Why fleeting you might ask? Well in a nutshell, the visit occured a couple of years ago during a whirlwind trip to London with the family and after a protracted visit to the Natural History Museum followed by getting distracted by a well known sci-fi shop I was left with a mere two and half hours to see the Museum…As some of you are well aware this is not nearly enough time and so it was, a fleeting visit. The following are a few of the photos I took along with brief explanations.
One of the first gallerys I made my way to was the early Medieval gallery – I had long wanted to see the artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-saxon ship burial. Sutton Hoo is located near Woodbridge in Suffolk and is the remains of a 6th and 7th century AD cemetary. Mound 1 was excavated in 1939 providing the world with a fascinating glimpse of the artistic ability of our Anglo-saxon forebears. The artefacts were richer and more intricate than any other found before.
An ornate purse lid – would have originally covered a leather pouch which hung at the waist.
These ornate shoulder clasps are one of kind in Europe and were originally used to hold together the two halves of a stiff leather cuirass so it can fit the torso snugly in the Roman style.
Not far from the Sutton Hoo treasure is the Lewis Chessmen. These fascinating wee carvings were discovered in 1831 in Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides). They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway. A number of years ago, a travelling exhibition on the Vikings came to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand. Two of the Lewis Chessmen accompanied the exhibition and it was this that inspired me to write “A Viking Moon”.
Staying with the Vikings we have the Cuerdale Hoard from Lancashire. The display at the museum is only part an enormous hoard of silver found in a lead chest beside the River Ribble. The hoard itself consisted of 7500 coins and 1200 pieces of silver bullion, weighing in at forty kilograms. The coins come from a variety of sources – mainly the eastern Viking kingdoms of England but also from King Alfred’s Wessex, Byzantium, Scandinavia, Islamic and Carolingian sources. The Ribble Valley was an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York and this may have some bearing on why the hoard was found here.
Staying in the early Medieval my next photo is of the Burghead Bull. The town of Burghead in Moray, Scotland occupies part of what was once a Pictish promontory fort of great importance. The Burghead Bulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century when much of the fort was destroyed to make way for more houses. Originally there were thirty panels carrying carved images of bulls, now however, only six remain – one of which is held at the British Museum. They are dated to 5th century AD and it has been suggested they formed a frieze set into the ramparts of the fort and possibly represent a warrior cult which celebrated strength and aggression. Regardless of what the bull represents it is a fabulous piece of Pictish art.
Travelling back in time I moved onto the Roman and Iron Age galleries (this was a flying visit, I had just recieved a text from an impatient husband…)
In the Roman gallery I took a moment to admire a stone sarcophagus found in London in 1853 within what was described as an extensive Roman cemetary outside the city wall to the east. It is dated to the early 4th century AD.
Moving along swiftly I found myself in the British Iron Age and here I had to stop and admire the mirrors. Of all the artefacts from this period these are my favorite (and no its not because I have vain streak…). I have long held the belief that mirrors were more than a toilette item for these were never true mirrors that the modern person might be familiar with. Their surfaces were often burnished bronze and would at best reflect a fuzzy image. Instead I would suggest that the surface of a mirror acted in a similar way to the reflective surface of lake, pond or well providing access to the otherworld – a liminal space/place. Such places are well documented as being special, the vast numbersof artefacts found deposited into watery places at this time speaks for itself. Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that later myths and stories use a mirror as a storytelling device (think Snow White).
The St Keverne Mirror (Cornwall) 120BC-80BC
The Desborough Mirror (50BC-50AD)
The Wetwang Mirror (Yorkshire) 210BC-160BC
Then of course something shiny caught my eye, first the Snettisham Torc and then the twisted gold torcs from the Ipswich Hoard. The Snettisham Torc was discovered in 1950 near the village of Snettisham in Norfolk. It is made up of a kilo of gold mixed with silver, there are 64 threads and each thread is 1.9mm wide, eight threads were pulled together and twisted then all were twisted again to make the torc. The terminal ends are hollow and were cast from a mould. The torc is dated to between 150BC and 50BC. The Ipswich Hoard was the second hoard to be found in the area, the first being Anglo-saxon in date. This particular hoard was discovered during the construction of a housing estate in 1968 by a digger driver and consisted of six twisted gold torcs. These torcs had less silver in them which has led the musuem to date their manufacture to around 75BC.
The Snettisham Torc
The Ipswich Hoard
Finally I wound my way through the Egyptian gallery and down the stairs to meet up with the family who were marvelling at the large statues from the ancient world. The following is a selection of the photos from this part of the museum.
