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Addressing the Vikings' 'image problem'
Matt Pickles | 17 Sep 12
A group of academics will visit Orkney next spring to look at graffiti carved out on pre-historic monuments. But their aim is not to remove the graffiti, but to study it – for the writings are runic inscriptions by early medieval Viking settlers on Orkney.
‘Some of the graffiti are quite rude, as rude as graffiti you would see today,’ says Professor Heather O’Donoghue of Oxford University’s Faculty of English Language and Literature.
‘Other inscriptions talk about breaking into burial mounds, great wealth being concealed nearby, and the skill of the ‘rune-master’ who is doing the carving.’
The trip is part of an AHRC-funded skills training programme in which leading experts in Viking history and Old Norse will work with 22 doctoral students and six early career researchers on various aspects of the Viking heritage in Orkney, including runic inscriptions, Viking settlements and Old Norse literature.
The students will visit Orkney in April 2013 and receive teaching in Oxford in January, including lectures from museum staff about preserving museum heritage and language history.
‘This is crucial,’ says Professor O’Donoghue. ’By connecting students and researchers with heritage professionals, they will get a sense of how to deal with evidence of the Viking diaspora in the real world, while heritage professionals can build links with academics who can help them articulate the history and textuality of the materials in their care.’
Unsurprisingly given the popularity of the Vikings in popular culture, the field of study in Old Norse and Icelandic literature is in good health. But the Vikings’ ‘image problem’ can also be unhelpful and misleading for researchers and the general public.
‘Applying the term ‘Viking’ to anything gives it a slightly sordid glamour,’ Professor O’Donoghue explains.
‘The popular image of Vikings as savage raiders pillaging and sacking towns and monasteries conflicts with the actual evidence from, for example, excavations in York which show the Scandinavian immigrants to be creative and industrious citizens. But the popular myth is gradually fading.’
Top image: Orkney in Scotland (credit: Islandhopper on wikimedia commons); Bottom image: 'The Ravager' by John Charles Dollman illustrates the myth that has grown up around the Vikings