Review: Vikings (docu)

In this three hour BBC documentary, celebrity archeologist Neil Oliver presents the Vikings and travels through the landscapes of the “barbarians of the North”.

The BBC, UK’s public broadcaster, neil-oliver-vikings3has produced several documentaries and fact series about the Vikings. This is their latest.

In the first episode, Neil Oliver travels to Scandinavia to find out about the roots of the Vikings; where they came from, what formed them as inhabitants of the North, and how they evolved from iron and bronze age tribes. We don’t actually get any Viking information in the first part, but we do learn why it was possible for the people of Scandinavia to become Vikings. For example, the fact that the Roman expansion stopped somewhere in Germany, which left the Scandinavians alone for another 1000 years, free to worship their own gods and rule by their own laws (also, not learning to read). In other words, Scandinavia was left behind the rest of Europe, delaying the development enough for a separate culture to develop.

In the second episode, Oliver takes us on a journey in the footsteps of Vikings as international traders. He shows how Vikings made it to Russia and Konstantinopel, and how they set up slave trade from Ireland as a business. We also learn that Danish Vikings invaded England and actually ruled half of the British isles for some years. Viking evidence is found in abundance everywhere in what would become the UK, including many everydays words like knife, boat, leg, angry, skull and bag. Some 1500 modern English words are believed to be remnants of the Viking settlement in England.


In the third and last episode, we briefly learn about the Vikings’ expansion into the North-West, including how they discovered America 500 years before Columbus. The bulk of the programme is taken up by the Christianity of the Viking countries. The Nordic region was one of the last places in Europe to receive Jesus, and that effectively marked the end of the Viking era, as national states and powerful kings replaced local lords at the same time. What I miss from this episode though, is how Christianity was brutally enforced on peasants and fishermen (“convert or die”-style), and how Viking culture continued to live in paralell with the new, official religion.


While being very enthusiastic about the topic, Oliver keeps refering to “the Vikings did this and the Vikings did that” as if they were one, big, united empire spanning the entire Scandinavian area. They were not. There was no one Viking king with a master plan, there were no Viking nations and they were not formally synched in their work, culture, religion or development, like our EU or NATO today – still, that is the idea you get from hearing “the Vikings did this” all the time. It can be downright misleading if you don’t know your basic Viking history. In fact, we are told very little about how the Viking era societies were organized. Who did rule, how did they rule, what were the local and regional ranks, how did ordinary people live? Nothing of that is touched, even though it would be more interesting than maps of Scandinavia showing where the Vikings lived, which actually makes up a portion of the series as Oliver travels from here to there.


We are also not informed about the amount of piracy and looting the Vikings did. Was that really the only thing they spent time doing, since they are known for it? No, but this point is not investigated. It would be nice if we could get some explanations for their raids. Was it merely a way to get rich quick? This series does nothing to educate me on the most popular Viking topic. Not to mention that it would be great to get more insight into their peaceful activites and religion. In fact, most of the information presented is basic Viking knowledge one learns in elementary school, at least in Scandinavia. Has no new Viking knowledge emerged, have no theories and finds been revised?

A 304 page book authored by Oliver and titled Vikings: A History was published by W&N in October 2012. In addition, a 177 minute region 2 DVD version of the series was released by the BBC in November 2012.

This BBC documentary is jampacked with information, presented by Neil Oliver in a popular manner, as he walks back and forth in museums, between landmarks and on excavation sites. You have to pay attention to what he says, in his charming Scottish dialect, because there are no (or very little) re-enactments, computerized illustrations or archive footage (from other films) to spice things up. In many ways a low budget production that does not use the TV medium for what it is worth. Kind of like reading a book, where the images have to be produced in your mind. Oliver is, however, good at explaining facts, and seems very enthusiastic about the topic, so it does not get boring as such. Seen as a basic introduction to Vikings, the series work well, but for a recent documentary by the big BBC and their fourth on Vikings in a decade, one does expect more than a man standing in front of a museum piece and talking.

Rated 5 of 10.

BBC, 2012, directed by Jon Eastman, Rosie Schellenburg, Simon Winchcombe.