We’ve been looking forward to Vikings: life and legend, the major new exhibition at the British Museum (6 March – 22 June 2014).

Among the artefacts on show are swords and axes, coins and jewellery, amulets and religious images.  At its centre, the exhibition includes the surviving timbers from a 37-metre Viking warship, the longest ever found.

Of course, Iceland’s main claim to historical fame is that it was the country’s early Viking settlers who established what is generally recognised as the world’s first parliament.

Here’s a brief history lesson:

After several years of exploratory voyages, the first colonising expedition arrived in Iceland in 874AD, led by the Norwegian Ingolf Arnarson.  Over the following decades, settlers arrived from both Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles.  Away from the authority of distant kings, they created a unique form of society, which came to be known as the Icelandic Commonwealth, with power devolved to around 39 local chieftains.

Following the initial period of settlement, territorial disputes inevitably arose, prompting the Vikings to formalise their political system and to establish, in 930AD, the first pan-Icelandic assembly or Althing at what is now the Thingvellir National Park.  Although modelled on smaller gatherings held in Scandinavia, this is now regarded as the world’s oldest parliament.

Without ever quite dispensing with their swords, it wasn’t long before the Icelandic Vikings took up more cultural pursuits and created a body of literature – the Sagas – which almost certainly began in oral form before being written down in the late 12th to early 14th centuries.  Set in the early years of the Viking colonisation, they tell of the often tragic consequences of conflicts between leading families, whose feuding is played out over several generations.  Written in their own language (rather than the more scholarly Latin) on parchment made from calf-skin, they are recognised as hugely significant works of medieval literature.

If you would like to learn more and to visit some of the sites associated with these stories, Iceland Traveller’s In Search of the Sagas tour has two departures in May and September. In the meantime, Monday’s episode of Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 featured a segment on Vikings, and you can listen again to that here.

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