Great Viking ships sailing towards the shoreline would have been a terrifying sight for the coastal communities of Europe more than a century ago.
The fierce Scandinavian warriors of old spread to Iceland, Greenland and even to the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador five hundred years before Columbus.
But a new exhibition at the Royal B.C. Museum is proving the lasting legacy of the Old Norse culture goes much deeper than pillaging and horn-rimmed helmets.
“People think of the Viking culture as quite primitive, but they were actually very skilled craftsmen to a pedigree of impressive quality,” said Kent Andersson, producer of Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends, which opened at the museum on Friday.
Andersson – visiting from the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm – walks towards an intricate box, about a metre in length, and points out the “almost grotesque” animal heads that decorate its sides like a crown.
“It’s a Christian object, but its form is a Viking house made of gilded bronze,” he said. “It belonged to the museum in Hamburg which was bombed during the Second World War, so the original is lost.But it’s very, very high quality craftsmanship.”
More than 500 Viking artifacts – from priceless jewelry to weaponry and clothing is now on display beyond the doors of the museum. Many objects have never been seen outside Scandinavia.
Hands-on artifacts at the exhibition include a replica Viking sword that illustrates the advanced metal-working techniques of the ancient Scandinavians, as well as digital boat-building and excavation games.
“The blacksmiths were so good making blades, you could actually bend them over your knee and they’d snap back,” said Andersson, lifting the sword handle to feel the weight.
Though the word Viking is commonly used to describe the Old Norse culture, the word actually refers to exploring or adventuring, Andersson said.
“You would go on a viking, on a commercial trip or a raid,” he said. “But you weren’t a Viking.”
The Norse people dominated vast areas of the North Atlantic for about 350 years beginning in 750 A.D. The resulting archeological finds from this period are a mishmash of cultures from as far away as India, Anderson said.
“You can see the influence of other cultures in nearly all of these objects, but they remain unique,” Andersson said. “There are pendants of Thor that contain a Christian cross, it’s quite fascinating.”
A small Buddha statue on display proves just how far Viking boats reached on their centuries of journeying, said Royal BC Museum CEO Jack Lohman.
“What’s a Buddha doing in a Viking archeological site,” Lohman said at the opening. “It’s an incredible testament to the reach of these explorers.”
Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends runs until Nov. 11 before heading to Montreal and Chicago.