Close your eyes and picture a Viking. Most likely, you envisioned a axe-wielding, muscle-bound man clad in filthy animal skins, wearing a metal helmet with pointed horns protruding from each side. As I learned recently at a behind-the-scenes preview of the new Vikings exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Vikings left no written history of their culture. Much of what we know has been gleaned from a history of the Vikings that was written by an Icelander named Snorri Sturluson, several hundred years after their civilization had vanished, or from extremely skewed characterizations, written by people who interacted with the Norsemen as they traveled far and wide to trade and raid. One such comment came from Ibn Fadlan, an Arabic envoy who in the early 10th century described Scandinavians he met on the Volga river, saying, “They do not wash after visits to the toilet…and they do not wash their hands after they have eaten. They are like stray asses.”
Archeological evidence suggests otherwise. These wild invaders, said to eat greedily with their hands, actually used spoons, forks, and knives, and the wealthier among them drank from glass goblets imported from the Roman empire. Almost every Viking grave contains one or more combs, and wash basins, ear spoons, and even glass mirrors suggest that they were extremely conscious of their personal hygiene. People wore strings of beads with pendants and buckles made of silver or bronze, and gold or silver thread and silk ribbons were often incorporated in their textiles. Even everyday articles, such as needle cases and purses, were made of precious materials and worn as decorations.
In recent years, archeologists have gained even more insight into these Norsemen who were scattered across Scandinavia between A.D. 750 and 1100. The name Viking hails from the ancient Norse word for a raid or trading trip. Men, women, and even children often “went on a Viking,” but for the most part they were farmers who built longhouses (large dwelling houses), raised crops, kept livestock, hunted, and fished. Certainly, they never referred to themselves as Vikings, nor did they wear horned helmets.
Though much of what we believe about Vikings is inaccurate, one thing remains true. Vikings rank among the world’s greatest explorers and traders. Artifacts discovered in archeological digs include an engraved brass Celtic cross from Ireland, Cowrie shells from the Red Sea, a bronze Buddha figurine from India, and carnelian beads from the Black Sea. These items and many more were on display at the Vikings exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, which was the only U.S. stop on its international tour.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Viking Cruises, a major sponsor of the Vikings exhibition, during this fascinating behind-the-scenes presentation at Chicago’s Field Museum.