For most Americans, U.S. history begins in 1492 with the voyage of Christopher Columbus. But 500 years before Columbus set sail, a Viking warrior named Leif Erikkson pushed his boat up on the shores of Newfoundland in Canada. One thousand years after he set foot in North America, a new museum exhibit touring the U.S. and Canada explores the many facets of Viking life.
Dr. William Fitzhugh is the curator of "Vikings, The North Atlantic Saga," a new exhibit at the Smithsonian that is full of artifacts the Vikings left behind, including an ironing board made of whalebone.
Fitzhugh says the artifacts shed light on the softer side of Viking life. "You used it by ironing your linen with a round stone or a polished piece of glass, which you rubbed on your linen," he says. "I think what is important here is that the Vikings cared about their personal appearance."
The Vikings wove their clothes from wool and made decorated outfits, such as a chief's cloak with fine embroidery and fur. The women had intricate jewelry.
"A lot of the jewelry was imported from the south, such as colorful beads," says Fitzhugh. "Some of them were made from the tesserae of mosaics from the Mediterranean that were cannibalized and made into beads."
The Vikings were in fact brutal warriors. They liked to plunder monasteries where they knew the best loot was. Their notorious raids spawned a prayer, "from the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, O Lord."
But they were diplomatic traders as well, often traveling great distances to barter for valuables. Some looted and traded items are testimony to their journeys. The exhibit contains a Buddha from India, Islamic coins, a Celtic box and beads from the Mediterranean.
The Vikings mastered the art of boat building, allowing them to sail from their homes in Scandinavia east to Russia and Constantinople and as far West as Iceland, Greenland and North America. Their versatile and fast boats could sail across open seas or be rowed down rivers.
The journey across the ocean was probably no picnic, says Dr. Fitzhugh. "It was miserable. There was no protection whatsoever. There were no cabins. You hunkered down under a kind of a sheepskin to keep as warm and as dry as possible."
And when the Vikings chose to attack, they were feared.
"The basic weaponry kits the Vikings used were very simple: swords, axes, and spears for the most part. But the weapon that people feared most was the axe because the Vikings used a battle axe with a short handle and they could throw it like an Indian would throw a tomahawk, and they were just deadl accurate with it," says Dr. Fitzhugh.
But when these salty-dog warriors weren't off plundering they were farmers and family men, according to Dr. Fitzhugh.
"They were very sophisticated, had fine arts, they had dance, and they had a wonderful oral tradition. The Viking era was not just an era of plundering. It was a time when the Vikings went out from their lands and met new peoples, discovered new products, traded their own wares."
Sometime after the turn of the last millennium the legendary Viking marauders and world explorers disappeared. But they left behind their mythical sagas and sense of adventure that continue to fascinate us today.
Exhibit Tour Schedule
American Museum of Natural History
New York City, NY
October 21, 2000 through January 20, 2001
Denver Museum of Natural History
March 2, 2001 - May 31, 2001
Houston Museum of Natural Science
July 13 through October 11, 2001
Los Angeles County Museum
Los Angeles, CA
November 23, 2001 through March 16, 2002
Canadian Museum of Civilization
May 16 through October 14, 2002