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BP and the British Museum

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. © The Trustees of the British Museum
BP is the British Museum’s longest standing partner, supporting this world-famous institution since 1996, and, as part of this on-going relationship, BP is the sponsor of the ground-breaking exhibition Vikings: life and legend

The Vikings first reached the United Kingdom via the North Sea, an important region for BPs operations in both the UK and Norway. On display are exquisite objects, ranging from jewellery and amulets to coins and armour, arranged around a dramatic centrepiece; a 37-metre-long warship discovered in 1997. The exhibition reveals the global reach of the Viking network, which left a lasting impact in several countries, not least the United Kingdom.

Impact of the Vikings

Between AD 800 and 1050, as the Vikings expanded their territories beyond Scandinavia, they targeted Britain, pillaging monasteries and coastal settlements, but also settling in significant numbers in northern Britain and Ireland.  Shetland, lying more than 100 miles off the northern coast of mainland Scotland, was at the frontline of this expansion. The islands were colonised, leaving a legacy that can be seen to this day in the islands’ cultural heritage and place names.  

Wick or vík means bay or coastal inlet, and is the basis of Reykjavík in Iceland and Lerwick in Shetland, which means ‘mud bay’. Vík might also be the origin of the word Viking – in Old Norse the word was associated with pirates who hid in inlets before attacking passing ships.

The British Museum

BP is the British Museum’s longest-standing partner, supporting the public programme on an annual basis since 1996.


In mainland Britain too, place names are a mine of information about the Vikings’ presence. In north-east England, many names derive from Old Norse. The suffix ‘-by’, for example, which means farm or village, gives us Grimsby, Whitby and Rugby. There’s also ‘-thorpe’, as in Scunthorpe, which means ‘new village’, and ‘-thwaite’, as in Braithwaite, which means ‘clearing’ or ‘meadow’. Personal names too reflect the Viking presence – Eric from Eiríkr or Harold from Haraldr.

But the Vikings’ most significant legacy in Britain is language. We use words based on Old Norse all the time, without realising. Those beginning with th or sk in particular, like they, thwart, thrust or sky, skirt, skin, ski derive from Old Norse, as do many words relating to the sea, like gale, fog, shingle and walrus, reflecting the Vikings’ seafaring culture. Many Norse words confirm our image of Vikings as violent attackers: berserk and oaf for example; while others reveal a lighter side: happy, husband, wife, awe, glitter, eggs and cakes

Law, democracy and Norse mythology 

The Viking legacy isn’t limited to language. Viking society was governed in part by administrative assemblies called ‘things’ and the  Icelandic ‘Althing’, founded in AD 930, is the oldest parliamentary institution still in existence in Europe Laws were passed here, crimes punished and feuds resolved, as in a court of law. 

Hunterston Brooch c. 700, discovered in Hunterston, Ayrshire, Scotland. © National Museums Scotland

Hunterston Brooch c. 700, discovered in Hunterston, Ayrshire, Scotland. Gold, silver, amber. Diam. 12.2cm. © National Museums Scotland


Though the Viking Age came to an end around 1050, its influence is far-reaching to this day – in the world of culture too. In Norse mythology, Valhalla, or the ‘Hall of the Slain’, was where the souls of heroic warriors were taken after their death. This idea fired the imagination of composer Richard Wagner, whose epic cycle of four operas, The Ring, was partly inspired by Norse and Teutonic mythology. The cycle also features the Valkyries, mythical females whose role it was to choose which warriors should live and which should die. You can see a small amulet of a Valkyrie in the exhibition. The name comes from valkyrja, meaning ‘chooser of the slain’, and inspired one of Wagner’s most famous pieces of music, The Ride of the Valkyries, memorably used in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

But in Shetland, the Vikings’ cultural legacy can be seen at its most dramatic and vivid. Once a year, Viking-themed festivals take place all over the islands. Founded in the late 19th century, they are nonetheless an important expression of the Shetland’s Viking heritage. The biggest festival, Up Helly Aa, takes place in Lerwick in January, when the days are short and the nights long. Up to a thousand local men, or guizers, dressed as Vikings carry lit torches through the streets and sing traditional songs. The procession ends with them throwing their torches onto a replica of a Viking longship. Around ten such festivals take place in Shetland, among them the Scalloway Fire Festival, where torch-bearing guizers also burn a replica longship. 

Hoard from Cuerdale, Lancashire, UK. Including around 7500 coins Hoard from Cuerdale - the largest ever Viking hoard found in Britain, including around 7500 coins

From Viking helmets to hard hats

This Viking influence in Shetland extends to BP’s activities. Sullom Voe, one of the largest terminals in Europe, is located on an inlet on the Shetland mainland, handling production from oilfields in the North Sea and East Shetland Basin since the 1970s. Its name comes from Old Norse, Voe deriving from vagr, meaning small bay or narrow creek.

