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1

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the

Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

2

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

3

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

4

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

5

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

6

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

7

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

8

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

9

Viking Days will be celebrating at Mystic Seaport Museum on Saturday, June 16 and Sunday, June 17 Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

Viking Days will be celebrating at Mystic Seaport Museum on Saturday, June 16 and Sunday, June 17 (Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum )

10

The Viking Days celebration will feature trade demonstrations, performances, and on-the-water activities. Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum

The Viking Days celebration will feature trade demonstrations, performances, and on-the-water activities. (Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum )

11

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

12

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin

at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

13

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

14

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum

Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt

From the exhibit The Vikings Begin at the Mystic Seaport Museum (Photo by Mikael Wallerstedt )

Evolution of Viking Culture Explored, Delivering Lessons in History and Human Nature

Published Jun 13, 2018 • Last Updated 04:04 pm, June 12, 2018

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The next time you see a so-called Viking helmet with horns, Nicholas Bell wants you to consider this: Vikings were not stupid.

This idea that there are horns on Viking helmets first came into play in the late 1800s, courtesy of a costume designer working on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

“So many people believe Viking helmets have horns, but it does really come of that Wagner opera, it’s not at all historically accurate,” says Bell, senior vice president for curatorial affairs at Mystic Seaport Museum. “I mean, if you have horns on your helmet, it makes it easier for people to grab you. Some costume designer at the end of the 19th century unwittingly created a global misunderstanding.”

An ongoing exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum through Sunday, Sept. 30 from the Gustavianum Museum of Uppsala University in Sweden, Scandinavia’s oldest university, is based on extensive ongoing research and will be accompanied by a celebration of Viking Days on Saturday, June 16 and Sunday, June 17, featuring a wide range of activities. The celebration and exhibit should help dispel that myth, and others, he says.

“Another myth is that they were simply bloodthirsty people, getting down in their boats, and running around hacking at everybody,” he says. “In fact, many of them were quite cosmopolitan. They had extensive trade networks. They went to Russia, into the Middle East, and North Africa, absorbing and bringing parts of those cultures back home.”

Bell cites the discovery of a beautiful blue glass vessel discovered in a Viking burial site.

“This glass vessel was from the Mediterranean, crafted in Italy, and it was brought back to Sweden and cherished as a symbol of wealth,” he says. “It was made in 700 or 750 A.D. It survived the trek overland. It survived the Viking age, and it was buried with someone of that wealth. For it to have survived 1,300 or 1,400 years and come to us today, was a sign that these people valued these things.”

In addition to dispelling myths, the exhibit will help introduce summer visitors to Mystic’s relatively new exhibition building that allows for exhibitions of this caliber.

“Mystic has always been a beloved destination in the summer, but we want people to understand that we can now have offerings all year round. We have the capacity here and the interest in the community to bring a world-class exhibition program to this corner of Connecticut,” Bell says. “The building stemmed from our decision to build a robust exhibition program year round, on rainy days as well as sunny.”

It was, in part, the building that prompted the director of the Gustavianum Museum to identify Mystic as the ideal place to launch the debut of the Viking exhibit, which will go on tour after its run in Mystic ends in September.

“They said your building, and what you are trying to do is exactly the right platform for us to launch the debut of this project,” says Bell.

A Changing Environment

The exhibition, called The Vikings Begin, has a focus on the evolution of Viking culture, specifically as it relates to warfare, trade, the Baltic Sea, ship burials, Norse gods, and relations to other cultures. This is the first time that rare archaeological finds—including helmets, shields, weapons, glass, and other artifacts—have been exhibited outside of Sweden.

“Almost all of the material in the exhibition comes from early Viking-era graves. The university realized it had this extraordinary collection, and that it never had been adequately studied. They really wanted to understand the Viking age better. So, they applied for a grant and were rewarded over $6 million for a 10-year project on the Viking phenomenon,” Bell says. “It was an effort to understand the Viking material, how the Viking age began, what the forces were drove it, how these people lived. And the goal was to come to these answers in a scientific and objective manner because so much of our current understanding of this era comes from pop culture.”

The artifacts survived intact because of “these extraordinary graves in this particular place,” Bell says, including about 14 full boat graves. “And these Viking tombs were not raided. All of the material was still intact and survived incredibly well.”

The research has revealed some interesting ideas about why the Viking age was launched.

“Well, so one thing we know is that perhaps you could say they are similar to us, in that they had to respond to their environment, and their environment was changing,” Bell says. “This is very much a case study in a culture that is changing along with climate change. Around the seventh century, there was a significant cooling, and a society that was largely agricultural starts to retract, and go from farms as a primary form of economy to more of warrior bands. Essentially, some of these people are banding together and really beginning to set sail on the high seas to the British isles, Europe, Russia.”

The Vikings that are the subject of this specific exhibit, in Sweden, would have gone east, across the Baltic sea, and raided in Estonia and Russia, looking both for options to engage in trading and opportunities to raid, and pillage, and be violent, he says.

