stresses that despite the Vikings’ violent bent, they swore by the ancient verities: the importance of family, generosity of spirit, a sense of fair play and personal honor. Physical bravery was a given. Most critical virtue: self-control. “The Vikings had morals, just not necessarily our present-day morals,” Sorensen says. “I hope visitors to the new exhibition will not go away thinking Vikings were all terrible, murderous beasts. Somehow some of the people of Scandinavia survived the Viking Age.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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