WE VIKINGS at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden

The idea of what and who Vikings were continuous to shift. Yet, what one takes away from this exhibition remains the violence, menace, horror. The Fries Museum’s We Vikings tries to overturn the old cliche, but only partly pulls this off.

Take the first exhibition room: a sword is displayed, once wielded by a Viking. The next room contains a skeleton showing lethal damage sustained during a raid. Here and in other exhibition rooms, visitors can listen to eye-witness accounts of raids, saga and other sources being recited in English and Dutch: fear, violence, horror, menace.

Anybody who has read up on Vikings and European history from about 750 to 1070 AD, is familiar with many of the facts ‘revealed’. Vikings were no single people; though calling ‘Viking’ a way of life?

I’d rather opt for the idea proposed by archeologists and historians in an English documentary a while ago: Vikings were opportunists. The Scandinavians arrived as traders, sussed things out and if defence was not up to scratch, returned for richer pickings, plunder, extortion. The latter might include pay-off in coins, though also in land. 

The museum states: “This lifestyle included more than just the notorious looting. Vikings were also very skilled traders with an extensive network, from which the Dutch coastal inhabitants also benefited. Frisians might even join the Vikings and take part in their raids. In We Vikings over 500 objects from the Netherlands and abroad illustrate the complex relationship between Dutch coastal inhabitants and Vikings.”

That the Northsea was a European ‘trade-motorway’ is no news. By now, plenty documentaries and books have highlighted this. This fact is illustrated throughout the exhibition. Objects in its many rooms range from wine barrels to coins and luxury items – as well as a slave-collar.

We Vikings focuses mainly on events in Frisia. The area stretched along the North-sea and inland as far as Utrecht. It was bordered by Saxon tribes and the Frankish kingdom.

Frisians merchant-traders were soon replaced by Scandinavian entrepreneurs. Merchant-traders not only used the North-sea and European rivers. Ultimately, the trade-network stretched from Iceland to Ireland, to Spain, to Kiev, Constantinople, Bagdad. Archeological finds and written sources bear this out.

From the end of the 8th century, trade started to alternate with raid; with the number of raids increasing. Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors find a map showing all the known raids during the Viking age (roughly 790 – 1066). The number and range is staggering.

In Frisia, laws distinguish between those willingly joining Vikings and people being forced to join in. Visitors also learn, not all Viking leaders were men. Those familiar with the Greenland and Laxdaela Saga, or the Birka Viking grave, already knew.  

The last exhibition room is the most impressive. Visitors can board a replica of an 11th century Viking warship, created by students from a local school helped by experts from the famous Roskilde Vikingship Museum.

A Viking skull displays special dentistry. And here are hoards of coins, precious metal bars, jewelry – all buried to prevent Vikings carrying them away. The fact archeologists unearthed these hoards proofs the owners were unable to retrieve them.

Why this ‘way of life’ ended? Apparently thanks to the introduction of Christianity.

Worth a visit? Certainly, for this exhibition contains items from the British Museum, Gotlands Museum, Tromsø Universitetsmuseet, Lunds Universitets Historiska Museet, the National Museum of Ireland, the Leiden RMO and private collections. Moreover, this is not the only exhibition in this museum, nor the only museum in this building.

Visiting with kids? During my visit, kids roamed the exhibition wearing helmets and brandishing swords or axes, trying to discover treasures. Not sure, if the children’s booklet is available in English, though.

Exhausted after visiting this exhibiton? Award-winning local brewery Grutte Pier (large Peter) created a special beer named after Viking Rodulf, who raided Frisia in 873. It ended not well: the Frisians killed Rodulf and roughly 800 of his men, forcing survivors to pay retribution. The beer is on sale at the museum’s restaurant and shop.   Kate   25th October 2019

We Vikings continues at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden until 15th March 2020