Vikings: life and legend, British Museum, to 22nd June
Britain: one million years of the human story, Natural History Museum, to 28th September
A referendum on Scottish independence is looming. And it has taken a century since the the War of Independence for an Irish head of state to make an official visit to Britain.
With the end of empire and the declining global significance of the British state – the “Break up of Britain” has challenged the dominant narrative regarding national identity.
UKIP have recently done much to fill this vacuum. A broader consensus across the ruling class has rested on the concept of “our island story”; an amorphous nationalism based on a seamless continuum stretching back centuries if not millennia; it is implicitly defined by an Anglo-Saxon “Englishness”. Liberal variants tack the “multiculturalism” of recent arrivals onto this core.
These exhibitions are well worth visiting for a range of separate reasons – not least the stunning Viking jewellery – but also because they cast this narrative in a different light.
The Vikings were at their zenith between 800 and 1050. Their global reach, from America to Russia, was without parallel. As they intermingled with a host of cultures they settled, exchanged and absorbed. Their travels brought them into contact with Slavs and Balts, the Byzantine Empire centred in Constantinople and the Islamic Caliphate with its capital in Baghdad – not just the inhabitants of North-West Europe. Some of the most insightful commentaries on their culture come from Muslim intellectuals of the era.
A Viking hoard was discovered in the Vale of York in 2007, the biggest in this country in 170 years. Hundreds of coins, 6 arms rings and a quantity of bullion and silver originate from places as disparate as Ireland, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe. The cultures of three different belief systems (Islam, Christianity and Thor) and peoples who spoke at least seven languages are represented in the objects. This is a pre-1066 “Britain” that was hardly in the “dark ages”.
The Viking impact still resonates today, most obviously in place names and words (like berserk, egg and sister), but also in the DNA of many contemporary inhabitants. In northern England and Scotland up to 25% of DNA can be traced to Viking origin. The Viking culture that lived on in newly established Scandinavian states continued to rule some Scottish islands as late as the 15th century.
Our island story?
Our island story? You may think again, having visited the Natural History Museum. The earliest evidence of settlement dates back over 800,000 years to a time when “Britain” was part of the continental European landmass.
The human footprints of a family of five at Happisburgh in Norfolk were revealed in May last year following a storm that caused coastal erosion. These are the earliest known in northern Europe. Only three other sets of footprints, all in Africa, are more ancient.
This was Homo Antecessor, an early human species, extinct by 600,000 years ago and found thus far only in Spain. They were fully bipedal and of similar height to us.
They were followed in “Britain” by Homo Heidelbergensis who lived here from 500,000 years ago. An intelligent people who shaped tools and co-operated in hunting groups, their hand axes and tools have been found at a number of sites, including Boxgrove in West Sussex.
Then came the Neanderthals from 400,000 years ago. After a long period of absence they returned 60,000 years ago, learning to adapt and survive during a time of fluctuating climate change for a further 20-30,000 years.
Homo Sapiens left Africa some 60,000 years ago. Their earliest presence here is evidenced by a jaw fragment in Kent’s Cavern in Devon from 40,000 years ago. Bones in a Welsh cave from 33,000 years ago, decorated with dye and jewellery indicate some form of death ritual.
14,700 year old remains at Gough’s cave in Somerset show signs of cannibalism and the careful preparation of skulls to create cups and bowls in circumstances that suggest ritual rather than hunger as a motive.
There was probably an overlap between neanderthalensis and sapiens. New studies released in February this year demonstrate that a small number of the species interbred. Non-African people carry 2% of Neanderthal DNA in their genetic make up. This DNA has been associated with diseases such as diabetes, Crohn’s and even conditions such as chronic depression and addictive behaviour.
The Neanderthals have always got a bad press, but they survived successfully in Europe for much longer than the so called modern humans, who look set to make a botch of it unless things urgently change. The Neanderthals, the Happisburgh footprints and 10th century Islamic artefacts left by the Vikings should cause us to re-consider who “we” are. Even whether there is a “we” in the first place.