“And this is something we are still trying to fully understand,” Bell says. “But what does seem to be clear is that pressure is being put on these people to find new resources. It was never the majority of the people. The majority of people stay home. But, increasingly, there are bands of men who sail off.”

Bell says that June 8, 793 is often cited as the beginning of the Viking age, the date of attack on the Lindisfarne monastery off the coast of Northumberland in northeastern England that was documented by survivors. But, a discovery 10 years ago in Estonia revealed that Viking raids may have started several decades earlier.

A Story About Human Nature

In addition to The Vikings Begin Exhibit, there is a companion exhibit titled Science, Myth, and Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga, on the notorious Vinland map that tells a story not only about the Vikings, but also about human nature, Bell says. The Vinland Map was introduced to the world by Yale University scholars in 1965 and immediately became famous, and immensely controversial. The map appeared to show that the Norse Vikings knew about the New World before Christopher Columbus sailed. The announcement of the discovery exploded the long-held and cherished belief, pounded into all school children, that Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach American shores, in 1492.

“I’ve met so many people who are still obsessed with this,” says Bell. “This show isn’t just the Vinland Map, it’s also about human nature. This is a big sweeping generalization, but people love a good story, and people love to be surprised, and we like to think that there are things left to discovered in history that we don’t yet know. For all of those reasons, the announcement of the Vinland Map sparked the public imagination when it was published on a Monday morning in 1965. But for a very specific audience this was an unwelcome surprise. And that is the Italian American community. And it was a direct affront to a nation where it was drilled in every school child that Christopher Columbus was the first to reach the continent.”

And, Bell adds, the announcement was made the day before Columbus Day.

“There was incredible worldwide press about this. I mean, the headlines write themselves. The newspapers had a field day with it,” he says.

The publication of the map ignited debate among scholars, historians, scientists, and lay people alike, globally, about first contact, our country’s connection to Viking history.

The map was later determined to be a forgery, says Bell.

“But, that did nothing to diminish the role it has played in our national conversation about who we are and where we come from,” Bell says. “And this is why it’s such an interesting human nature story, you have this huge institution, Yale, embodied in a handful of scholars. Still, the news drops with the weight of that institution. It’s ‘Yale said this, Yale said that.’ And that leads to a dynamic of, well if Yale says that, then that must be so. Other scholars, however, say, ‘Not so fast, this looks fishy.’”

Bell says an exploration of press accounts at the time, which became part of the exhibit, also shows that this is happening around the time of the Vietnam War.

“So already there is so much double guessing and second guessing of authority. And people start to question where information is coming from and what do I believe to be true,” he says. “There is a sort of national reckoning of what we believe to be true in the world. And so authority in the form of the Ivory Tower, begins to be torn down.”

Finally, Yale decided to do some tests and put the issue to bed. Testing of the map parchment showed it was from the correct era, but a test of the ink revealed a problem. It revealed an industrially refined ingredient, titanium dioxide, which was not commercially available until 1920.

“That becomes a big blow up,” Bell says. “Yale sends out a press release in 1974, ‘Oops, it was a mistake.’”

You would think that would be the end of it.

“No,” says Bell. “It keeps going and going and going. I’ve been fascinated by this story and how vehement arguments are, even among scientists. And Yale is running tests right now; they started in February to support the exhibition.”

Part of the mystery, says Bell, is who would take old parchment and draw a map on it like this with new ink?

Bell declines to speculate on who or why or motive. But, he says, “it’s a great sage of human nature and human foible...It’s this whole phenomenon of people bringing their own set of the facts to the argument. We think it’s new, but it’s not. This is an excellent case study in how we as a people arrive at what we believe to be true, and how we continue to talk past each other to arrive at different realities.”

It also points to the continuing importance of objective points of view and scientific research, he says.

“There is always more we can learn,” Bell says.

One thing is clear, says Bell, that the urge to explore and discover seems to spring eternal. He agrees that the replica of Dutch explorer Adriaen Block’s Onrust, which will make its home at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex this summer is another example. Block and his crew traveled coastal New York, Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in an effort to develop trade with Native Americans. While Block and his crew were different in many ways from the Vikings, Bell says there is a through line from one to the other.

“At every point in human history, people have sought new frontiers and searched for new resources. What the Vikings were doing in the eighth century, was seeking those resources across the ocean and to bring that wealth back home to make a better life,” he says. “In the 17th century, almost 1,000 years later, the Europeans are doing precisely the same thing. Crossing the ocean. Taking great risks. Because they think life might be better on the other side. This is what we do. It’s timeless. It’s human nature.”

In addition to the exhibit, the Mystic Seaport Museum will be celebrating Viking days on Saturday, June 16 and Sunday, June 17. There will be trade demonstrations, performances, and on-the-water activities. The museum is located at 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic. More information about this exhibit and other can be found at www.mysticseaport.org, by calling 860-572-0711, or emailing info@mysticseaport.or

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