The discovery of the New World by Leif Eriksson one thousand years ago will be celebrated this year when Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga opens at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History on April 29, 2000. Eight years after the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Caribbean, the exhibition seeks to educate the North American public about an earlier episode of European history in the New World by focusing attention on the contributions made by the Vikings and their Norse descendants, who continue to inhabit North Atlantic regions into the modern day.
It turns out that educating the public about the Vikings and their relevance to North America is more necessary than one might imagine. North Americans know surprisingly little about this subject, even though it is one of the most popular topics taught in secondary schools (right after the history of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and American Indians). What little is presented about Vikings in North American schools only serves to reinforce the stereotypic view of Vikings as crazed warriors bent on mayhem and destruction as they careen about the coasts of Europe in their "dragon-ships," harrying defenseless monasteries, laying siege to towns and cities, and carrying off plunder and slaves to their homelands in Scandinavia. This image has been reinforced by movies, such as the famous Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis film The Vikings, and by the antics of the Minnesota Vikings football team, whose half-time shows draw heavily upon this widely-shared but one-dimensional view of the Vikings, who thank goodness - are safely back in the historical locker where they can't take issue with our misapprehensions.
Battling the Dominant Stereotype
Indeed, there is much to offer in the way of educating the American public about the Vikings, even if we were to confine our attention to their European role. For starters, that most ubiquitous of Viking symbols - the horned helmet - was never worn by Vikings. It is seen in only one dubious illustration: a faded tapestry found in the famous Viking period Oseberg ship burial from Oslo Fjord in Norway. Horned helmets were used by earlier Bronze Age peoples of Europe and Scandinavia, and some spectacular helmets have been found, but all date more than one thousand years earlier than the Viking Age, AD 750-1050. The latter was a dynamic period when literacy, Christianity, and the concept of
nationhood were beginning to take hold in these northern European regions. The old Norse religion, which had dominated the spiritual lives of the Nordic peoples for hundreds of years, included such figures as Thor, Odin, Frey and many others, none of whom wore horns. Like many features that emerge from the domain of popular culture, the origin of this icon is somewhat mysterious but is thought to be related to 19th century Nordic nationalism and its Germanic roots.
The dominant Viking stereotype, now ubiquitous in both Europe and America, concerns what was beneath the helmet! The image of the gnarled, bearded, beetle-browed Viking warrior slashing his way through the undefended monasteries, towns, coasts, and countrysides of the British Isles and Western Europe has been especially popular in recent years. Over one thousand years ago, the horrified monks and abbots who had seen Viking barbarians at their worst preserved in their writings the memory of those depredations, beginning with the famous Viking raid on Lindesfarne in northeastern England in 793. This raid certainly took place, and many more followed over the next two hundred years, but over time, the nature of Viking interaction with Europe and the British Isles changed. Vikings began to settle in territory they conquered there and along the coasts and rivers of Western Europe. While they still harried the populace and extorted danegeld as payment for not ransacking their neighbors, gradually they married in, set up farms and became much like everyone else. In this way much of northern Scotland, northern England, parts of Ireland, and especially Normandy, came under the sway of the Vikings and their mixed-ethnic descendants. Even some of the early kings of England were Vikings, in addition to William the Conquerer, the Viking leader of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
Authenticating Travelers' Tales
New views of Vikings are a direct result of recent archaeological research, which has uncovered information that did not exist in European historical records. (Vikings themselves, even though they used a runic alphabet and made runic inscriptions on wood and rock, did not make maps or keep historical records per se; thus what we know about the Vikings in their homelands has come only from the reports of outsiders like Adam of Bremen or the Arabian traveler, Ibn Fadlan.) Excavations at Viking sites in Dublin and York, where the Vikings established the first urban centers in what had previously been an agrarian society, have shown Vikings to be as effective in changing the economy of the British Isles in their capacity as farmers, traders, and politicians as they had been earlier as warriors and plunderers.
A similar story is emerging from the Continent. These changes were also influencing life in Scandinavia, where the loot, the ideas, and the slaves that Vikings brought home also provided impetus for internal change, stimulating the growth of Nordic kingdoms, trade centers, and the introduction of Christianity. New research has also shown that even the Viking warrior of the early Viking Age was not the single-minded brute of today's comic-strips. Surely what was there for the taking was taken - after all, it was easier than haggling over a price - but not everything was won by the sword. Viking warriors were also astute businessmen and politicians who stimulated European trade, helped the development of national kingdoms, and made important contributions to literature, poetry, and art.