There was so much else to see but I simply ran out of time and as we were flying out the next day any other sight seeing would have to wait until another visit – although I have heard recently that there are plans afoot for a downloadable VR experience for those who can’t visit in person.
Below are a few links which relate to the above photos.
In ‘A Viking Moon’- the first of Sarah’s adventures – our heroine is transported back in time to Viking Denmark. The story itself is set in roughly the mid 800s AD, a time of great change throughout Europe. The following is a brief overview of the Vikings as encountered by Sarah. For those who would like a lot more detail, my apologies but this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on Vikings. There are some great sources of information out there on the internet or even in your local library.
Sarah’s story begins when she comes into contact with a Viking rune stone. There are large numbers of rune stones throughout Scandinavia (some 3000), their name deriving from the runes written upon their surface. Runes were a form of lettering used by the Vikings. Rune stones were erected between the 4th and 12th Centuries and can be found anywhere the Vikings went. They served mainly as a memorial to the deceased but were also used to mark territory, explain inheritance, boast and bring glory and to tell of important events.
During the first twenty years or so of the 9th century, Danish politics were characterized by constant infighting and changes in kingship. Often kingship was held jointly as was the case in 812/13 where Harald Klak and Reginfred ruled jointly but only until the sons of Godfred (an earlier king who died in 810) turned up and promptly exiled them both. Harald and Reginfred then recruited an army but failed to win back the crown. By 819 Godfred’s sons were bickering amongst themselves and all goes to seed until finally Horik remains and manages to hold onto power until 853 when he was overthrown by a rebellion within his own family. It is during the reign of King Horik that Sarah finds herself and just prior to the civil war that was about to erupt.
Kings during this early period were not the most powerful, because most communities were loyal to their local chieftain. A king had to conduct religious rituals and lead his subjects into battle. He was expected to keep a force of fighting men and ships to protect his people and their property from attack. But when a king died, a new king would be chosen from the members of the reigning royal family. A person’s age, health, reputations and popularity were all taken into account.
The steading of Geir is situated in the southern part of the island of Zealand or Sjoeland as it was known at the time. One of the greatest concerns at this time were the raids from lands across the sea. It was not just the Danes, Norse and Swedes who raided their neighbours. In Sarah’s story the Kurlanders/Kurshes were often considered a great threat. Kurland (Courland) was situated in the north west corner of what is modern day Latvia. In reality the situation got so bad that in 853 the Danes launched a campaign against the Kurlanders, there was a major sea battle and the Danes were defeated. Another contributing factor to the brief civil war in Denmark that wiped out many of the contenders to the throne and ended Horic’s rule.
Geir was once a ‘styraesman’ or ship commander who through many successful raiding trips accrued enough wealth to buy land and a steading. It was possible using wealth and ambition for any man to become a member of the aristocracy and so it was for Geir who by the time Sarah turns up is referred to as a Jarl or Lord. Apart from kings society was divided into three main groups Jarls, Karls and Thralls.
Jarls were often the wealthiest and most powerful people, owning and ruling large tracts of land. A Jarl would usually have a small band of household warriors to fight for him if needed. The second tier of society belonged to the karls. They were free men and women who sometimes owned their own farmsteads or rented from the landowners. In Viking times the eldest son would inherit his father’s land, younger sons would need to make their own way either by joining raiding parties, become professional warriors or merchants. Some could become hunters, fishermen or crafts men. The poorest landless karls were servants or farm workers. At the very bottom of Viking society were the Thralls these were slaves who had no rights and were bought and sold like any other piece of property. Most slaves were captured during raids or battles, some were karls who had lost their freedom after going bankrupt or committing a crime.
Viking women enjoyed far greater respect and independence than many of their contemporaries in other parts of the world. They were allowed to own land and property and sometimes a daughter would inherit a share of her parents’ wealth. However, a women’s status varied according to her position in society. Thus, Astrid as wife of the Jarl would have considerably more freedom and authority then the wife of a farm worker. When a woman’s husband was away either trading or raiding, she was responsible for the smooth operation of the business or farm in his absence. A noble woman such as Astrid would be expected to make decisions and organise protection of the steading should it be necessary.
Some women had other jobs apart from being wives and mothers. There were female skalds (storytellers), carvers, merchants and others who played a part in the religious ceremonies. Certain women were thought to be prophetesses who could tell the future and give people advice in their daily lives.
