Exhibition Review. Valhalla: examining Viking burials in the British Isles.

The Valhalla: In Search of the Viking Dead exhibition in York, curated by York Archaeological Trust in association with the Chapter of York Minster and Manx National Heritage, takes a broad brush to examine the archaeological evidence for Viking burial in the British Isles using illustrative material from the recent Hungate excavations in York and the Isle of Man.

First impressions are excellent, the exhibition utilises the space in the former shop well with nicely lit displays and professionally designed boards, and is well positioned round the corner from the famous Jorvik Viking Centre. The intention of the exhibition is obviously to build upon the groundwork of knowledge established by other presentations in and around York, particularly Jorvik, exploring the more esoteric, religious aspects of Viking life in the city and elsewhere. During our visit we were fortunate enough to catch one of the excellent tours by one of the attendants (dressed in Viking garb) who provided an engaging and entertaining overview of the Viking burial evidence in Britain. This highlighted the continued importance of the well-informed guide when compared to more consistent, and often dehumanised, audio-visual displays which have become the vogue in many museum presentations.

Central in the exhibition space is an impressive, scaled version of the clinker-built Faering-type vessel, much like that found at Balladoole (Isle of Man) and other boat burials in Scandinavia and Britain. Within the boat reconstructed grave-goods had been placed giving an overall impression for the lavishness of the boat burial, although this collection gives something of generalised view. Either side of the reconstruction are a series of boards which describe boat burials discovered in Scandinavia, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Within the display particular emphasis is given to those discoveries from Balladoole, including a film of the discoveries and the facial reconstruction work of the male remains (this can also been seen in Manx National Heritage’s own displays). The displays, along with the guide’s presentation, emphasise the gender roles and complex symbolism expressed in the burial evidence, with the grave goods also hinting at a higher degree of social mobility for women than is generally appreciated.

The exhibition moves on to consider the discoveries from Hungate in York, with a film presentation illustrating the archaeological process involved in the recovery of a series of burials found during excavations in 2011. Two of the skeletons recovered during this work are displayed in glass cases in the centre of the room. The implication within the exhibition is that the Hungate burials represent the diverse religious practices carried out in tenth century York, suggesting that both Christian and pagan beliefs existed, at least for a short time, alongside one another. Whilst evidence for pagan burial, and consequently pagan belief, is lacking from York itself evidence from the surrounding area (and elsewhere) is utilised to point to a pagan presence in the area (e.g. Ingleby, Derbyshire). This absence of evidence is attributed to gaps in current archaeological knowledge rather than anything else.

The complexity of the belief system is reiterated in the remainder of the exhibition which focuses on the sculptural evidence from York Minster (five pieces of which are displayed here) which contain a complex and ambiguous iconography from both Christian and pagan traditions. Indeed one grave cover:

…appears to have an obvious cross on it, but perhaps it wasn’t that simple. It isn’t standard practice for a Christian cross to end in animal heads, and two of the other examples of this group from York don’t have a cross at all. Might this be a stone which appealed to both Anglo-Saxons and pagan Vikings? Those who wanted a cross could see one, while those who didn’t could see it simply as a divider between the panels.

Thorwald’s Cross, Andreas (Isle of Man)

This message is more overtly expressed on Thorwald’s Cross (Andreas, Isle of Man), a cast of which forms part of the exhibition, showing scenes of both Odin at Ragnarök and Christ ‘conquering’ evil on opposing sides.

Attempting to present the complexities of burial practice in Viking York is no small task and in many respects this ambition is achieved. However, the largest criticism of the exhibition is that it is a very text heavy presentation with over twenty boards arranged over the three walls of the small exhibition space. This along with a dearth of artifactual evidence makes the exhibition daunting for the casual observer, indeed many of the visitors who there at the same time as us gave up after the first few boards. Admittedly this can in part be attributed to the limitations of a non-dedicated exhibition space, but with advancements in temporary exhibition capabilities and the significant discoveries in York, and particularly in the Isle of Man, it feels like an opportunity missed. Evidence from the burial of the ‘Pagan Lady’ (Peel Castle, Isle of Man), for example, with its fusion of pagan grave goods in a Christian burial setting, would have served to illustrate the complexities of burial practices and religion in this period in a more graphic and concise fashion. At the same time in covering so much ground the exhibitions central message is sometimes obscured by detail; fewer, better chosen examples would make the argument more concise. The replica of Thorwald’s Cross, for example, has been chosen to illustrate the syncretism of belief systems in the Viking period, but discussion of the stone is only cursory and would have benefited from a more thorough examination (at the very least a description  of the iconography). Elsewhere the exhibition assumes considerable knowledge of pagan belief systems, there is no explanation of what Valhalla is, or what it meant to the Vikings (during the guided tour we were fortunate to have some explanation), and there is no discussion about the complexities and impact of regional, local and family cult. There are also some inaccuracies within the exhibition; the creators seem unable to agree on the name for its partner organisation ‘Manx National Museum’, ‘Manx Museum’ and ‘Manx National Heritage’ are used at different points. This is somewhat confusing for the visitor.

This is a really interesting and thought provoking exhibition which builds upon the heritage displays found elsewhere in the city and is definitely worth the entry fee. Much of the criticism outlined above is alleviated by the attentive guides who are always on hand to provide answers to those nagging questions. The guided tour is well worth the entry fee alone. This is a family friendly exhibition, and the organisers have gone to considerable lengths to organise enough activities to keep the young people busy whilst the older ones have a look around: ‘Valhala’ snakes and ladders, dressing up box, Viking themed toys and even a puppet show are all here. The usual ‘twee’ Viking gifts are also available from the small gift shop. This exhibition should be considered a must for those visiting York.

The Valhalla: In Search of the Viking Dead exhibition continues until November 5th 2012. Admission is £2.50 for adults, £1.50 concessions and £1 and Children (Under 5s are free), although it is free with tickets from other York attractions: JORVIK, DIG, YAT and Barley Hall. Photographs of the exhibition are available via Photobucket.


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