Whalers, Vikings, Stone Circles … and Porcelain?

March 25, 2017.  Sorry for the long break between posts — things have been quite busy with our construction project here in Norway, and I’ve had no time to write.  Last I left you, Easter break had arrived.  But I got a little ahead of myself, and I’m gonna jump back in time now to catch you up on a few fun experiences that we had before, during, and after the holiday.

By late March, months of working seven days a week had taken their toll, and Matthew and I decided we needed some down time in advance of our planned spring break.  Predictably, we decided to treat our little holiday as if it were the last time we’d ever see daylight again, meaning that we crammed as much crap into two days as is humanly possible.  Hence the schizophrenic title of my post showcasing our random and frenetic sampling of sights.  (Feel free to scroll down to the topics that interest you most.)

The original Porsgrund Porcelain Factory, founded in 1885, still sits picturesquely on the banks of the Porsgrunn river.

One Saturday afternoon, we headed southward in our rental car towards the town of Porsgrunn, the site of Norway’s oldest porcelain manufacturer.  The original goal for our excursion had been to purchase some Norwegian dishware to go with our new Hadeland crystal, which we’d bought during a Yuletide excursion — see my post, A Hadeland Holiday.  Yep, we’ve been bitten hard by the Scandi design bug while living here.

A mural along the entry into the harbor hints at Sandefjord’s whaling history.

But during the two-hour drive, Matthew did some quick scouting of other historic sights to see along the way.  And that’s how we ended up in Sandefjord, a seaside town famous for whaling, mineral spas, and Viking historic sites.

Since we’d had to work a half-day, we arrived just in time for a late lunch at Kokeriet, a harbor-side eatery.   The place offered some excellent local brews and an outstanding fish soup and fish burger, plus lots of local lore.

A photo mural in Kokeriet shows Sandefjord when its harbor was filled with whaling ships.

A quick tour around the restaurant gave us a visual overview of Sandefjord’s history as a whaling town.  And let me just say up front, if you’re squeamish about the concept of whale hunting and downright appalled at the idea of eating whale, then you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs — and also avoid looking closely at the photos on the restaurant’s walls, should you ever stop in for a meal.

Some say that petroglyphs like this one from Alta, Norway, depict men fishing with nets and hunting whales or fish with a bow and arrow.

To give you a bit of background, Norway has a long history of whale hunting.  The ancient Norse sagas record disputes between Viking families over the rights to whale carcasses, and some claim that petroglyphs (rock carvings) of whales and armed men in boats, which date to the Stone Age, prove Norwegians have been hunting whales for millennia.

Here, you can see a man connected to a whale by a line. Maybe he got dragged overboard? Photo: Ralph Frenken 2012
Yep, Jotun paint from Sandefjord, Norway, is what protects Paris’s Eiffel Tower from the elements.

Norway eventually cornered the market on new inventions for catching and dispatching whales during the Industrial Age, when the oil rendered from blubber became a major global commodity for lighting, lubrication, and as an ingredient in soap, explosives, varnish, and paint.

In fact, Jotun — one of the world’s largest paint companies — got its start in Sandefjord as a byproduct of the whaling industry and is still headquartered there today.  (P.S.  whale oil is no longer part of the formula for Jotun’s long-lasting marine coatings.)

The minke whale is the second smallest baleen whale and is considered a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Norway’s annual quota hovers between 800-1000, although their actual annual whale catch typically measures only 30 to 60 percent of this number. Photo NOAA; Illustration Chris Huh, Wikipedia.

Now for the part that will be offensive to many of you.  Along with Iceland and Japan, Norway still hunts whales; specifically, only the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).   Keep in mind that whales have long been a food source for seafaring folks living in an Arctic climate.

And in countries like Norway that were exceedingly poor for centuries, cheap meat like whale (leftover after processing the valuable oil) became a staple in many households.  Today, it’s more common to see minke on the menu of Norway’s northernmost cities, but you’ll still find it offered as a delicacy in some of Oslo’s finest restaurants.

Yep, this is grilled whale meat. No, it does not taste like chicken. To me, it has an iron-rich, bloody taste, almost like liver. Photo courtesy of Marius Tvethaug of Frøya Sjømat fish market at Mathallen, Oslo.

