Teacher's Guide


Through a blend of history, art and literature, archeology, life, earth and environmental sciences, the exhibition explores the Vikings' cultures and their times as well as their influences in history and on other cultures. The exhibit shows they were not only plunderers and pillagers but they were also farmers & fishermen, extraordinary sailors and shipbuilders, highly skilled and inspired artists and craftsmen, long distance traders, planners and builders of towns, renowned poets and tellers of heroic tales. Based on the latest research, the exhibit blows away many stereotypes and misconceptions about the Vikings to create a more rounded and complex view of the Scandinavian people and cultures of the Viking Age. Why all the attention on the Vikings now? In the year 1000 Leif [LAY-F or LAY-if] Eriksson ( Ericson or Eiriksson) landed and built several Norse longhouses and an iron smelting furnace on the North American continent in Newfoundland. The year 2000 is thus the millennial anniversary of the first known European landing in the New World - nearly 500 years before Columbus.

This Teacher's Guide prepares you to bring your class to the exhibition. It provides some background on the exhibition, an overview of the exhibit with some highlights and historical, cultural and archaeological contexts helpful for students. It contains suggestions about grade levels as well as curricula subject areas. Also see Vocabulary, Map, Runes (the Norse alphabet), Bibliography, Web Links and Hnefatafl, an old Norse board game.

Be sure to check out the Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga website prior to your museum visit:

  • Replicas and artifacts may be available for use in the museum!
  • Who were the Vikings?
  • When did the Vikings live?
  • Some famous historical figures in Viking Age history
  • Where did the Vikings live and travel?
  • How did they travel?
  • What caused the Viking raids?
  • Clues about the Vikings exhibit
  • How do we know about the Vikings?

    Our replicas are based on specific archeological finds and are made from the same or similar materials as the originals and are made either by handwork or a combination of hand and modern tools. Since the exhibition is very popular it is best to divide the class into groups of 10 -12 so each student can hear, see, and touch. Grades: recommended for grades 4 and above. Subject areas: history (explorers, Middle Ages, trade, Europe, British Isles), language, archeology, art and literature (sagas, the Hávamál, myths and legends).

    Most of the objects or artifacts known from the Viking Age are from archeological excavations or "digs." Archeology is important because few Viking artifacts survived that were not buried. The feats of the Vikings are matched by equally astounding feats of scientists and scholars in discovering and in extracting the most amazing stories from objects such as bones and stones, earth floors and peat bogs, seeds and tiny insect remains to gain a rich insight into Viking life and times. The majority of non-archaeological objects are carved stone monuments such as the runestones (decorated stones carved with an inscription in the Old Norse alphabet) and picture-stones (featuring scenes but with no runic inscriptions). Other artifacts are beautiful wood carvings found on or in late Viking Age churches in Norway and Sweden. The first thing you will see just outside the exhibition entrance is a replica of the large Jelling (YELL-ing) runestone put up by the Danish King Harald "Bluetooth" (also called Gormsson). Inside there is an actual (not-replica) picture-stone from Götland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, and plenty of Viking doodling or graffiti on stones and other artifacts found from Constantinople to the North Atlantic Islands.

    The Vikings were raiders from Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark and Sweden) who came by sea or up rivers in their fast and beautiful longships to attack and seize treasures from monasteries, towns, and churches. Only when they were raiding were they "vikings": They were basically farmers who raised livestock and fishermen, some of whom went "a-viking" in the summer. When they came back from their travels in the early fall, they became farmers again. The Vikings were also known as the Norse or Northmen. Their language was Old Norse. The Norse were also traders, skilled craftspeople in wood, jewelry, stone, and ivory, as well as poets, singers, and storytellers. The Viking Age was the period of raiding as well as creating far-flung trade networks, of settlements by Scandinavians throughout Europe and across the North Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, Greenland, and briefly to the North American Mainland. By the way, not all Vikings or Norse were tall, blond, and blue-eyed. They were short, medium, and tall, had black, brown, red, and blond hair, and their eyes were brown, green, grey, and blue. There were more with light-colored hair and eyes than dark, but a number had brown hair, as is the case today in Scandinavia.

    The Viking age began about 750 AD although some scholars date it at 793 AD when the Vikings raided the monastery at Lindisfarne in northeastern England. Scholars disagree about the ending of the Viking Age or Era but it is usually given as 1050 or 1066. Have your students find out what happened in 1066 in England. Two important historical events involved peoples of Scandinavian descent.

