The Vikings participated in the very human practice of wanting their riches even in death, as a way of honoring how they lived. While normal Vikings usually got cremated in funeral boats, the elite would load up expensive funeral boats with helmets, coins, and swords, and bury it all beneath the ground. It made me think: What would be in my funeral boat? A vibrator, probably. My gold-plated $10 hoops. All the books I bought and never got around to reading. My vape.
The Vikings Begin grew out of findings by researchers at Gustavianum, the museum at Uppsala University—the oldest still-operating university in Sweden. Dating from the mid-7th to late 11th century, these artifacts come from 15 grave boats found buried around the grounds of Uppsala. Seattle is the farthest west these objects have ever been.
Their 10-year-long research project uncovered, among other things, that women played a much greater role in Viking society than previously thought. Not only were women guardians of many aspects of spiritual life, and carriers of the concept of revenge, but there's evidence they were also warriors, and were buried in high-status graves packed with weapons—a custom previously believed to have been only for men.
While the exhibition does little more than pay lip service to this revelation, it's interesting nevertheless to fantasize about female warriors participating in the raiding and murdering of innocent peoples across the European continent. That's what we women mean when we talk about true gender parity.
The exhibition space is moodier and more sense-stimulating than I thought possible in a museum. The gallery is completely dark, set away from the outside world, as if it takes place at a point outside of linear time. A grandmother behind me ushered her grandchild into the space whispering, "We're walking into a giant time machine and going back in time."
The ominous drumbeat playing throughout the space and the two giant screens depicting animal sacrifices and Viking battle scenes only added to the sensual nature of the gallery. I actively fought feeling weirdly turned on by the glittering coins, animal bloodletting, and other finery surrounding me. Some human responses are innate.
A blue glass beaker and green glass bowl are particularly striking. The brightness of the glass stands in marked contrast to the dark, murky colors of the rest of the objects. Believed to have originated in Northern Italy in the seventh century, these two glasses complicate the idea that early Norsemen only ever left their dim, uncivilized hovels to pillage and murder innocent people. They did do a lot of that—just with exotic glassware in their cabinets at home.
The Vikings Begin manages to capture the ethos of early Viking society while making it palatable to everyone, not just history nerds. If you stand for long enough in the parking lot of the Nordic Museum, you'll get a strong whiff of Puget Sound. The smell is unmistakably oceanic—salty, mossy, and deep. I let it carry me home.