Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center | Pittsburgh City Paper

Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center

click to enlarge Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea
The fascination with Vikings seems surprising given that the seafaring marauders only existed for around 250 years (from 793–1066 CE), a short period compared to how long other, similarly prominent groups reigned. And yet, there I was at the Carnegie Science Center watching a Viking cosplayer read a Norse poem in front of a warship replica.

The reading kicked off a preview for Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea, a new exhibit that takes a deeper look at the early Scandanavians who terrorized much of what is now collectively known as Europe. So dedicated they were to conquering that they traveled across oceans to distant lands, leading to researchers finding evidence of them in Canada.

The exhibit, running from Feb. 11-Sept. 4, was made possible through partnerships with the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and the Pointe-à-Callière in Montréal, Québec, Canada. By working with these institutions, the Center was able to obtain and display 140 Nordic artifacts, some of which have never been seen in the United States. These include surprisingly detailed jewelry pieces, handcrafted keys, weapons and armor, horse tack, and more.
click to enlarge Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea
In addition to rare artifacts, a number of interactive displays allow visitors to build a Viking ship, handle a replica Viking sword, and play a digital version of a Viking strategy game that pre-dates chess. While not available during the preview, the exhibition will also offer an augmented reality experience allowing users to “interact with a Norseman,” according to a statement.

Peter Pentz of the National Museum of Denmark curated the exhibition and admits that, despite society’s apparent obsessions with Vikings, their motivations, for the most part, remain a mystery.

“Personally, I’ve devoted many years of study to the Vikings and I cannot say I understand Viking society and the Viking mind, at least not fully,” Pentz stated during the preview. “They plundered and they killed … They enslaved people, they even enslaved each other. They did horrible things.”

This could be due to how the Vikings were recorded. While the old saying goes that history is written by the victors, Vikings, as Pentz points out, are characterized through the testimony of those they attacked. “What we know of the Vikings we know from those people whose houses they burned down,” he says.

Despite their enigmatic nature, Pentz speaks to some misconceptions of the Vikings. While they are often portrayed wearing animal furs and with ragged hair and beards, Pentz says Vikings actually had a “more sophisticated” way of dressing and groomed “more nicely,” a statement backed up by the appearance of a centuries-old comb in one of the display cases.
click to enlarge Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea
Vikings have long appeared, in one form or another, throughout pop culture history, something that has continued into the 21st century. Released in 2011, the popular video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim draws heavily on Viking culture and imagery. In 2022, director Robert Eggers delivered The Northman, a hyper-violent Shakespearean tale about a vengeful Viking prince, appropriately portrayed by fully jacked Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. The History Channel produced a hit TV drama series with Vikings, which ran for several seasons.

Unfortunately, white nationalist movements have adopted certain aspects of Viking culture. As pointed out in reports from The Guardian and other publications over the years, a number of far-right extremists are known to appropriate Norse symbols, with some even appearing on banners at the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Norse runes and other imagery as being employed by white supremacists and other racist extremists.

While the Vikings have, for better or worse, become notable for their barbaric ferocity in battle, Pentz wants people to appreciate other facets of the culture, including their deep spiritual beliefs and home lives.

“In this exhibition, you will see gold, you will see swords, but you will also see much more humble things,” he says, citing items like pottery.
click to enlarge Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea raids Carnegie Science Center
CP Photo: Amanda Waltz
Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea
Much of the exhibition covers the domestic side of Vikings and their relationships. One display points out that Viking wives often managed property as “keyholders,” giving them power in what’s seen as a deeply patriarchal society. Viking texts also speak of female shieldmaidens who fought in battle alongside men.

He also sees the exhibit as giving audiences an appreciation for how, despite their relatively short time in existence, Vikings were able to leave a deep impression on so much of the world, including as some of the first explorers to travel the waters around North America.

"Viking history is part of American history, too," he says.


Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea. Sat., Feb. 11-Sept. 4. Carnegie Science Center. One Allegheny Ave., North Side. Included with museum admission. carnegiesciencecenter.org