    Alfred the Great
    King Canute of England (Knut in Old Norse language)
    St. Olaf of Norway
    Harald Hardradi
    King Harald (Godwinson) of England
    William, Duke of Normandy who became known as "The Conqueror"
    Erik the Red
    Leif Eriksson
    MacBeth, King of Scotland (whose birth name was Thorfinn)

    Geography is a must because the Norse traveled so widely! Have students locate the following geographic features (* indicates lower grades):
    Oceans & Seas: *Atlantic Ocean, *North Sea, *Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea Continents: *Europe, *North America
    Peninsulas & Islands: *Scandinavian Peninsula, *Jutland Peninsula, *Great Britain, *Ireland, Isle of Man, Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, *Faeroes, *Iceland, *Greenland, Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island, *Newfoundland
    Modern Countries: *Norway, *Sweden, *Denmark, *Finland, Russia, The Netherlands, Germany, *France, Normandy (an important Viking settlement in France), England, *Scotland, *Iceland, *Canada.
    Click here to see The Viking World map.

    The Norse were seafaring fishermen and traders as well as farmers and had different kinds of boats and ships, each for a different purpose. The most famous were their Longships. These ships were the best and the fastest ships in Europe if not in the whole world. The biggest ships were owned by the well-to-do. Have students look in the exhibit for other ways the Norse traveled in winter and on land. There are two models of Viking ships in the exhibit: a 1:6 scale model of the Gokstad ship from Norway and a 1:20 scale model of the famous Oseberg ship also from Norway.

    Many factors caused the Scandinavians to become Vikings and later, settlers in new lands.

    1. The increased wealth and trading within Europe, especially between the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne (the Netherlands, Germany, and France) and the Baltic Sea. This led to the growth of trading towns including some in Denmark and Sweden. Scandinavians had easy access to trade goods and coins in the towns through trade as well as through raids.
    2. Much of the increased wealth in Europe was turned into fine treasures in or for monasteries and churches many of which were wealthier than kings or merchant princes of the time.
    3. Political instability in Scandinavia as some chieftains fought other chieftains to acquire followers and enlarge their land holdings so they could claim or create kingships. Many men left to make their reputation and gain treasures through raiding or in later times as mercenaries for the various warring parties in Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Then they returned home to assert their claims. As kingdoms emerged in Scandinavia, many families left to settle elsewhere, seeking better land and freedom from tyrants (kings and the nobility).
    4. Their longships were the Vikings' greatest asset or "weapon". They were fast and could sail in shallow water (because of their shallow draft) almost up to the shore or up the great European rivers to strike unsuspecting targets far inland.
    5. This was a time in Europe of political unrest with frequent warfare among kings, nobles, pagan peoples and would-be kings. There were no nation-states in Europe except for the Byzantine Empire.
    6. Over-population. Only 3% of Norway's land area is good farm and grazing land. Think of the dramatic beauty of the fjord country and then ask where people would farm. Those who did not inherit land often went to make their fortune a-viking or later by settling in foreign lands such as in the British Isles or new lands such as Iceland and Greenland.

    This Vikings exhibit is detective story - it is a series of mysteries: How do we know about the Vikings and the Old Norse peoples? How did Norse settlement of Iceland and Greenland change these places and how do we know this? How did the Norse adapt to new environments? Did climate change affect the Norse settlements? Were the sagas right about the Norse finding and exploring North America nearly 500 years before Columbus? What were the relations between the Norse and the Native Americans? Why did the Norse Greenlandic colony disappear - and what happened to the people who lived there?

    What we know and how we know comes from many different sources:

    1. visible remains such as Norse rune- and picture stones and grave monuments as well as a few embroidered tapestries
    2. annals or chronicles written by European monks and others during the Viking Age
    3. Norse literature such as the sagas, the Eddas and Heimskringla (the history of Norwegian Kings) which were written 200-300 years after the end of the Viking Age, and finally
    4. archeology, physical anthropology, and interdisciplinary excavations and analysis. Each of these sources gives us different pieces of information, different pieces of the puzzle, and each has its drawbacks.

