WE don't have many contemporary illustrations of Vikings.

Older TV shows depicted them as men wearing ludicrous horned helmets. In the BBC's most recent Viking offering, The Last Kingdom, they appeared in scuffed leather armour, sporting wildly tangled hair and beards or else neatly-shaved Mohicans. In Jorvik, meanwhile, they're represented as ordinary-looking farmers and tradesmen wearing tunics and leggings of rough-spun cloth.

But what did they really look like?

A beautifully carved bone button at the Yorkshire Museum (top and below) might be as close as we're ever going to get to seeing the face of a 'real' Viking.

It shows the triangular-shaped face of a man with a long, neatly-trimmed beard, moustache and scraped-back cornrow hair.

"It is the face of a Viking man," says Natalie Buy, the museum's curator of archaeology. "It is quite stylised, but it is important because we don't have any contemporary images of Vikings."

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So important is it that the button, which was found in York and dates from the Viking period, will be one of the centrepieces of a brand new exhibition about the Vikings that opens at the Yorkshire Museum a week today.

What? Not another exhibition about the Vikings? After all, it's only a few weeks since Jorvik reopened.

Yes, but this exhibition is going to be very different, promises Natalie.

Viking: Rediscover the Legend brings together for the first time some of the most prized Viking and early medieval artefacts from two collections - the Yorkshire Museum, and the British Museum.

They're probably the two best early medieval collections in the country, says Natalie - and bringing them together gives an opportunity to tell the story of the way the Vikings changed early medieval Britain like never before.

What Jorvik does brilliantly is tell the story of ordinary Viking men and women - craftsmen, farmers, traders - living here in York.

The Yorkshire Museum exhibition will be very different, however, Natalie says. It will focus more on the broader context, showing how York was at the centre of a much wider Viking world that stretched from Scandinavia to Britain to Dublin.

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Natalie Buy with the Ormside Bowl

The emphasis is also more on the great and the good of the Viking world than it is in Jorvik - on the kings and warriors, the rich and the powerful, who dominated their age.

Amongst the key exhibits will be several hoards of buried treasure from the Viking age - some, like the Vale of York Hoard, from the Yorkshire Museum's own collection: others, such as the Cuerdale Hoard, from the British Museum.

Such hoards reveal a great deal about life in Viking Age Britain, Natalie says.

They were generally buried at times of war or strife, for a start - and there was plenty of that, as control of York passed first from Saxon to Viking, then back, then back again in a process of ebb and flow, strife and uncertainty, that repeated itself for decades.

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The Vale of York Hoard

The Vale of York Hoard is made up of 617 silver coins, which were tightly packed into a Frankish silver cup. It was buried near what is today Harrogate in either 927 or 928 AD by a wealthy Viking who was probably fleeing York, and was discovered in 2007 by two metal detectorists.

We can guess that, says Natalie, because that was when Jorvik's Viking king Sihtric was expelled from the city by the Saxon king Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great and the first Saxon ruler of all England.

The hoard probably represented the personal wealth of a Viking who was high up in Sihtric's Jorvik: probably not the king himself, Natalie says, but quite possibly a member of his entourage. He may, like other Jorvik Vikings, have been fleeing to Viking-held Dublin to escape Athelstan, and stopped to bury his wealth along the way.

So why didn't he ever come back for it? "We can't say," says Natalie. "But he may have been killed."

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The Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard is a little different. It consists of more than 8,000 items, including silver coins, English and Carolingian jewellery, hacksilver and ingots, which were discovered in 1840 buried in a lead box box the southern bank of the River Ribble, in an area called Cuerdale near Preston.

It was probably buried between 903 and 910 AD, not long after the Vikings had been expelled from Dublin in 902. And it may well have been a Viking war chest, Natalie says. "They may have been trying to establish a base around the River Ribble from where to try to retake Dublin."

Between them, then, these two hoards give a good idea of the chaotic power struggles of the the early 900s - and also show that the Vikings didn't have it all their own way.

Above all, however, the Viking: Rediscover the Legend exhibition will be seeking to tell the story of how the Vikings who came to Britain changed the land they found - and were, at the same time, changed by it.

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The York Helmet

It will include objects from before the Vikings came, therefore - objects such as the York helmet, the war helmet of a rich Anglo-Saxon warrior; and the Gilling sword.

We know that, before the Vikings came, York was already a large city, the capital of a Northumbrian kingdom. Anglo-Saxon society was sophisticated, with its own economy and strict social structures.

The invading Vikings had none of that. They didn't mint their own coins because they didn't have a structured society in the way the Saxons did: they tended to live in smaller tribal groupings, with no big cities.

They brought with them a new language (traces of which can be seen in York place names today), new styles of art, and a fresh influx of immigrant blood.

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The Gilling Sword

But they also quickly found themselves embracing many aspects of the Saxon society they had displaced: learning to live in the great city of York; building up a sophisticated social structure with its own trading economy (and its own Viking mint for coin-making); and even, gradually, adopting Christianity.

This blurring of cultures is illustrated by a number of objects that will be on show - including the Ormside Bowl.

This was found in 1823 buried beside what is thought to be the remains of a Viking warrior in Great Ormside, Cumbria.

The designs on the base of the silver-gilt bowl suggest that it was originally a Christian chalice or other vessel. It was probably looted by a Viking warrior in a raid on a Christian place of worship - and was then adapted for use as a drinking vessel by the addition of an inner gilt-bronze lining to make it watertight, Natalie says.

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Natalie Buy with the Ormside Bowl

Whoever its later owner was, it was clearly a prized possession, Natalie says. "Somebody kept it, adapted it and treasured it." The Vikings as raiders and looters then settlers and property owners: it's all there in that one beautiful bowl...

  • Viking: Rediscover the Legend opens at the Yorkshire Museum on Friday May 19 and runs until November 5. It will then go on tour to Nottingham, Merseyside, Aberdeen and Norwich.

While in York the exhibition is being staged in the Yorkshire Museum's medieval gallery. The gallery's regular medieval exhibits - including the Middleham Jewel - have been put into storage for the duration.