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The Viking Age

The Vikings arrive on March 10, their longships and all, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. On exhibit through August 13, 2017, Vikings: Beyond the Legend puts to rest the one-dimensional stereotype of bearded barbarians wearing horned helmets. Instead, visitors will be surprised by a culture of unexpected refinement, complexity and achievement.

Produced by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartners in Austria, the exhibition sheds fresh light on what has been commonly known or believed about these mysterious people. Myths and misconceptions will vanish.

Although they were pirates, raiders, pillagers and worse, bent on acquiring riches by any means, Vikings were originally peaceful traders who searched far and wide for luxury goods they couldn’t get at home. Their network stretched all the way to Europe and the Middle East. Things changed when they realized there was a much easier way to get the treasures they wanted-raiding the extremely wealthy and poorly defended monasteries in mainland Europe, Britain and Ireland.

And so, in A.D. 793, their historic saga of violence began, when a group of Norsemen attacked the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of northeastern England. It marked the beginning of the Viking Age, which lasted from the 8th to 11th centuries.

The term Viking refers properly only to men who went on raids. All Vikings were Norse, but not all Norse were Vikings - and those who were did their plundering only as a part-time occupation.

The Vikings were not one nation but separate tribes of warriors, explorers and merchants/traders led by different chieftains. They lived in what was then Scandinavia-now Sweden, Norway and Denmark-and were primarily farmers and herdsmen. They grew grains and vegetables during the short summer, but depended mostly on cattle, goats, pigs and sheep for food. They had strong extended family units and were surprisingly sophisticated. They amused themselves in the long, dark winter nights by playing chess and backgammon, and kept the oral tradition with epic poems and stories.

The Vikings earned their brutal reputation, but they were also more than that. While colonizing Iceland, they founded the world’s oldest democratic parliament, called the Althing, which was also a court of law. They were master craftsmen and skilled seamen who built the first ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Their longships were technological wonders of the time. And perhaps most significant, they were restless explorers whose westward expansion brought them to North America some 500 years before Columbus.

Their common ground-and what made them different from the Europeans they confronted during their sieges-was that they came from a foreign land, they were not “civilized” in the local understanding of the word and most importantly, they weren’t Christians. Even worse, they were Pagans who worshiped a multitude of deities, including the likes of Odin, Thor and Freya, for whom our weekdays Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are named.

Hagar the Horrible aside, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. There are no records of their having worn such headgear. There are many theories about how this myth got started, but it’s widely thought to have originated with the character of Brünnehilde in Wagner’s opera, The Ring of the Nebulung.

End of the Viking Age

By the early 11th century, the declining power of the Vikings was becoming more visible as they suffered increasing defeats in battle. And as Europe grew into powerful kingdoms, the Norse raiders had run out of easy victims. Historians cite 1066 as being the end of the Viking Age, when they were driven out of England during the Norman Conquest.

By that time, all of the Scandinavian kingdoms were Christian, and what remained of Viking culture was being absorbed into the culture of Christian Europe. In Iceland, the Vikings left an extensive body of literature, the Icelandic Sagas, in which they celebrated the greatest victories of their glorious past.

“Exposing the complexities of these seafaring, land-loving people reveals how their creative and innovative culture ... made them a force behind European trade networks and cross-cultural exchange that have endured through centuries,” says Stephen Nash, the Museum’s curator of archaeology.

The Exhibition will have on view a wide collection of artifacts detailing the Viking culture, including

• two replica boats, meticulously recreated using Viking processes and materials of the time,

• A “ghost ship,” represented by a sculpture of 219 hanging iron rivets from an authentic, aristocratic burial ship,

• The oldest known Scandinavian crucifix.

Hands-on activities will offer glimpses into family and community life, religion and rituals, aristocracy and slavery, and the significant role of women. The Museum’s historical enactors will bring the Viking Age to life with traditional clothing, the Rune alphabet, authentic games and of course, Norse mythology.

Timed tickets are required and advance reservations are encouraged. 

If You Go

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO 80205, 303-370-6000, www.dmns.org