To answer your obvious next question:  yes, I’ve tried it.   It’s kind of hard to avoid eating it at a business function, where to push aside a special offering would be viewed as rude.  And lecturing your hosts on how barbaric their customs seem to you is not the way to forge relationships.

By the way, I’ve also eaten sheep’s eyeballs in Israel, dined on horse meat in France, and tried lots of other unusual foods simply for the opportunity to connect with people.  Being “non-judgy” is critical when making new friends.

Let’s face it, most cultures have at least one food tradition that others view as weird or gruesome.  For example, the Chinese consider cheese (soured, solidified milk) a low-brow food eaten only by unhygienic barbarians.

And in parts of India, the European habit of slaughtering and eating beef (or any other animal) is considered repulsive and cruel.  I’ve also been told by Hindus that Americans are particularly stinky, smelling like rotten flesh or roadkill because of how much meat we eat.  It’s all a matter of perspective, folks.

Okay, enough about that.  Now for a less controversial subject.  Dishes.  Matthew jokes that when I turned 30, a latent “dish gene” kicked in that he supposes I inherited from my china-mad grandmother.  He claims that overnight, we went from owning one set of tableware to three.

But let’s be fair.  Matthew himself bought me a set of antique Limoges china for our first Christmas together, plus we inherited a set of Fiestaware from his grandmother, so the obsession with beautiful porcelain is kinda mutual.  In other words, I didn’t have to drag him to the Porsgrund Porselen Factory to learn how they made their dishware.

I’m giving Johan Jeremiassen a cuddle for his herculean efforts to save his hometown. He founded Porsgrund Porselen in 1885, and it’s Norway’s oldest porcelain factory still in operation today.

Porsgrund Porcelain
Christina, a docent at the Factory Museum, gave us an absolutely fantastic tour, showing us how Porsgrund Porselen has grown and changed over the years.  The company’s story is actually really inspiring: the founder, Johan Jeremiassen, was a shipping magnate who exported feldspar to Germany for the manufacture of Meissen porcelain.

His hometown of Porsgrunn had been particularly hard hit by the global economic depressions of the late 1800s, and Jeremiassen conceived the idea of creating his own porcelain factory to provide jobs for locals.

Johan Jeremiassen brought pottery engineer Carl Maria Bauer over from Germany to help set up Porsgrund’s factory. After leaving Porsgrund, Bauer went on to help start up Rosenthal porcelain in Denmark.  As you can see, Bauer’s earliest efforts focused on traditional designs that mimicked Meissen and other famous European china.

He sunk all his own money into it, almost bankrupting himself in an effort to keep his neighbors employed, and died two years after the factory opened.

But his wife wouldn’t let go of the dream and made significant changes to the company, firing the German pottery engineer who was intent on making pricey copies of German companies’ pottery.  Instead, Porsgrund began to focus on industrial products such as insulators for power lines and hygienic dishware for hospitals, which became the company’s (and the town’s) bread and butter.

Nora Gulbrandsen designed this clearly cubist-inspired Art Deco pattern. Today, the line has been given an all-white update and further streamlining under the product line “Saturn.”

Eventually, Porsgrund branched out into daily china and art pottery designed by homegrown talent.  For many years, the chief artistic director was a woman, Nora Gulbrandsen, who ushered in an era of modernism and minimalism that helped set the stage for Scandi design worldwide.  Porsgrund still reproduces some of her original lines today, as well as several historic and contemporary new patterns.

At the factory, you can watch porcelain being made and artists painting patterns free-hand on the pottery.  Check out some more gorgeous pieces and fun facts about porcelain and Porsgrund by clicking through the gallery below.

The full array of “Sense” porcelain — a favorite tableware line for both Norwegian restaurants and households.

Since we visited on a Saturday, the factory itself was closed, so we made a beeline to the outlet, where we completely filled the trunk of our car with every available piece from the company’s “Sense” product line.

Truly, there are at least 30 different types of “Sense” plates, bowls, cups, saucers, and serving pieces, depending on whether you’re looking for square, oval, or traditionally round tableware.  We bought a little mix of each, so we’d have dishes for every conceivable cuisine.  And at a 20 – 70 percent savings, what’s not to like?

The Kong Carl (King Carl), one of Norway’s oldest hotels, was first a private residence for a merchant, then later a ship captain, before being turned into an inn by the captain’s widow in 1780.

