A pasty white man with blond braids, full golden beard and a metal cap with tiny horns brings to mind only one thing: a muscular Scandinavian-bred Viking. But centuries before him, there existed a mysterious people who paved the way for these pop-culture-glorified raiders and traders.
“The Vikings Begin,” an exhibition that opened Friday at the American Swedish Institute, digs into these roots through 43 objects discovered in an ancient burial ground in southern Sweden.
The show aims to take visitors past the stereotypes, and into the complex world of trading, spirituality and mythology that existed in the two centuries before the Viking Age, when the Nordic people took their ships to explore — and conquer — far-flung lands.
“I want to emphasize that they were real people,” said Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, a researcher on the Viking Phenomenon Project, which helped organize this exhibition and is excavating pre-Viking sites. “But today, all these images of Viking stereotypes are used as brands and logos. You can see them everywhere in popular culture, and their gods are Marvel comics.”
This exhibit is far from a superhero story. It begins with a dramatically lit replica of a boat grave, in which a warrior of high status would have been buried in a vessel equipped with swords, warrior get-up, a gilded horse harness and more, for use in the afterlife.
The spread-out show begins in the institute’s ground-floor Osher Gallery, then continues next door in five rooms of the historic Turnblad Mansion. There, you’ll find two metal helmets with intricate gold patterning — one with chain mail over the neck. Both have tiny slits for eyes, making it easy to imagine yourself face-to-face with these warriors.
These are rare gems.
“The society was quite violent, with a warrior ideology, and a power base that was largely militarized,” said Neil Price, professor of archaeology at Uppsala University. “But it was also a society in which everybody played a part.”
What the graves tell us
There’s scant information about the so-called Vendel Period — roughly 550 to 750 A.D. — preceding the three centuries when the Vikings held sway. There were no written sources, texts about their religious or spiritual beliefs, or even documentation of trade routes.
Much of what we do know was gleaned from these graves, discovered about 50 miles north of Stockholm at a hilly site called Valsgärde, near Sweden’s ancient cultural center of Uppsala.
Archaeologists discovered dozens of graves there, including 15 boat burials.
“In Viking terms, finding 15 boat graves is like finding 15 Tutankhamen tombs,” said Price.
Excavations revealed not only their burial techniques — cremation with objects, or boat graves for more celebrated leaders — but also suggested how these people lived. Glassware from Italy, acquired through trade, is on view here.
“People were not only going out of Scandinavia, they were coming in, too,” said Price. “It was a very tolerant world, which people don’t really associate with Vikings.”
Indeed, as shown by a sampling of coins from Uppsala University’s collection, the pre-Vikings traveled from Sweden to Norway, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Great Britain, France and even Constantinople, capital city of the Roman/Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art hosted a Vikings exhibit in 1981 that set an all-time attendance record at the museum. And in 2002 there was a smaller show at the Science Museum of Minnesota. But this is the first time the pre-Vikings are sailing into town.
It was Marika Hedin, former director of the Gustavianum at Uppsala (which happens to be one of Minneapolis’ sister cities), who brought this show to the attention of Swedish Institute director Bruce Karstadt.
The exhibition has already traveled to the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, and to the Nordic Museum in Seattle, but this visit marks the first time it will be in a city with such a historically large Swedish population.
As guests exit through the gift shop, they’ll find Viking swag such as mini-ships, mini-ships-as-candleholders, even a compact “Food of the Vikings” cookbook. (The museum will offer Viking food sampling and various lectures on Saturday.)
Aside from the grave digging, the pre-Vikings probably wouldn’t mind all this attention.
“Their own culture had to do with telling great stories and boasting about achievements,” said Hedenstierna-Jonson. “Their runestones are about commemorating people for their deeds.
“We don’t have to be too afraid that we are disturbing them.”
The Vikings Begin When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue. and Thu.-Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed. Ends Oct. 27. Where: American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls. Admission: $12 adults, $8 for 62 and older, $6 for ages 6-18 and full-time students with ID, free for members. Info: 612-871-4907, asimn.org.