    Picture-stones and runestones tell us about monuments and art-styles. The runestones tell why the stone was carved, who commissioned it, for whom it was commissioned (most were memorials for relatives or friends), but generally little else. Picture-stones and the Oseberg tapestry seem to show us scenes from the Norse myths as well as some details of ships (often under sail), weapons, and clothing of warriors and women. The Bayeux tapestry records the preparations for and invasion of England by the Normans (Northmen). Even though the Norse had the runes, they did not consciously record information about their daily lives and cultures in stone. Their history was instead preserved in orally recited poems and sagas. Look for a rune- and a picture-stone in the exhibit.

    Since the Annals and Chronicles were written by the European monks whose monasteries were prime targets for Viking raiders, Vikings were depicted as wild, murderous pagan savages. Moreover, European and Arabic observers were ignorant of Norse cultures and often misinterpreted much that they saw. Yet the sources do contain important information about the Vikings. Be on the look-out for a photograph of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Read the translation of the text about the attack on Lindisfarne. then look for an Anglo-Saxon picture stone from Lindisfarne (the first recorded Viking raid) which shows Viking warriors - this is the actual Lindisfarne Stone! And view the mural painting.

    The sagas are splendid stories based on oral history (told from generation to generation) but they were written down 200-300 years after the events took place. Most have what we would call magical elements in them. The people who wrote down the sagas were Christians and there are questions about how much of the sagas are Christian interpretations of the pagan world or were additions to give a Christian viewpoint in the written Sagas. Like the chronicles, they contain historical truth, but how much? Can you find a saga and two more Icelandic manuscripts in the exhibit? It took an Act of the Icelandic Parliament for our museum to borrow these manuscripts from Iceland!

    Information from archeological sites is based on objects in the sites: dirt, bone, stone, clay, metal, glass, horn, ivory, antler, wood, seeds, pollen, insects, microscopic plants and animals, and chemical residues. Sites include impressive mounds, some containing ship burials complete with all things necessary for a good life in the hereafter; other sites are farms, pastures, villages, or towns, and some sites are underwater where ships were sunk. From these sites we discover how both ordinary and wealthy people lived, where they lived, the internal arrangement of houses, farmsteads, summer grazing areas, and locations of specific types of activities. In addition their burial practices tell us much about the classes of people in Norse society. The famous ship burials reveal much about wealth and status as well as much about the ordinary tools and activities for everyday living. In the exhibit, look for cooking and eating utensils, farm and craft tools and workshops, clothing, jewelry and decorations, the foods people and their animals ate, and even their dung. From ship burials and sunken ships we find the details of ship-building. All of these can be analyzed by specialists, sometimes using either regular or scanning electron microscopes, or by chemical analyses to provide very exact information. The sex, age, stature, general health, diseases and injuries of people and their animals can be discovered from their bones by physical anthropologists.

    See if you can find some of the following objects from archeological sites: everyday cooking and eating objects, jewelry, grooming items, woodworking tools, ironmaking tools, weaving tools, fabrics, clothing, furniture, ships, sails, carved wood, toys, game pieces for board games, Indian and Eskimo objects. What stories do they tell us? Did you find photographs of some the insects found in excavated Longhouses? Look for the revolving mural with three faces called "Transforming an Island" showing the landscape (environment) and a family of settlers with the farm animals brought with them from the Homelands. Look carefully at the vegetation, the snow cover or glaciers, and the kinds and numbers of animals. What happened from 900 AD to 1400? Why do you think this happened?

    The Saga Theater is inside a reconstructed section of a Norse Longhouse. Your group can sit on benches like those lining the sides of the Norse Longhouse. If you have time you can hear excerpts of five sagas being told about the Norse in America, in a darkened longhouse with the fire crackling in the long-hearth. Then as you exit, you can see the actual finds from L' Anse aux Meadows that were proof this was a Norse site -- and that the sagas were right in this case. What were the clues?

    Look in the section on Norse-Native Contact to find the objects that indicate trade between the Norse and Native groups. How many different kinds of Native groups did the Norse encounter?

    The last section is on Greenland, the westernmost Norse settlement, that disappeared after 400 years in existence. What were some of the reasons for its disappearance?


