Vikings!


Elaine MacintyreBy Elaine Macintyre, Digital Media Content Manager

The Vikings! exhibition at National Museum of Scotland gives an amazingly rounded picture of life in the Viking Age – not just the raiding and seafaring, the axes and helmets (WITHOUT horns), but life back home on the farm as well. Various fascinating artefacts help uncover what Viking Age people wore, how they ran their households and, of course, what they ate.

On display in one case are some charred, grey, unappetising-looking nuggets that actually transpire to be Viking bread, found in a grave in Birka in Sweden – nourishment for the afterlife, presumably. Yum.

Viking bread in the exhibition. Probably quite stale.

Viking bread in the exhibition. Probably a bit stale.

Experts in Sweden have analysed the samples and come up with a recipe for making Viking bread. Given that my husband is a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen, we thought we’d give it a go. The tenuous link to Digital Media is that you can download the recipe from the National Museums Scotland website here.

The ‘official’ ingredients are:

About 150 g barley flour
About 50 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 100 ml water
2 tsp lard or butter
A pinch of salt

The ingredients we used to make our Viking bread.

Our version of the Viking bread ingredients.

We cheated slightly by using a barleycorn flour that mixes ground barley with wheat flakes, as this was the best we could find in the wholefood shop! We also used goosefat in place of butter or lard but as people in the Viking Age would have reared geese (as well as chickens, pigs, cows and sheep) we figured that was probably fairly authentic. You can buy ground flax seeds in wholefood shops and some big supermarkets – they’re also useful for gluten free baking, and are a great way of upping the omega 3 content of bread, cereal, porridge, etc. (Just so you know…)

Here’s how we got on making the Viking bread.

Adding the flax seeds to flour and barleycorn mix

First, mix the dry ingredients together.

Adding the water

Next, add the water.

Mix into a dough and knead

Mix the ingredients into a dough, then knead on a floured board.

Roll the dough into a ball

Roll the dough into a ball.

Put the dough in a covered bowl and leave it somewhere warm to prove.

Put the dough in a covered bowl and leave it somewhere warm to prove for a couple of hours. We put ours in the cupboard under the stairs, where the boiler is. The dough will expand a little bit, but not much as it doesn’t have yeast in it.

Roll out the dough

Roll out the dough and shape into a rough circle.

We baked our dough in a dry heavy frying pan, but you can also bake it in the over if you prefer

We fried our bread in a dry heavy frying pan, but you can also bake it in the oven if you prefer.

Bake the dough until it a nice burnt brown colour

Bake the dough until it turns a nice burnt brown colour, a bit like a naan bread.

Serve with a hearty, warming stew

Serve with a hearty, warming stew.

So after all that effort, was it tasty? Well, yes: stodgy (as my gran would put it, it fair clags to your ribs), warming and perfect to accompany a stew on a cold evening!

A guest post by John Ewing, Falkirk District Wargames Club

Sunday 10 March sees the National Museum of Scotland host its first Wargaming Event, as Clubs from Falkirk and Edinburgh demonstrate how Wargaming can make the study of history fun.

Wargames take many forms and involve many different activities from collecting and painting model soldiers and preparing terrain to fight over, to researching the background of a battle or war you want to fight. All contribute to creating a game which tests the skills of the players and is fun to take part in.

Sunday’s game is inspired by a little known battle from Scotland’s history, one which took place over a thousand years ago in Aberdeenshire. There are no contemporary records of the battle but it left its name on the landscape:  Croju Dane, the Slaughter of the Dane, known today as Cruden Bay.

It is said that in the year 1012, a Scots army led by Malcolm II, King of Alba, fought a long and bloody battle against a force of invading Danes led by Cnut, then Prince of Denmark. The battle took place on flat ground near the shore of the bay where the Danes had drawn up their ships. It raged for most of the day and many men on both sides were killed or wounded. When darkness fell, the armies retreated, exhausted, and camped near the battlefield.

Malcolm II and Cnut

Left: 17th century depiction of Malcolm II. Right: 13th century portrait of Cnut. images from Wikipedia.

When dawn broke next day the sight of the slaughter and many dead caused both sides to pause and reflect. Encouraged by the clerics present, both leaders agreed a truce and a treaty was signed which resulted in the Danes withdrawing their forces, leaving the Scots to bury the dead and erect a chapel dedicated to St Olaf to mark the site.

