In the ninth century A.D., invading Viking armies tore through Britain, conquering great swathes of territory and leaving a lasting mark on the land and people they encountered. Now, a groundbreaking museum exhibition is using virtual reality technology, informed by the latest historical and archaeological research, to immerse its visitors in what life would have been like for Vikings camped out during the invasion.
In just one known Viking camp, located on the banks of the River Trent at Torksey, Lincolnshire, thousands of Vikings gathered to wait out the winter of 872-873 A.D. The exact location of the camp has been debated, but recent research by archaeologists at the University of York and the University of Sheffield concluded the camp covered some 55 hectares, or about 136 acres—an area far bigger than many towns or cities at the time.
According to Dawn Hadley, a professor of medieval archaeology at the University of Sheffield and co-director of a project at the Torksey site, she and her colleagues found some 1,500 artifacts from the camp before publishing their research last year, and even more have surfaced since then. Most of their key finds were uncovered using metal detectors.
“We know that the site is associated with the [Viking] army because of the combination of artifacts,” Hadley told HISTORY. “There are things like coins from different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, there’s Irish metalwork, continental metalwork, there’s Arabic dirhams. There are weights which would be used in a bullion economy, influenced by Arabic styles of weights. There are ingots and hacked metal they’d cut up into jewelry. All of which is an assemblage quite unlike the sort of assemblage from a standard contemporary Anglo-Saxon settlement.”
After Hadley and the project’s co-director, Julian Richards of the University of York, published their research, they were approached by Digital Creativity Labs at the University of York about working together to create a virtual-reality experience of the Viking camp at Torksey. This overture coincided with plans for a major exhibition by the Yorkshire Museum, in collaboration with the British Museum, which aimed to showcase Viking-related objects from both museums’ collections.
The result is the “Viking World” experience, located in a room of the newly opened “Viking: Rediscover the Legend” exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, which will run through November 5. As they enter the room, which is decked out like a tent in a Viking camp, visitors can don special virtual-reality masks, created by DC Labs, and choose one of four different scenes in which to immerse themselves.
As Gareth Beale, a digital archaeologist at DC Labs and co-director of the Viking VR project, told HISTORY: “We really wanted to do something a little bit more theatrical where the museum visitor would get an experience of the site from a firsthand perspective and see the everyday details of life.”
The four scenes depict Vikings repairing their all-important sailing vessels in a boatyard; interacting with each other in a marketplace; doing fine metalworking; and even sitting around enjoying a favorite board game, the Old Norse game called hnefatafl. To create the scenes—all of which are based on activities that the archaeologists know happened at the site, or objects that they found—Beale and his fellow digital archaeologists worked with other academics in engineering, electronics, theater, film, TV and literature to create a full theatrical experience, complete with visual effects and an immersive audio track including sound effects and actors speaking Norse and Anglo-Saxon.
“We’re interested in the people who lived there as well as the configuration of the site,” Beale noted. “It’s not just about how it would be laid out, or what the tents would have looked like—it’s also about the everyday realities of life in a place like that. It would have been quite unusual environment, even for the people who lived there, I think. ”
The focus on such everyday activities, informed by rich details from historical and archaeological research, provides a look into Viking history that is far from the typical experience of a museum exhibition. “People were just really blown away by it,” said Hadley, who attended the opening of the exhibition last week. “You do get this sort of feeling of being inside the tent looking out at these scenes.”