An exhibition tracing the Vikings through the British Isles has reached the final stop on its two-year tour. Lucia Marchini headed to Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery to learn more about Norsemen in Norfolk and beyond.
A fragment of a 9th-century stone cross from a church in North Yorkshire carries on it a dramatic image: a central figure, armed with a large sword, seemingly drags a captive woman. This scene vividly conjures up a popular perception of the Vikings, but it is far from being the whole picture, as Viking: rediscover the legend – a British Museum and York Museum Trust partnership exhibition, featuring material from the collections of both institutions – explores.
Another stone cross on show at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery (the exhibition’s final venue) tells a different story. Presenting a mix of imagery, with the combination of angels and interlocking beasts reflecting Anglo-Saxon Christian and Norse religious traditions, the limestone cross from Newgate, York, was carved between AD 925 and 975. Many Vikings in the British Isles adopted Christianity while still retaining some of the beliefs from their homelands. This fusion can be seen also in their coinage, with some showing Christian symbols on one side and pagan motifs on the other. Even the adoption of coins (which were more prevalent in England) in preference to ingots for trade, highlights their pragmatic approach towards commerce and how they adapted to maximise trade in new lands.
Interactions between early medieval Scandinavia and Britain, and the legacy of these Norse newcomers, are charted through spectacular hoards and individual artefacts from the British Museum, York Museum Trust, and Norwich Castle Museum’s own collections. The juxtaposition of iron ship-rivets from Norway with a double-edged iron sword and a gold arm-ring, both found in Yorkshire, offers a neat snapshot of the means and motivation for the early expeditions across the North Sea, as well as the resistance put up by the locals. The 9th-century Anglo-Saxon sword was found by a nine-year-old boy, who was playing next to Gilling Beck, near Richmond; he was later awarded a Blue Peter badge (also on show) for his discovery. The sword’s handle is finely decorated with geometric patterns and plant designs in copper-alloy. The arm-ring from York, containing more than 300g of gold, is a substantial object and an unusual one in its choice of material – silver was much more commonly used in items of this kind. It may have been given by a ruler to an important follower in recognition of their service and loyalty.
Among other treasures, raiding parties were seeking Anglo-Saxon silverwork, often adorned with intricate designs that were first practised on pieces of bone. One remarkable example of Anglo-Saxon art and probable loot is the stunning Ormside bowl. It is an 8th-century ecclesiastical vessel that had been taken from a church and adapted, to be found centuries later, in 1823, in the burial of a Viking warrior. This exquisite artefact is decorated with gilded bronze and silver, blue glass, and silver studs, as well as a mix of motifs combining Anglo-Saxon-style creatures and Continental-style vines. It is one of several key objects in the exhibition that are accompanied by ‘dig deeper’ sheets offering more detailed information.
NEAR AND FAR
For this iteration of Viking: rediscover the legend, recent finds in Norwich Castle Museum’s collections shed light on life in Norfolk and East Anglia around the time of the arrival of the Viking Great Army in 865, and in subsequent centuries. The Hingham Hoard, for instance, consists of four silver brooches, two silver strap-ends, and 23 silver pennies of King Edmund (later St Edmund), and it may have been hidden by someone concerned about raids and conflict during the 860s.
This is the first time many of the local objects have been on show: the exhibition doesn’t take any material away from the museum’s permanent Viking displays. The finds – many of them discovered within the last two or three years – are the result of responsible metal-detecting and working with the PAS. These include Carolingian fittings, coins, ingots, and jewellery. The former objects reflect Continental influences present in East Anglia: they may have been brought there by English or Frankish traders, or by Vikings either through trade or as plunder from the Continent.
An archaeological peculiarity in Norfolk is that the county boasts the largest number of Thor’s hammers found in Britain. Made out of silver, lead, or gold, these tiny amulets were worn to garner protection from the eponymous god, and are a hallmark of Norse religion. Although the subject is familiar, the comparatively large quantities of the hammers uncovered in the area raises questions, as yet unanswered, about why there are more in Norfolk than elsewhere. Could they point to a local religious centre?
A beautiful array of brooches also presents evidence of Norse cultural influence in the area. Lozenge brooches are relatively well known in England, and were imported from Scandinavia. A high-status example found at Attleborough with fine filigree is, however, unique, as it is made of gold rather than the more common silver. Another typical type of Viking jewellery is the trefoil brooch, common in the 9th and 10th centuries. One small brooch featured in the exhibition has been refashioned from a single arm of a trefoil brooch that may have been an heirloom, cut down, shared, and restyled. Borre disc brooches were also worn, and one of the best examples in Britain, with an impressive amount of its original gilding still surviving, was found in Norfolk, in Burnham Market. There is direct evidence that some Borre-style brooches were produced in Britain and not just imported, as indicated by a rare mould for a brooch of a different design from York. The variety, quality, and quantity of brooches unearthed in recent years reflects the mixed population in East Anglia, with women and men from Scandinavia settling down in the area, and diversity in styles and influences continuing after the defeat of the Viking Great Army by Alfred the Great in 878, when East Anglia became part of the Danelaw.
Viking: rediscover the legend runs at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery until 8 September. Tickets are £9.50 for adults (concessions are available). Visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk for more information.