Malcolm II and his successors went on to fight other battles as the Kingdom of Alba evolved into the Scotland we know today, whilst Prince Cnut became better known to history as King Canute, ruler of England, Denmark and Norway.

As little is known about the actual battle, we have not tried to recreate it but instead used it as inspiration for the game today – a chance to explore what might have been and test your skills as a commander of warriors from the Viking Age.

Viking sword hilt on display in the Early People gallery in National Museum of Scotland

Viking sword hilt on display in the Early People gallery in National Museum of Scotland.

The figures being used come from the collections of members of the Falkirk District Wargames Club. The eagle-eyed may notice that some of them are more usually to be found in other armies from the period.

The battle will be fought over a 14 foot by 6 foot table using scenic tiles from the Club’s collection. More usually games are played on rather simpler boards or mats and smaller tables. Even an ordinary dinner table can be turned into a battlefield with a little imagination.

For more information on the Club, check the website at www.falkirkwargamesclub.org.uk

Remember: “History can be fun”!

 Elaine MacintyreBy Elaine Macintyre, Digital Media Content Manager

Here at National Museums Scotland, if you haven’t realised that the Vikings were invading this January, you must have been working under a rock (or any other big heavy object – the Boulton and Watt engine, perhaps).

In Digital Media, as well as preparing visitor information for the website and commissioning our spectacular fiery trailer (inspired by one of my favourite TV shows – no, not Coronation Street, Game of Thrones), we also wanted to find a way for online visitors to experience a slice of Viking life, no matter where they were.

Along with Romans and Ancient Egyptians, Vikings are a perennially popular topic on the primary school curriculum. Here, at last, then, was the opportunity to fill the Viking-shaped hole in our Kids section, by creating a new game to encourage children (and grown-ups!) to engage with the objects in the exhibition and our early Scottish collections, and learn more about the age of the Vikings.

We started by inviting members of the Exhibitions, Curatorial, Marketing and Learning and Programme teams to a brainstorming meeting to discuss concepts for our new game. These ranged from ‘The Viking Way’ (a Godfather-like saga about amassing treasure and acquiring new territory, with early retirement as the ultimate aim) to ‘Viking Gold’ (an archaeological dig) to ‘Escape from the Vikings’ (fairly self-explanatory, that one).

Brainstorming ideas for a Viking game

Brainstorming ideas for our Viking game with trusty Post-it notes.

Our aim was to convey key messages of the exhibition in a fun, accessible way – and a way that suited our budget: Total Viking Warfare 6 was never going to be an option. First and foremost, we wanted people to understand that there was more to Viking culture than raiding and pillaging. We wanted to get across the skill of Viking Age craftspeople, whose work was of such high quality that certain pieces can’t be replicated today, and the knowledge of their navigators, who charted courses half way round the world. Oh, and we also wanted people to know that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. Ever.

Hence Vikings! Training School, in which online visitors choose to play as a Viking girl or boy, then test their mettle at weapon throwing, carving and navigation. And if you think that sounds a bit cheesy, think again. Viking children started training for adult life early on: there’s a hefty-looking sword in the exhibition that was wielded by an 8-13 year old boy.

The Viking village in the game

The Viking village in the game.

The game was created by Dundee-based agency Quartic Llama, who brought the concept to life in a delightful way that appeals to both children and adults, going above and beyond the brief by creating three mini games to test each skillset. The girl, boy and chieftain characters are all beautifully designed: look carefully at their outfits and you’ll notice they’re sporting brooches from the exhibition. One thing you won’t see, however, is a single horned helmet!

The characters from Vikings! Training School

The characters from Vikings! Training School.

Thanks also go to our lively panel of P3 pupils from Dalry Primary School, Edinburgh, who road-tested the game in its early stages. If you can’t get more than a C at axe-throwing it’s all their fault – they wanted the game to be hard!

Vikings! Training School launched on 16 January, two days before the exhibition opened at National Museum of Scotland, and so far has been played almost 9,000 times. Want to have a go? It’s time to go back to school…

You can play the game at www.nms.ac.uk/vikingschool. Vikings! runs at National Museum of Scotland from 18 January – 12 May 2013. Find out more about the exhibition at www.nms.ac.uk/vikings.