In Norway too, the Valhall oilfield, where BP operates, is named after Valhalla, the ‘hall or the slain’ or afterlife of Norse mythology.

Last but not least, for BP workers who wear hard hats on oil rigs, one object in the exhibition might be of particular interest: a helmet worn by a Viking warrior. While the Viking of popular imagination always wears helmets with horns or wings, that image was in fact a Romantic, 19th-century invention.  Archaeological evidence reveals that their helmets, like the Vikings themselves, were actually far more practical, as you can see in this exhibition.

The Viking Age

The Viking Age was a period of major change across Europe. The Vikings expanded from their Scandinavian homelands, exploring and trading across the seas, to create an international network, similar to BP’s global operations today.

The Viking Age in the British Isles is normally seen as beginning around 793AD, with the first well-documented account of Viking raiders crossing the North Sea to attack the island monastery of Lindisfarne. Contacts were already established well before this, and raiding had probably begun rather earlier, but this is the first raid to be described in detail. The unsuccessful Norwegian invasion of England in 1066 by Harald Hardruler of Norway is often seen as the end of the Viking era, but attacks from both Denmark and Norway continued after this event in England. The Western Isles of Scotland remained part of Norway until 1266, while Orkney remained as part of Norway until 1468 and Shetland until 1469.

BP’s Magnus platform, North Sea

Magnus, BP’s oldest UK asset, producing since 1983 is named after Saint Magnus Of Orkney, also known as Magnus the Martyr, an earl of Orkney who went on Viking raids as a young man before renouncing violence, and who was eventually murdered on the orders of his cousin in around 1117.

But the legacy of the Vikings in Britain remained long after this era, in various forms, including archaeological remains, stone sculptures and DNA, The strongest Viking influence of all is on our language.

A-Z of Commonly Used Viking Words

You may or may not be of Viking heritage, but you will be using words that are widely believed to have originated from the Viking era, still in use today.

Here is a brief A-Z with their origins – how many Viking words have you said today?

Awkward from Old Norse “afugr”, described as "turned backwards, wrong, contrary," the '-ward' part is from Old English Old English -weard "toward," literally "turned toward,"

Berserk from “berserkr”, translated as "raging warrior of superhuman strength;" probably from *ber- "bear" + serkr "shirt," thus literally "a warrior clothed in bearskin.”

Cast from “kasta”, meaning "to throw"

Dregs from “dregg”, meaning "sediment"

Egg from Old Norse “egg”, which took over from the Middle English eye, eai (from Old English æg)

Flat from Old Norse “flatr”

Gust from “gustr”, originally meaning "a cold blast of wind"

Husband from Old Norse “husbondi”, meaning "master of the house," from hus "house" + bondi "householder, dweller, freeholder”

Ill from “illr”, from Old Norse idiom "it is bad to me / evil / difficult."

Kindle from “kynda”, meaning "to kindle, to light a fire,"

Litmus from Old Norse “litr”, meaning "to dye, to stain," and “mosi” meaning moss, “lit-mosi”

Muggy from Old Norse “mugga”, meaning "drizzling mist"

Norman, Normandy from Old Norse through Old French, meaning “north man", due to Viking settlement in Normandy region

Odd from Old Norse “odda” found in combinations such as “odda-mathr” meaning third or odd man, from “oddi” meaning angle.

Race from “rás”, ”current”

Skill from Old Norse “skil” meaning “discemment, knowledge” and late old English “Scele” also meaning knowledge

Trust from Old Norse “traustr” meaning strong and the verb from Old Norse “treysta”

Ugly from Old Norse “ugga” meaning to dread

Window from Old Norse “vindauga”, comprised from vindr "wind" + auga “eye”

Sourced from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

Do you live in a Viking Town?

The Viking’s also influenced the naming of our cities, towns and villages. Similar to names in most languages, Viking place names are mostly descriptive of the location and their surroundings, as well as who lived there.

There are over a thousand such place names in the north and east of England. You can check the origins of your own town or village here.

-BY
Place-names ending in –BY meaning farm, town or village). The term -BY has passed into common language, by-law meaning the local law of the town or village;
Grimsby (Grimr’s Village/Farmstead)
Wetherby (Sheep’s Village/Farmstead)
Coleby (Koli’s Village/Farmstead)
Formby (Forni’s Village/Farmstead)

-THORPE
The Old Norse word for a new hamlet or farmstead, usually connected with secondary settlements;
Scunthorpe (Skuma’s  Hamlet/Farmstead)
Grimblethorpe (Grimkel’s Hamlet/Farmstead)
Hilderthorpe (Hildiger’s Hamlet/Farmstead)

-THWAITE
Translated from Old Norse to mean a meadow, clearing or a piece of land;
Slaithwaite (Timber-fell clearing)
Micklethwaite (The great clearing)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, runs from 6 March to 22 June 2014