Messing about in Boats
Actually the Vikings were highly skilled shipbuilders, producing some of the finest ships of their time. They were essential to the Viking way of life. They built vessels of many different shapes and sizes. In 1962 five ships were excavated near to the city of Roskilde in Denmark. There was a ‘knarr’ an ocean going trading vessel, with an open hold amidships, and only needed 6-8 men to crew; a ‘skeid’ or ocean going warship which was 30m long and 4m wide with space for 60 oars or a crew of 65-70 men; a ‘byrding’, a small trading or transport vessel only needing a crew of 5-8 men, wind powered and perfect for the Danish and Baltic coast; ‘snekke’, a small warship built for speed and maneuverability only needing a crew of 30men. The last vessel was rowing/sailing combo probably used for fishing or seal hunting.
The oarsmen did not have seats instead they would sit on their sea chests (wooden chests that would contain their personal belongings). If a vessel had need of a sail it would most likely have been made from wool with leather reinforcing strips. Another feature of most vessels would have been the steering oar – this was positioned on the right hand side at the rear and gives rise to the English word ‘starboard’ coming from the Norse word ‘styra’ or ‘to steer’. The vessels themselves were clinker built meaning that the planks of timber that made up the body would be overlapping each other and then the spaces between would be filled with moss, wool or animal hair drenched in tar to ensure water tightness. The decks would be open with little or no protection from the elements, at the best an oilskin tarpaulin was rigged up bivouac style.
The most famous type of vessel is the ‘drekar’ or dragon ship, the name derived from the wooden carvings on the front of the ships. They were the finest of all warships, very ornate and well built. A common misconception is that warships would sail with the shields over the oar ports – it is unlikely this happened unless in port as it would be far too easy to lose a valuable shield overboard.
The Vikings used the sun, the moon and the stars to navigate but they would also use the depth and temperature of the ocean to judge their position. They also used their knowledge of the habits of seabirds and mammals to guide them.
There are a great many books and internet sites that deal with the plethora of Viking gods, goddesses and all things otherworldly. Viking deities were divided into two groups the Vanir who came before and were a race of peaceful gods, Freya and Frey being examples and then there is the Aesir who came later and deposed many of the Vanir. They were a warrior race of gods and include gods such as Thor and Odin. The following is a brief (and probably unsatisfactory) account of those that Sarah encounters in ‘A Viking Moon’.
The first goddess to turn up is Freya an indigenous goddess who is being held hostage by the Aesir to maintain spiritual peace. She is very powerful and her areas of expertise include love, sex, fertility, magic, witchcraft and death. Her priestesses are called ‘volvas’ and are greatly feared by the general population. In later times she is labelled the ‘Queen of the Witches’ by Christian priests and her followers were heavily persecuted. Cats are also special to Freya, her chariot is drawn by two huge gray cats called Bee Gold (honey) and Tree Gold (amber). To be kind to cats was to invite Freya’s blessings. In the story Astrid offers a prayer to Freya but at the same time she is spinning wool. Spinning has a magical quality about it and was once associated with divination, the magical art of transformation and the cycle of life. But it is also associated with the goddess Frigga, Odin’s wife.
Later in the story Sarah has an encounter with a ‘volur, women who were believed to have prophetic powers. These women would travel around the countryside staying at the halls of local leaders, interpreting dreams and predicting the future. During the ceremony the chief prophetess would sit on a platform or special chair whilst her companions would chant sacred songs and she fell into a trance. It was believed that her soul left her body and soared over the earth giving her great wisdom and insight. The ‘volur’ would carry a wand of alder to signify her power as a representative of the goddess.
In the final chapters Sarah meets Thor and Aegir (sort of). Thor was and is a very popular Viking god and as such much has been written about him. He is the god of thunder, lightening, wind, rain, physical strength, good weather and crops. As such he was very popular among the farmers of the Viking countryside. His hammer was called Mjollnir, archaeologically his popularity can be attested to by the significant numbers of hammer pendents found. He was regarded as a straightforward and reliable god even if he was not the sharpest knife in the draw. Aegir is regarded as the god of the sea and fishing and would be well known to the sons of Geir. It is not unusual for sudden and violent storms to sweep across the Baltic, sometimes it is even possible to think that have been sent by the gods…
A Thor hammer pendent (modern design by Hayman Celtic Jewellery).
On a final note, sacrifices to the gods and goddesses were common. The kind of sacrifice made would very much depend on what you wanted. They could range from a simple offering of food at a field-side shrine for a good harvest to the death of an prize animal or even in some cases a person perhaps in exchange for success in battle. It went without saying that a simple prayer to deity was not enough, there must be payment if you wanted them to listen.
Archaeology, History, Myths and Stories…oh… and a little bit of time travel…