Robert LowA guest post by author Robert Low of the Glasgow Vikings

There was a BBC programme I watched with my daughter when she was a wee girl – I am sure loads of people remember it. Mr Benn has become something of a cult since and you can still get the books, but for those currently scratching their bums and wondering what the hell I am talking about, I will explain.

Mr Benn was a cartoon character, a little bowler-hatted man who left his home at 52 Festive Road (go figure how I remember THAT!) and walked to a local shop, where a little man with a fez ushered him into a changing room. There Mr Benn put on whatever costume had been left for him, then exited through a back door and into an appropriate adventure. Eventually, the fez-hatted shopkeeper would usher Mr Benn back to the changing room and he’d put on his suit and bowler-hat – until the next time.

Mr Benn should be the patron saint of reenactors.

In the beginning, that’s what the hobby of Viking reenactment was all about – a dress-up pageant, where you could play ‘pretend’ and be six years old. It was enough to wrap strips of fake sheepskin Lamtex round your lower leg and climb into a biker jacket; any public entertainment was incidental, since this was just a bunch of like-minded overgrown weans rolling about in a muddy field. Even the women …

Of course, it did not stay like that. The Public started Asking Questions and, in order to answer them with at least some degree of sense and truth, folk began researching the period. After a while, the Lamtex went. Then the biker jackets. In the end, we had Authenticity Officers …

The Glasgow Vikings

Aaargh! The Glasgow Vikings in action.

Now, if you want to dress like a Viking, you purchase a copy of the 1958 movie of the same name. You drool over Kirk Douglas’ fabulous winged helmet, Ernest Borgnine’s magnificent jerkin of diamond-plate studs and – if you are a woman – Janet Leigh’s improbably-breasted dresses.

Then you grip it securely in both hands and sling it in the bin, since almost none of it is accurate.

What is accurate is surprisingly varied and versatile. Wool and linen and even silk as fabrics. Leather and sealskin, wolf, fox and other furs and skins. You can have almost any colour you like save, peculiarly, black – no-one in the Dark Ages found a mordant suitable to fix black as a permanent dye.

Viking costume wasn't drab

Viking costume doesn’t have to be drab.

We know this because the archaeology has exploded in the decades between when The Vikings began, back in the Sixties. There is hardly a woman in the Vike – or a man, now, for that matter – who does not know how to get yellow dye out of onion skins, or why Hiberno-Norse are the only ones allowed to wear purple (from heather) apart from the exotic Rhus of the Russian east (who got it from Byzantium). There are few Viking reenactors who do not know their proper status and why they can’t have ornamental bling with a plain, undyed tunic, or why a sword is a luxury item, or why their helmet has no wings or horns and never will have.

Robert Low in Viking helm - look, no horns!

Robert Low wearing a Viking helm – look, no horns!

It comes as a surprise to some and almost all of the public to find out how warm a wool cloak is in winter, or how wet-proof a pair of sealskin boots are, or how the Norse sailors developed the sleeping-bag in sealskin and foul-weather gear from walrus hide which as good as modern Neoprene.

Of course, getting all this gear isn’t easy. You can’t buy it, so almost all the Viking reenactor women I know are expert seamstresses. Most of the men can turn out a pair of simple leather shoes. Several are now expert armourers and have turned it into a full-time, museum-supplying business. Others make hats, leather belts and sheaths, silver jewelry … everything we wear is handmade, handstitched and lovingly crafted.

The Glasgow Vikings

Reenactors from the Glasgow Vikings.

Of course, you can’t walk out and club a cub these days – well, not without creating a bit of a stir – so all the skins and furs have to be laboriously sourced from countries who legitimately cull the likes of seal, wolf, boar and the rest. That then needs to be addressed in presentations to the public, especially in schools, where Glasgow Vikings in particular do a lot of serious primary education.

But the more we strive to educate and explain, the more interest is engendered and that manifests itself in many ways, from Time Team to the History Channel to museum funding for exhibitions such as this one.

So when you next see a Viking, take a long, hard look – all that gear, from his forged helmet to his leather soles, is unique, hand-made and an investment of love, time and money. We like to think that the decades of striving to be more than biker jackets and Lamtex have contributed to keeping alive an age long gone but not forgotten.

Find out more about Robert Low and the Glasgow Vikings here.