The greatest exemplars of Vikings as traders and mercenaries come from the stories of those Vikings, mostly from Sweden, Gotland, and other Baltic regions, who navigated the Russian rivers and traveled south to Kiev, the Black Sea, and who even reached Baghdad and the Caspian Sea, long before the Crusades brought other Europeans into the eastern Mediterranean. This remarkable tale, well-documented in the records of Arabic travelers like Ibn Fadlan (ca. 922) is beginning to yield to archaeological studies as well. Excavations at Birka, a huge Viking trade site in eastern Sweden, at Staraya Ladoga near St. Petersburg, and at Novgorod and Kiev show extensive Viking trade along this Eastern Route. It is believed that the term "Rus" was originally the name of a Norse trible and that Vikings became the first kings of Kiev. Unfortunately, these tales could not be included in our Viking exhibition and need to be explored through future Nordic-Russian collaboration.
Unraveling the Oral Histories
In Europe, the new research replacing the Viking image (derived mostly from historical accounts of their misdeeds) was publicized in scholarly books and touring exhibitions, such as Viking to Crusader(1992). Meanwhile, a new wave of Viking research was gathering steam to the west in areas settled by the "West-Vikings." Here researchers confronted a slightly different problem: Rather than having to counter the Viking image created by Viking victims, it was necessary to penetrate a Viking stereotype of their own making. The story of the West-Vikings (those who left their homelands and made new lives among the islands of the North Atlantic) is known not from the pens of clerics and courtly scribes but from the oral histories and stories known as "sagas," told by the descendants of these Viking pioneers, which were written down in Iceland beginning in the 13th century. It was this story - the exploration and settlement of the North Atlantic - so little-known both in Europe and in North America - that we chose as the core of the current exhibition project.
The fact that Vikings explored and settled the North Atlantic islands and Greenland, and briefly explored portions of North America has been known since the early 19th century. As the sagas, written in medieval Icelandic, began to be translated and made available outside of Iceland, scholars quickly recognized that such stories as the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, which describe the settlement of Greenland and explorations in Vinland, were not simply literary fancy but were at least quasi-historical documents. Later, records came to light in Europe confirming Viking expansion across the North Atlantic, beginning with Norwegian Viking settlements in the Shetlands and northern British Isles, and from Viking settlements in both places to the Faeroes, Iceland, and beyond.
Finding Evidence of North Atlantic Travels
As illuminating as these sagas and historical records were, there was little corroborating evidence until archaeological studies began in the late 19th century. By the 1960s excavations had demonstrated abundant evidence of Viking settlement throughout the region. The most extensive studies were in Greenland, where the mysterious disappearance of the Norse colonies had been a subject of curiosity since the early 1700s. Archaeology at Viking and Norse sites in the Shetlands, Faeroes, and Iceland began later and has begun to produce major results. Little of this information has been available to English-speaking audiences, and none of the archaeological evidence of Viking and Norse settlement in the North Atlantic has ever been seen in North America. While some of the scholarly and popular publications devote a few pages to Viking history in the North Atlantic and North America, their brief presentations do not include the evidence of recent research. These new studies, including new literary research into the Viking sagas, archaeological excavations of Norse and Native sites, and historical and environmental research, bring to life an exciting new picture of a portion of the Viking world that has until recently been neglected and unknown.
Preserving the Vision of a Distant Past
The exhibition begins with a presentation of Viking history and culture in Scandinavia and its expansion, discussed above, into Europe and the British Isles. It then follows the early Viking pioneers who explored and settled the Faeroes and Iceland c.860-870, illustrating their ships, navigating techniques, and the various reasons why the West-Viking expansion took place: these included the need to find new lands for their expanding population and to seize the opportunities Viking navigators perceived, as they discovered uninhabited islands that were suitable for their stock-raising economy. One of the opportunities was the lure of a different kind of "loot" - walrus ivory -- which by this time had become more precious than gold in the high courts and church chambers of Europe.
