War spirits … ninth-century silver valkyrie pendants from Denmark. Photograph: The National Museum of Denmark
A history of the Viking world – in 10 extraordinary objects
Author of A History of the World in 100 Objects and director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor condenses the museum's latest blockbuster show into 10 fascinating pieces
New Valkyrie, 800
This little pendant from Denmark was unearthed just over a year ago. It is the only known three-dimensional Viking-age valkyrie. Literally "choosers of the slain", valkyries were imagined as terrifying spirits of war and companions of the god Odin, female figures who ushered dead warriors from the battlefield to Valhöll, the hall of the slain (called Valhalla by the Victorians). Figures like this may represent a range of supernatural forces including goddesses, valkyries or spirits. While there are few records of Viking women participating in battle, they certainly held positions of high status in society as human sorceresses known as völvas.
Weighing scales, 1000-1200
Contact with the Islamic world introduced the use of precious metals as a means of exchange in the ninth century. There are more than 100,000 dirhams (Islamic silver coins) recorded from Viking-age Scandinavia. However, it was the bullion value that supported the economy, so precious metal was often melted down and turned into portable ingots. Although bullion lacked the formal quality control linked with coinage, it did provide a flexible system, because it could be chopped up and used in any quantity. The use of bullion required the measurement of weight, and here, too, we can see the influence of the Islamic world in a set of collapsible scales and weights. Scales like these are found across the whole of the Viking world as far west as Ireland.
Hunterston brooch, 700
Our stereotypical view of the Vikings is bloodthirsty raiders, destroying everything they came across. True, but not the whole truth. Sometimes they simply took what they liked and kept it. The stunning Hunterston brooch, one of the exhibition highlights, is an appropriation of an older Scottish object that clearly survived the Viking raids intact. The brooch, found in Ayrshire, is a pre-Viking Scottish brooch with purely Celtic decoration. But on the back, someone has scratched in runes words that can be translated as: "Mælbrigða owns this brooch." The name is Celtic and Christian, but the language and runic alphabet are Norse, evidence that a pre-Viking object continued to be prized and used in the Viking age.
Vale of York Hoard, 900s
This is the whole Viking world in one cup. Discovered in 2007 by metal detectorists near Harrogate, the Vale of York Hoard is the largest and most important Viking hoard found in the British Isles in more than 150 years. It spectacularly shows the range of the Viking's global network that spanned four continents, captured at the moment this cup was buried in 927. The hoard includes coins and objects from Afghanistan, in the east, and Ireland, in the west, as well as Russia and Scandinavia, central Asia and western Europe. The hoard represents three belief systems – Islam, Christianity and the worship of Thor – and at least seven languages. The silver cup in which the hoard was buried was probably made for use in a French or German church, and was possibly looted in a Viking raid.
Hogback tombstone, ninth-11th centuries
These strange, large tomb-markers, called hogbacks because of their shape, are unique to the British Isles, the product of an exclusively British-Viking culture. As such, they represent a sort of Viking-era "colonial" monument. The great shipbuilding centre, Govan, on the River Clyde and so easily accessible to Viking ships, has one of the most important collections in the British Isles. Some hogbacks appear to replicate the roofs of Viking longhouses with geometric tile patterns; others have strange dragon-like creatures hugging the ends. This hoard is from the Govan Old Parish Church, in Glasgow.
Ardnamurchan burial, late ninth/early 10th century
In the summer of 2011, on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula on Scotland's west coast, excavations revealed the only known Viking boat burial to be excavated on the British mainland in modern times. The vessel survived in the form of more than 200 rivets, many in their original location, and indicated a small clinker boat. It contained a sword, an axe, a spear, a ladle, an Irish bronze ring-pin and the bronze rim of a drinking horn. These items indicate that it was a remarkably rich Viking boat burial of a warrior. This will be the first time this hugely important find will be displayed to the public. Positioned beside the warship Roskilde 6, the Ardnamurchan boat burial represents the final journey of a Viking warrior, sailing into the afterlife.
Hiddensee hoard, late 10th century
The spread of Viking bling is a good indication of the spread of its culture. This hoard, found more than a century ago, was recovered on the island of Hiddensee, near Rügen off the northern coast of Germany. The impressive ornaments – a neck-ring, a brooch, 10 pendants and four spacers – were probably made in Denmark in a royal workshop. Seven similar cross pendants, of the same type but made of silver, were found at the Mikhailovsky monastery, in Kiev, as part of a large hoard of jewellery from the 12th and 13th centuries. From the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, everybody wanted to wear Viking jewellery.
Winchester manuscript, 1031
Cnut (Canute) the Great, later also the king of Denmark, was the king of England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He was undoubtedly the most powerful king in the Viking-age Scandinavia. This beautiful illustration from the New Minster Liber Vitae, in Winchester, is the only known portrait of him and his English wife, Emma. In the ninth and 10th centuries, the Vikings established new kingdoms for themselves in Britain and Ireland and by around 950 there was something approaching a single, unified English kingdom. It was this kingdom whose throne was seized after a period of intense raiding, first in 1013 by the Danish king, Svein Forkbeard, and then in 1016 by his son, Cnut, who later added Denmark (from 1019) and parts of Norway (1028–34). England was the centre of his empire, and there his reign brought with it a period of stability. The new king took pains to be seen as a Christian ruler and a generous patron of the church, as shown in this double portrait in which he is portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon king, despite his Danish origins.
Roskilde 6, 1025
This is the longest Viking ship ever found and we are extremely fortunate to be able to see the remaining timbers in the UK for the first time. It was discovered in 1997 during building work to extend the Viking Ship Museum, on Roskilde Fjord, and has since been carefully conserved by the National Museum of Denmark. It was a massive feat of engineering for its time. The Roskilde 6 represents what gave the Vikings their edge – and it defines their success. This technological mastery meant that the sea was no longer a barrier but an opportunity, a road to other lands. Roskilde 6 was built as a warship. Light and shallow in draft, she could travel at high speed, crewed by up to 100 warriors who by sea or by river could take their unsuspecting victims by surprise.
Ulfberht sword, late 8th-early 9th century
Many of the best Viking weapons seem to have been imported to Britain from the continent. Blades inscribed with the names of their Frankish makers, Ulfberht and Ingerlrii, probably originated in the Rhineland in the ninth century. Yet blades carrying the same names continued to be produced for at least 200 years. The continued use of the name may suggest production in the same workshops after the original makers were dead, rather like a modern family firm, but it probably also indicates that these inscriptions were regarded as a guarantee of high quality, or considered fashionable. Metallurgical analysis of some blades marked "Ulfberht" has revealed that they are actually of poor quality. Swords were key symbols of warrior status, as much as they were weapons, so these poor-quality Ulfberht blades were perhaps the equivalent of today's cheap imitation Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton handbags.