Category Archives: Vikings

Merchant Adventurers: When the Medieval Norse Sailed to the Canadian Arctic

Something about the strange strands didn’t fit. Patricia Sutherland spotted it right away: the weird fuzziness of them, so soft to the touch.

The strands of cordage came from an abandoned settlement at the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Hudson Bay. There indigenous hunters had warmed themselves by seal-oil lamps some 700 years ago. In the 1980s a Roman Catholic missionary had also puzzled over the soft strands after digging hundreds of delicate objects from the same ruins….

From my story in the November 2012 issue of National GeographicRead the entire story here

Repatriating the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum

I sometimes think that one of the worst jobs in archaeology today would be  to work as a curator at the British Museum.  Yes,  there is the prestige of researching and mounting massive exhibitions that attract international attention.   But who would want to be on the receiving end of all the ire of foreign governments who want their treasures back,  from Iran demanding the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Greece pressuring for the return of the Parthenon marbles?  And I sure wouldn’t want Zawi Hawass lecturing me on the return of the Rosetta Stone.

Now a new front has opened up in the diplomatic war to pry loose national treasures from the British Museum showcases–and it’s not at all where you might think it would be.  Last week,  Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil called for a debate in the British House of Commons over the repatriation of the very famous Lewis Chessmen discovered in a sandbank on the Isle of  Lewis,  in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands sometime before 1831.

First a very short primer on the Lewis Chessmen,  which are my all time favorite artifacts from Medieval Europe.    A 12th century artist carved the exquisitely beautiful  chess pieces–93 in all–mostly from walrus ivory,  which could well have come from the Greenland colonies,  or possibly even from the Canadian Arctic.  (That’s another story  I’ll save for another day.)  No one knows for certain, however,  where the chessmen were carved,  although some scholars lean towards Trondheim in Norway,  since similar chess pieces were found there.   How these wonderful chessmen–one of the best preserved sets from the medieval world- came to lie in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis is unknown.

Shortly after they came to light in 1831, however,  the Hebridean finder decided to sell them.  A private  buyer purchased 11 of the pieces and the rest went to the British Museum, which displays several of these miniature artworks  in one of its galleries.

But now people in the Outer Hebrides want their famous chessmen back.  Indeed, their MP Angus MacNeil is working hard to repatriate them to the Museum nan Eilean in  Stornoway,  the major town of the Outer Hebrides.  And what has provoked this protest?   It appears that the  British Museum has stepped very clumsily on toes and local sensitivities in the Outer Hebrides.  Its curators have been working on a major travelling exhibit of the chesspieces to Scotland and according to a recent online article in The Press and Journal, advertising for the forthcoming exhibit attributes the chesspieces to Norwegian craftsmen,  completely ignoring the possibility that they were carved in the Outer Hebrides.

Is this just a tempest in a teapot?  I don’t think so.   The Lewis chesspieces are objects of of immense pride in the Outer Hebrides,  and someone at the British Museum should have known this.  I am becoming more and more sympathetic all the time to foreign governments and even local museums who want to repatriate their greatest treasures from the vaults and exhibition cases of the British Museum.  It think it’s patronizing in the extreme today to think that only the big national museums in developed countries know how to take care of the world’s most important cultural heritage.

Somebody Stop Mel Gibson, Please

Oh, no.  Not again!  Yahoo News is reporting that Mel Gibson is planning yet another of his nightmarish historical blockbusters.  The man who brought us Braveheart andApocalypto is planning to unleash his filmmaker talents yet again on another unsuspecting ancient culture with a reputation for extreme violence–the Vikings.   “I’m going to give it to you real, man,” Gibson reportedly told a Yahoo News writer.  “I want a Viking to scare you.”

Actually what scares me is Gibson.  The man is a menace.  He loves decking out his projects with all the trappings of historical accuracy, while merrily jettisoning any real fidelity to history and truth.   Take Apocalypto,  his ghoulish, blood-spattered epic on the Maya.  His cast all spoke Yucatec Maya like natives.  His Maya nobles and priests wore exquisite costumes and headdresses.  And he even threw in a real honest to goodness environmental crisis that plagued the Classic Maya–the deforestation of Maya lands to provide timber for fueling lime kilns.   (All the lime went into plaster for the buildings.)

But was Apocalypto true in any way to what we know about the Maya? Not by a longshot.  It depicted the Maya almost en masse as ghoulish blood-thirsty club-wielding savages — what Mayan archaeologist David Friedel once wryly described  as “orcs in loinclothes.”    It depicted little if anything of the beauty and richness of Maya art, science, and religion,  pretty much rendering an entire culture into a historical horror show.

Sure it’s entertainment,  and it wouldn’t matter so much except for two things.  One is that his films are huge box-office hits,  seen by millions of people, particularly impressionable teenagers.   And secondly his version of past looks and sounds so historically authentic that many people are conned into believing that they are witnessing something truthful.

And there’s one other aspect that disturbs me.  Gibson is already talking about how he will apply his techniques of verisimilitude to the Vikings.  “I think it’s going to be in English,  an English that would have been spoken back then and Old Norse,” he told the reporter.   “I want to see somebody who I’ve never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living **** out of you.”  Some critics applauded Gibson for filming in foreign languages in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto,  but if Gibson was quoted correctly,  I’d say that he sees the act of speaking in such a language as something that will  increase both the fright factor and brutality of scenes.   What kind of a message is that to send to kids?  How about xenophobic.

I know one film that I won’t be rushing out the door to see.

The Accidental Discoverer on Skye

I read with real delight today the BBC  news  story about the Hebridean farmer who turned up a possible Viking anchor on the Isle of Skye.   The farmer,  Graeme Mackenzie,  was out trying to clear the drain from a pasture he wanted to turn into a potato field,  when,  lo and behold, he came across  what  looked to be a 10-cm-long rusted iron spike.   When Mr. Mackenzie went to pry it out, the piece of iron seemed to go on and on under the peat,  and eventually he had himself  a four-foot-long medieval anchor.

I have a great fondness for people who stumble upon important artifacts while out puttering around the garden or pasture,  and who then report their treasure to the authorities.  First of all, these accidental discoveries always open up the tantalizing possibility that any one of us could unearth something really crucial to archaeology while digging a new flower bed,  say, or putting in a  garage–especially if you live in the British Isles.   Moreover, people who find these dirt-crusted marvels often say really wonderful things to reporters,  quite off the cuff. Mr. Mackenzie, a former skipper,  admitted with modest pride,  for example,  to having ” some knowledge on anchors.”  He then went on to lay out his argument for the anchor being of Viking origin.  ” The metalwork,” he said, ” is totally different from the modern anchors.  It felt like a blacksmith had hammered it.  On the internet I saw a picture of a Viking anchor and it looked exactly the same as mine.”

Whether or not this will prove to be a Viking anchor,  however, remains to be seen.  Viking ship experts will want to take a very close look at the evidence before making any pronouncements.  But a Viking find of this nature would be very important for the Isle of Skye. History tells us that the Norse were a major presence on this North Atlantic  island from the 9th to the mid-13th century A.D.   Indeed,  there’s an absolutely fabulous line from a 13th century Norse saga,  Heimskringla,  about an ancient battle in Skye:    “The hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.”

But for all the long Norse presence on  Skye,  rather few Norse artifacts have yet turned up.  I sincerely hope,  for the sake of all Norse historians and archaeologists and all the Hebrideans who take such pride in their Norse heritage,  that Mr. Mackenzie is right about the Viking anchor.

By Heather Pringle