    Runes: The ancient Germanic peoples and the Old Norse or Old Scandinavians had their own alphabet called futhark written in straight line letters or runes. Straight lines were simpler and quicker to carve in stone or wood. This alphabet is called "futhark" based on its first six letters: f-u-th-a-r-k. It is thought to be derived from the Etruscan alphabet with several Latin or Roman letters added. Click here to go to a page showing three varieties of Futhark. The first is the oldest and has the most letters; the other two are forms of the Runes used during the Viking Age. Later runic alphabets added more letters. There are two symbol-sounds that are of interest for English speaking peoples: the thorn, þ and the edh or eth, ð. These sounds and symbols were also found in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and in Middle English (Chaucer). In Modern English the symbols disappeared but the sounds remained in such words as "that" and "bathe" ( ð ) [voiced] and "thin" or "bath" or "with" ( þ ) [voiceless]. Today, of the Germanic languages only English and Icelandic retain these sounds. Icelandic continues to use the two symbols.

    Using the first futhark alphabet(which is the easiest) - including the þ , have students write their first names, the name of the school, or greetings or short notes to each other on the board, if possible, and have the other students translate into English. See next section for more to do with runes and names.

    Old Norse Naming System for people.  Each child's "last name" was based on the father's first name in combination with "son" for a boy or "dottir" [DOT-teer] for a girl. For instance: Erik the Red had a son called Leif and a daughter called Freydis. Their full names were Leif Eriksson and Freydis Eriksdottir. If Leif named his son Thorfinn, the son's name would be Thorfinn Leifsson and if his daughter was called Gudrid, then her name would be Gudrid Leifsdottir. Iceland retains this naming system today. Women kept their birth names when they married so that Gudrid Leifsdottir would always retain her name no matter how many times she married. This naming style continues in Iceland to this day.

    Fun for the students: Have them figure out what the Norse names would be in their family, perhaps starting with parents or grandparents and going on to themselves.

    The Old Scandinavians often had nicknames based on something about the person (Erik the Red had red hair and a fiery temper) or some event that happened to them or they participated in (Leif Eriksson was also called Leif the Lucky because he rescued people from a shipwreck). Other interesting names were Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, Thorstein Shiver, Ref the Sly, Halli the Sarcastic, Thorstein Staff-Struck, Swein [S-vine] Forkbeard, Olaf the Quiet, Harold Bluetooth, and Gudrid The Widely-Traveled.

    Let students make up nicknames for themselves and try writing their first and nickname in runes. The teacher collects these and writes the runic names on the board. Students translate and guess who the person is and why that nickname was chosen.

    English and Old Norse: The Vikings or Norse settled in many areas in England: Kent and the area called "The Danelaw," most of eastern England, and north through Yorkshire and Chester into the southeastern areas as well as the north of what is now Scotland. The English spoken in the U.S. came with the English settlers who largely came from this area in England. As a result nearly 40% of common English words derive from Old Norse! In some sense, English could be considered a dialect of Old Norse!

    It might be fun for students to choose a variety of words including those for parts of the body (head , leg, foot). kinship terms (mother, father, sister, etc.), sports (skiing), emotions (happy, sad), trees and animals (oak, deer) earth, sky, and water forms and then check the word origins in a dictionary to find the origin of the word --this usually is found either at the beginning or the end of the entry.

    Place names can reflect Scandinavian settlements with such names as those beginning with Thor- or Tor- (Thornton, Torshaven) or tofte- and those with endings such as -by, -vik, -ness, -thorp or -thorpe, -gard, -stad, -oy -ay, -borg. Thor or Tor = the god of war and thunder; by = settlement or village; vic = bay; tofte and thorp(e) = town; gard = farm; stad = place; ness = point of land, headland; oy and ay = island; borg =settlement.

    Students can work in teams, each team selecting a map of the British Isles including the Orkney and Shetland, the Faeroe Islands or a U.S. map (or maps) to locate such places. (A road atlas is good.) In the British Isles, where are most Norse place names? Why do places in United States have these names? Have students use an atlas or map showing environments, biomes or vegetation or climates to find out the types of environments of these Scandinavian named settlements.

    [Such place names exist in the U.S. because 1) British settlers brought them when they settled here, and 2) Scandinavian settlers gave Scandinavian names to their settlements most of which are in Michigan, Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington state, Oregon and California. Ask the students why Scandinavians would settle these areas.]

    Game of Hnefatafl (also Hneftafl): This is an old Norse game that is found in many Viking and Norse sites. It consists of a board (which can be cardboard or even paper) and game pieces. Students can make their own board and playing pieces and challenge each other to games until there are two champions of the class. The appendix includes a starting board layout and information on the game. The Old Norse played and a lot of board and card games in the winter. Can you guess why?

    NMNH, Office of Education, Carolyn Sadler 7/07/00.