March 19, 2015. “What’s the best thing to see in Oslo?,” is the question I’m often asked by friends and family preparing for a visit. I know I’m a history geek, but I always recommend the Viking Ships Museum. Seriously, where else in the world can you go to feast your eyes on three incredibly intact Viking vessels? We all know about these Scandinavian raiders who pillaged most of Europe and were the first Europeans to touch foot on North American soil. (It’s now pretty much a proven fact — Columbus was late to the party.) So it’s a real goose-bump experience to see the vehicles that made it all possible.
But before we get into the tale of the Museum’s ship collection, here’s a little backstory for you: beginning in the late 1800s, archaeologists began excavating huge Viking burial mounds found on various farms throughout Norway (and Sweden and Denmark, too.) Yep, that’s right. Contrary to public perception, Vikings didn’t typically launch their chieftains out to sea in boats set ablaze via fiery arrows. (This was a custom only infrequently practiced, usually by warriors who died on foreign soil and were being sent home on their “final voyage.”) Instead, homeland Vikings buried their revered dead with all the stuff they’d need for their long journey to the afterlife, then marked the gravesite with a big pile of earth and stones, just like the Egyptians.
Three of Norway’s burial mounds contained the most perfectly preserved Viking ships yet found, courtesy of tons of blue clay piled on top of them. (Blue clay is anaerobic — no oxygen means no bacteria, and therefore little decay.) On board were the dead, who rested on deck in a wooden replica of a tent, and tons of grave goods that included beds, musical instruments, sleds, carts, farm implements, tools for sewing and weaving, fishing and hunting gear, barrels of apples, wheat, beer, and much, much more. All of it amounts to incredible stuff that tells us about Viking daily life and reveals that, at heart, these folks were farmers and traders as much as they were sailors and raiders.
The Oseberg-farm Burial
When you enter the museum, your first sight is of the Oseberg ship, with its spiraling, serpent-headed prow towering above you. Long on style and short on seaworthiness, the shallow-sided ship was built as a karvi — a royal yacht meant for cruising along the coastlines of calm interior fjords. Writhing along the bow and stern are unbelievably intricate carvings of “grappling beasts” that twine together, gripping wrists, grabbing ankles, and generally trying to throttle one another. Both the design of the ship and its general state of wear tell us that it was built around 800 A.D. and used for about 50 years before being retired as the grave vessel for a high priestess of Freya.
A nearby case holds the bodies of the high priestess herself and another woman — perhaps a lesser priestess who volunteered to accompany her friend into the afterworld. Various skeletal clues tell us that the high priestess probably had a pituitary tumor, which caused her to be rather dwarvenish in appearance: she was only five feet tall (short for a Viking), with a thick stocky neck, heavy wide bones, and probably hairy to boot. Studies show she suffered from arthritis and osteoporosis and died of cancer at around 80 years old. Her taller, slimmer companion was only in her late forties, and her bones reveal no pathologies that would indicate a cause of death beyond willingly choosing to be sacrificed as part of the funeral ritual (common in Viking culture.)
Grave robbers had denuded the ladies of their jewelry and discarded their elegantly robed skeletons in the thievery tunnel. Back in the original burial chamber (the wooden “tent” that rested on the Oseberg’s deck), rich textiles and finely wrought chests, combs, leather shoes, and other personal items proclaimed the women’s wealth. Household tools testifying to the ladies’ traditional feminine skills included looms, a pair of scissors, spindle whorls for spinning woolen thread, a yarn-winder, a sewing box, and a tablet loom still holding a partially completed ribbon.
Strange-looking metal rattles likely carried on cat-headed shafts, plus the cat carvings on the cart found in the bow of the boat, indicate that the priestesses probably served Freya, the Viking fertility goddess who rode in a cart pulled by cats. Also aboard were three sleighs, two tents, a working sled, and the skeletons of at least ten horses, complete with bridles and a saddle. The skeletons of several more horses and an ox also encircled the ship, as well as lots of kitchen utensils including knives, buckets, dippers, bowls, lamps, a frying pan, a bread trough, and cauldrons that could be hung over a fire via a bird-footed tripod.
Perhaps my favorite kitchen item is the “Buddha Bucket,” so-called for the cross-legged figures that fasten the handle to the rim. Despite their yoga poses, these colorful boys are enameled using traditional British techniques, which isn’t surprising considering that Dublin was the Vikings’ slave-trading capital. In fact, many Viking items feature intricate, interlocked designs resembling Celtic knots that show how the two cultures likely exchanged design ideas and influenced one another.
The Gokstad-farm Burial
Like the Oseberg burial, the Gokstad burial contained a ship, but one built more sturdily and with a deeper hull for oceangoing voyages along the coastline. Its steeper sides contained holes for 16 pairs of oars, plus wooden shutters that could be slid over the openings to prevent the vessel from taking on water when under sail. Shield racks along the ship’s sides not only encouraged tidy housekeeping but also advertised the presence of Viking warriors to observers onshore. The remains of all 64 shields, painted alternately yellow and black, still hung in place at the time of the ship’s discovery.
A body of a chieftain was also found on board in a wooden replica of a tent. But like the Oseberg burial, grave robbers had divested him of his valuables (weapons), although his bones were allowed to remain in repose upon the burial bed. The burial chamber itself contained remnants of the dead man’s clothes, his fishing gear, and a game board with one antler gaming piece. Skeletons of 12 horses and six dogs surrounded the ship, and on its deck rested three small but elegant boats built in a style still used today in many Norwegian villages.
During my niece’s visit, we went to hear a lecture by a gentleman who’d created full-scale, functioning replicas of two of the three ships in the Viking Ships Museum. He described how he’d built the reconstructions by hand using traditional Viking tools and explained that he was now working to raise money for the third boat — the Gokstad. His goal was to sail it around the entire coast of Scandinavia, tracing one of the ancient trading routes of his ancestors. At the end of his lecture, he invited us to come for a tour of the boats, which he keeps in a harbor about an hour south of Oslo. So guess what I’ll be doing when summer comes?
From this dedicated man I learned a fun tidbit about the ship. A group of Norwegians had built a replica back in 1893 and sailed it across the Atlantic, up the Hudson, through the Erie Canal, and into the Great Lakes to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Funny that I’d never heard this story during all the years I’ve worked for the Museum of Science and Industry and The Field Museum, both of which can trace their origins to the 1893 World’s Fair. Apparently, the ship’s tip and tail still sit in MSI’s vaults, but its body now rests in Geneva, Illinois, where folks can tour it on weekends. Who would’ve thought I’d have to come all the way to Norway to learn this bit of Chicago history?
But if you want to see the original ship and its associated grave goods, come soon. Many of the items were preserved using alum and are decaying from the inside out. If researchers don’t find a solution soon, it’s predicted that we may be the last generation to see such spectacular finds.