Viking helmets from the 7th century are part of ‘The Vikings Begin. Photo courtesy Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum

Viking helmets from the 7th century are part of ‘The Vikings Begin. Photo courtesy Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum

‘The Vikings Begin’ Refocuses Scandinavian History

The Nordic Museum exhibit captures an interesting slice of the lesser-known Norse past.

Reductionism is a major flaw of Americans’ approach to learning about world history. Outside of a few standout European powers that continually pop up (England, Germany, Russia, etc.), cultures of the past or even entire countries and continents often get boiled down until they can be summed up by a single sentence with no context of what happened before “the big historical moment” and no follow-up on what happened after. From our remedial histories: India was under British rule, then Gandhi had a hunger strike and the country became independent; African history is basically just “that’s where the U.S. got slaves from.”

While it’s less culturally problematic, some ancient white cultures get whitewashed too. For example, Scandinavian history is basically “Vikings raided and pillaged across Europe for a while, and sailed to North America long before many of the explorers who typically get credit for it.” The Vikings Begin at the Nordic Museum seeks to provide context for the rise of Vikings, flesh out their culture, and re-examine potential incorrect assumptions about Norse culture from the 7th–10th century.

The Vikings Begin centers on new discoveries and research conducted at Sweden’s Uppsala University. Gustavianum, the university’s museum, created this traveling exhibit (making its only West Coast stop in Seattle), which features 44 objects—set in a dark gallery where the illumination of artifacts naturally guides you along—that help illustrate points that the cursory passages in history books fail to mention, like the strong oceanic trade culture of pre-Viking Nordic culture and the complex roles of women in society. Because the Scandinavians had an oral culture, the lack of written texts required sophisticated, scientifically based guesswork from the professors at Uppsala.

As the exhibit’s name implies, the story on display begins pre-Vikings. It was a much more cosmopolitan time for the region, which can probably best be summed up as: trades before raids. The Nordic people’s advanced and scalable shipbuilding techniques led them to become European oceanic traders, emphasized here by an array of exquisite little relics including scales, fabric, colorful beads, and glass that could be swapped at port. A video clearly illustrates the trade routes the Norse established, which eventually became raiding routes in the more hostile Viking age (an era which scientists now speculate might have been triggered by volcanic activity, changing the Scandinavian climate for the colder and ruining agriculture and fishing).

10th century decorated animal head presumed to be for a female sorcerer’s staff. Photo courtesy Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum

10th century decorated animal head presumed to be for a female sorcerer’s staff. Photo courtesy Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum

The rise of the Vikings’ violence is captured through the detailed weapons in this collection. While things eventually became less ornamental and more practical, the 7th-century helmet, swords, and shields on display showcase the culture’s elite metallurgy skills through intricate, symbolic detail work. There’s also a 2/3 scale recreation of the type of vessel they’d use as boat graves for the warriors.

Speaking of warriors’ graves, a recent discovery of a warrior’s grave for a woman has sparked some re-evaluation of gender roles during that period of Nordic history, and The Vikings Begin briefly touches on the topic. Perhaps the most compelling artifact on display is a bone animal head, of the kind that would top a sorcerer’s staff, that was found in a female grave. Apparently women were seen as the connection to the magical/mythical realm at the center of the culture’s spiritual life.

While The Vikings Begin won’t blow anyone away, a straightforward historical presentation with eye-catching relics is the type of exhibit that should be a focus of the new Nordic Museum. Celebrating a cultural history is fine, but learning more about its lesser-known history is fundamentally more enriching.

The Vikings Begin

Thru April 14 | Nordic Museum | $15 | nordicmuseum.org

More in Arts & Culture

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2019 Picks

Make the most of the cultural cinematic event with these four selections.

Britney Barber (center) and Samantha Demboski (left) perform in ‘Empty Orchestra.’ Photo courtesy Jet City Improv
Making It Up As They Go Along

Jet City Improv’s retributive actions towards a former player raise issues of the comedy institution’s staff culture.

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

TacocaT got you a new song for Valentine’s Day. Photo by Helen Moga
TacocaT Returns to Dance With Its Seattle Drag Pals in the “Grains of Salt” Video

The Seattle rock quartet’s new album ‘This Mess Is a Place’ comes out May 3 on Sub Pop.

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

After winning the Album of the Year Grammy for ‘Golden Hour,’ Kacey Musgraves yee-haws into town.
Pick List: Kacey Musgraves, Jen Kirkman, ‘The Passage’

The week’s best entertainment options.

Cherdonna Shinatra has a laugh during ‘<em>Ditch</em>.’ Photo by Jenny May Peterson
Clowning Around at the Frye with Cherdonna Shinatra’s ‘Ditch’

The colorful daily dance performance examines performative femininity and people-pleasing.

Brandi Carlile needs more mantel space after taking winning three Grammys on Sunday night.
Seattle Cleans Up at the Grammys

Brandi Carlile, the Seattle Symphony, and Chris Cornell combine to take home six awards.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

Susan Lieu performs a version of 140 LBS at Northwest New Works in 2018. Photo by Joe Iano
Susan Lieu Feels The Weight of Death and Beauty

Her one-woman show ‘140 LBS’ confronts her mother’s death via plastic surgery malpractice.