The Iceland portion of the exhibition features the social and environmental changes that occurred when Vikings arrived and began to set up a new society in this land of fire and ice. The rapid peopling of the landscape, the removal of its fledgling forests, and the installation of large stocks of animals permanently transformed the Island into what it is today: an agrarian-industrial nation whose economic interests and environmental resources must be carefully managed to avoid ecological catastrophe. Here archaeological and natural science give evidence of the failed Norse colonies in Greenland and of the changes Vikings brought to the Faeroes and Icelandic landscapes soon after landnam. These serve as a reminder of the cost of over-exploitation in a part of the world where climatic cooling can have devastating effects. Iceland also exemplifies how a Viking population welded a new nation out of Celtic and Norse immigrants, and then adapted a system of Nordic selfgovernment, based on community assemblies, that has been a model of modern democracy, dating back to the first general assembly at Thingvellir in 930. But perhaps the greatest contribution to emerge from Iceland was the recording and preservation of the sagas. This facet of the Viking world is presented dramatically in the exhibition in a dedicated "saga theater" in which the sagas relating to the discovery of America are staged in sound and light in a simulated Icelandic longhouse.
Sailing Ever Westward
Iceland was also the staging point for the final series of Viking expansions that led to Eric the Red's discovery and settlement of Greenland, and the extension of that effort further west into North America. Recent archaeological work not only offers a window into the
four-hundred year span of Norse Greenland (985-1450); it has also given us exciting new information about Viking voyages to Vinland. Evidence for the latter is presented from cartography and archaeology and includes a reconstruction of the Viking site discovered by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad at LAnse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. This portion of the exhibition includes new information about contacts between the Norse and various Native American groups (Indian, Dorset, and Thule culture); it suggests the Norse may have been trading for ivory as well as gathering timber from Markland (Labrador) and that their voyages to America continued for several hundred years after the Vinland voyages ceased in the early 11th century and were confined largely to the Arctic regions of northeastern North America. It now appears that Norse activities in North America were much more extensive than previously believed.
Finally, the exhibition deals with the controversial question, "Where was Vinland?" and the many claims and counter-claims made about Viking landings in America. Some of these theories have been based solely on interpretations from the Vinland sagas, while others are tied to reputed Viking artifact finds such as the Kensington Stone, found in Minnesota in 1898. Although once exhibited by the Smithsonian as a genuine relic of a 1362 Norse exploring expedition, scholars today believe it was created by a Swedish immigrant farmer as a practical joke. More romantic is the story of the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, once described by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1841 epic poem, The Skeleton in Armor, as a "lofty bower" built by a wandering Viking for his lost love. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish scholar of that day, believed that the tower and many otherwise unexplainable archaeological traces in New England attested to a former Viking presence in America. Even the mythical city of Norumbega, thought to lie along the Charles River near Boston, was once thought to have been founded by a lost colony of Vikings. Finally, there is the more recent controversy over Yale's "Vinland" map, supported by a few (at Yale) as a genuine 15th century document but thought by almost everyone else to be a 20th century creation.
Affirming the Viking Legacy in
Although none of these theories or claims have withstood scientific study, discovery of a Viking coin dating to the reign of Olaf Kyrre (1065-1080) at the Goddard site, an Indian village on the coast of Maine occupied during the Viking period, leaves open the possibility of startling new Viking finds. So far, no true runestones and no other Viking settlements than that found in Newfoundland have been uncovered. That site, which was excavated by Birgitta Wallace for Parks Canada after the Ingstads worked there, seems likely to have been the camp established by Leif Eriksson and perhaps also by Thorfin Karsefni and his wife Gudrid, whose child, Snorri, has the honor of being the first European born in the the New World.
The Viking legacy of discovery and exploration in America, of pioneering new adaptations in the rigorous North Atlantic, and of artistic and literary creations that have enriched humanity is a story that has been too long hidden in archives and beneath the soil. Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga brings these and many other tales of the West-Vikings to prominence in a beautiful and dramatic exhibition that will tour North America for two years after its opening at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The exhibition has been planned since 1997 in collaboration with the Nordic Council of Ministers, Volvo, and other sponsors as a millennium program to commemorate the Viking expansion across the North Atlantic. A catalogue will be available, with a preface by Hillary Rodham Clinton and contributions from more than 30 Viking scholars.
Certainly we have not heard the last cry of the Vikings in North America! While this exhibition will no doubt contribute to a more informed recognition of the Vikings' role in North America, the Viking icon in Europe and America seems certain to remain a powerful symbol of this dynamic culture for years - if not centuries - to come.
William W. Fitzhugh is Senior Curator of Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga, and Director of the Arctic Studies Center of the National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He edited the exhibition catalogue with Elisabeth I. Ward.…