A visit to Viking heaven: Valhalla Exhibition, York

Just a little post on one of the fantastic exhibitions on in York at the moment – but hurry, it’s only on until November 4th! The exhibition looks into the various Viking excavations that have been carried out across the British isles (as well as a few skeletons artefacts!), offers a children’s area complete with Viking costumes and games, and real-life viking guides! I popped in while I was up working on the training dig at Hungate. Here are a few things I learned while I was there.

Replica Viking ship burial

A little on the structure of Viking ideas on the ‘universe’

The Vikings believed that there were many gods and goddesses that lived in a universe of nine worlds. In the centre of the Viking universe there was a special tree called ‘Yggdrasil’; the Gods occupied the highest level of the worlds. Odin was believed to be the chief of gods; when warriors died in battle they were brought to Valhalla (a hall for feasting and revelling). The giants and humans lived below, the land of the humans was connected to the world of the gods by a rainbow bridge called ‘Bifrost’. The elves and dwarves also lived here and around this world swam a giant serpent who bit itself in the tail. The lowest level was the land of ice and fire, a place where illnesses and disasters began and was ruled over by Hel, the goddess of the underworld.

History of the Vikings with the British Isles

The Vikings came over from Scandinavia to Britain for more than 200 years from AD 793 to raid, trade and settle. The first raids attacked Anglo-Saxon Christian communities (such as the island monastery of Lindisfarne, NE, England). Later on in the invasions the Vikings began to settle from the Midlands and East Anglia to Northumberland and even to as far as Scotland and Ireland. York was a prominent centre and a principal (and longest) stronghold of the independent viking power. However, prior to the Viking arrival in 866 it had still served as a well established political, religious and commercial centre. Following this arrival, York dramatically changed in size, appearance and economic role.

York as a Cultural Melting Pot

Past excavations at Coppergate, Hungate and others have uncovered that York was incredibly built up by 1066 with around 15000 plus inhabitants (making it the second largest city in England – in terms of population and wealth). Jorvik (Viking for ‘York’) was also a blending of Viking settlers and already established Anglo-Saxons (both with their own separate religions, culture and languages). Despite potential inter-cultural tensions, both groups appeared to coexist peacefully for mutual benefit with some Viking settlers assimilating a Christian life style and subsequent death style (as indicated by burial presentation).

Viking Burial Style

As the Vikings were seafaring folk (well, that’s the way they travelled mostly!) the most common method of burial was via ship burial. This was used for a number of assumed reasons: it was a practical container for the body or as a wood supply for pyre cremation, it was a display of power and social status, a symbol of maritime connections and was viewed as a ferry to the next world for the deceased person. Spiritually, a ship burial was a way of showing loyalty to specific gods and goddesses. While these burials were relatively common in Norway (archaeological evidence has wrought a minimum of 50 recorded ship burials), there is limited evidence for this type of burial in Britain (most of these being recorded in Scotland).

Within these ships it was customary to place ‘grave goods’ for the dead to bring with them into the underworld to avoid becoming a lost soul who wandered for eternity. For both genders this commonly included weapons (for fighting epic battles in the afterlife), drinking horns (for feasting) and combs/hygiene products (to de-lice and keep one’s self clean!). Women were sometimes buried with domestic items, as exemplified by the case of Scar Boat Burial at Orkney, which uncovered items such as an iron weaving batten, spindle whorls and a pair of shears present in the grave.

Source: York Archaeological Trust 

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