Ghost ship … Roskilde 6, the biggest Viking vessel ever found, ends the British Museum's new exhibition. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian
It cuts through the air like a sword through flesh, relentless. The prow is as sharp as a shark's tooth. A fragile heart of oak survives within the metal skeleton. This ghost ship is solid yet empty, there and not there.
- Vikings: Life and Legend
- British Museum,
- Starts 6 March
- Until 22 June
- Venue website
Around its enigmatic presence are displays that amplify its meanings. A carved, eighth-century "picture stone" from the Swedish isle of Gotland shows such a longship ferrying a dead warrior to Valhalla, the hall of the god Odin, where Vikings who die bravely in battle will feast until they are called to fight in the last battle, Ragnarok.
A phantom Viking ready for that apocalyptic fight glares from a glass case near the warship. He's a surreal composite of metal and bone. His head is a helmet. Under this grins a jaw, with its teeth filed to create a horrific snarl intended to terrify monks. Tattoos would have added to the warrior's scary aspect as he jumped off Roskilde 6 into the surf, screaming and roaring as he rushed onshore to kill and steal and burn.
On 8 January 793, men like this in ships like this appeared on the horizon off Northumbria. Monks were illuminating manuscripts and chanting prayers in Lindisfarne monastery. Within hours, records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "the heathen miserably destroyed God's church ..."
Britain was an easy target for the Viking raiders. A straight line westward from southern Norway leads directly to north-east Britain. The same instinct to forge westward led Vikings from Greenland to America, where they fought native Americans. Roskilde 6 reveals something else about their sailing skills: it is wide with a very shallow, flat underside. This design meant Viking ships could easily navigate rivers. They besieged Paris by sailing up the Seine. They created the kingdom of "Rus" – the origin of Russia – by sailing down its rivers until they reached the Black Sea, and even terrorised the eastern imperial city of Byzantium.
It's an incredible story. The Vikings burn in history, unforgettable antiheroes. I just wish this exhibition made a more engaging and humanising job of telling that story. The longship is sublime, the swords and skeletons that surround it are terrifying, but Vikings: Life and Legend is, until you reach these wonders, a pedantic exercise in pure archaeology that fails to shape its subject into a stimulating narrative.
I've started my account of it at the end because that's where it finally comes alive. The huge space where Roskilde 6 glides majestically among swords and skeletons is this show's conclusion, which you reach after a journey so badly staged it left me numb. Are the curators resting on their shields, confident that a real Viking ship is enough of a stunner to float everyone's boat, or do they have more obscure reasons for rendering the Viking world mute, impersonal and even – can this be – boring?
Vikings is the first exhibition in the British Museum's new state-of-the-art gallery. It takes advantage of this huge space to display that ship, no less. But when you enter the show there's no excitement at all. The new gallery is not as charismatic as the museum's old Reading Room, where great shows like The First Emperor (and his terracotta warriors) and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum were staged. The circular shape of the Reading Room made for magical labyrinthine displays. This place feels, on first sight, more like a big grey box where display cases are laid out in dismal straight lines.
There's no stage-setting. No gory recreation of the Lindisfarne raid, say, to get us in the mood. Instead, cases of smallish, similar objects throw visitors straight into some thorny problems of archaeology. How do Viking artefacts compare with things being made at the same time by Baltic and Slav peoples? One of the first cases offers a chance to find that out.
I felt like crying. Where were the swords? And if I was ready to bawl, what does this exhibition offer its younger visitors? It can't claim not to be for them. You can't put on an exhibition called Vikings without expecting some kids. The only way this exhibition could sound more child-friendly would be if it was called Vikings and Dinosaurs. But the austerely beautiful cases of brooches and golden rings and amber offer very little to fans of Horrible Histories. This is mean, especially as the shop at the end is quite happy to push a lucrative array of Viking toys.
Even the soundtrack to the first displays, a reading of classic Viking literature, is in Old Norse. Instead of opening up this world, as a well-read translation might, it closes it off in melancholy Nordic words. This is perhaps a clue to what the curators think they are doing. They want to estrange our view of the Vikings. Forget those rehashed Norse myths in The Hobbit, forget the song in Horrible Histories where the Vikings are a heavy metal band who are "gonna paint the whole town red tonight – literally ..."
No wait - it's even madder than that. Don't just forget modern images of the Vikings: forget what was written about them in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and forget (or learn to appreciate in Norse) their own great works of literature, which were written down in the middle ages but draw on oral traditions going back to the age of the Viking raids.
These sagas of the Vikings are full of characters. Just to reel off some nicknames is to get a taste of their vivid humanity: Ragnar Hairy-Breeches, Ivar the Boneless, Eric the Red, Thorstein the Black, Olvir Hump. The Vikings left a legacy of stories in which legend and truth mingle. They'd have told this exhibition as a story.
Why not weave their tales and the histories written by their enemies into the mix of archaeological stuff to give it warmth and context? The refusal to do so cannot be an oversight. It looks like an archaeological dogma: only material objects painstakingly excavated are to be relied upon as evidence. The rest is romantic twaddle, apparently.
For instance, where are the gods? The picture stone showing a ship arriving at Valhalla is one of just a handful of images of mythology in this exhibition. There's more about bowls and bracelets than about Thor.
Maybe I am being too hard on the curators. Perhaps the Vikings are innately difficult to bring to life in an exhibition. Their art is full of atmospheric swirls and crafty detail, but it is not their greatest cultural achievement. They really were better with words. Egil's Saga is the first psychological novel, a portrait of a tortured genius who is at once a poet and a serial killer. Where does Viking visual art attain that complexity?
The art historian Kenneth Clark said the Vikings had a culture, not a civilisation. Their everyday life looks hard, cruel and repetitive in this exhibition. A beautiful ivory flask from Byzantium just seems in another league of sophistication and layered meaning. But when you reach the ship hall you will see that Clark was wrong. The Vikings created something that went beyond any civilisation of their age. The greatest work of art here is the longship. It is a great human image of endeavour and exploration: these were not just killers but intensely curious pathfinders who even colonised the icy wastes of Greenland. A clever Viking called it that, according to the sagas, to make it sound more attractive for settlers.
If you sail these troubled waters, take my advice. Head straight for the longship and the Viking armour. Gaze on Roskilde 6 and let its eerie magic work on you. There is elvish gold here, but to find it you must fight your way past some oddly joyless ogres.