Shopping complete, we set out to find a hotel.  We’d hoped to stay at the nearby Farris Spa, but it was fully booked, so we stopped at a gorgeous old inn that bore the grand name of the King Carl Hotel, as well as a placard proclaiming its birthdate as 1690.

We wandered inside, expecting to be turned away again at the door due to the late hour of our arrival, but the concierge said, “we have one room remaining, and it’s a very special room.”

Something about the way he said it made me ask dubiously, “Special, huh?  Does that mean it’s haunted?” “No, but you’ll see,” he winked, and his assistant joked, “You’re giving them that room?  Wish them luck.”

Breakfast in the lovely dining room, with lit candles despite the sunshine. (I didn’t take photos of the wedding reception because I didn’t want to be stereotypical American paparazzi.)

We made our way through the hotel, keeping a lookout for ghosts while gaping at the gorgeous furniture and stately spaces.  And we paused for a minute to poke our noses into the dining area to get a glimpse of a Norwegian wedding reception:  lots, and lots … and lots of toasting.

When we finally reached our attic room, we opened the door and discovered a huge, winding warren of rooms with a kitchen, two parlors, a grand chandelier, and enough beds to house a family of ten.  But no ghosts.  I’m guessing the assistant’s wish for good luck was so that we’d be able to find our way back out to the main hallway after threading our way through the labyrinth to the master bedroom.

Oh yeah, I blend. Some of these mounds are real monsters, measuring more than 10 feet high and up to 35 feet in diameter.

Viking Burial Mounds
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, so Matthew and I decided to skip museums and focus on outdoor activities.  Our first hike was along the rocky stretch of shoreline known as Mølen Beach — an ancient seaside burial site hosting more than 200 stone cairns.

Made up of basketball-sized boulders, these mounds range from 16 impressive hills to around 190 smallish lumps about the size of modern graves.

The oldest mounds sit tucked amongst a grove of fairy pines that have been dwarfed and twisted into sculptural shapes by the wind. The beach’s name Mølen comes from the old Norse word “mol,” meaning a mound or bank of stones.

The oldest mounds, which sit higher up and further away from the ocean, likely date to the Early Iron Age, around 500 B.C. – 550 A.D., while the younger ones, which march in long rows near the water’s edge, might possibly date to the Late Iron Age/Viking Era, about 550 – 1050 A.D.

As with any mysterious ancient site, speculations abound as to why someone would spend so much energy moving so many big rocks into piles.  The current ruling theory is that the biggest cairns marked the graves of chiefs, while the rows of little mounds indicated the burial sites of lesser folk.

The mounds, which can be seen easily from the sea, may have also acted as navigational cues for Viking sailors. It’s believed that ancient shipping lanes ran along the coastline here.

In reality, no bodies have ever been discovered here.  Burned stones in the center of the piles might indicate that cremation was part of the burial ceremony.  But some of the mounds may also be purely commemorative, marking a historic or tragic event.

For example, excavations into one of the elongated, boat-shaped cairns turned up iron nails and burnt wood dating to around 400 A.D.  Archaeologists think that the mound might mark the site of a shipwreck or naval battle, and that perhaps the captain and crew were either buried under neighboring rock piles, or were simply memorialized after their deaths at sea by appropriately sized monuments on land (i.e., big round mound = captain; rows of little mounds = crew).  Click on the photos below for a better perspective.

Look closely, and you can see that these mounds have a notch cut into them — evidence of “haugbrott” (meaning “mound-breaking”) by Iron Age Vikings.

As Matthew and I circled around the mounds, we noticed that many had a V-shaped gash in their sides.  Archaeologists who claim that the mounds are actual graves believe that this is evidence of the ancient practice of haugbrott:  the ritual removal of the dead, which was common during Viking times.

Why would Vikings plunder the graves of their own ancestors?  Some think the bodies were removed for the purpose of necromancy (forecasting the future by communing with the dead), or to prevent the souls of the dead from haunting the living.  Norse sagas often tell tales about troublesome spirits hanging out around stone burial mounds like these.

Another notched mound can be seen in the distance. Danish king “Gorm the Old” was buried in a similar kind of earthen mound at Jelling. But his bones were later discovered in Jelling’s church, having been moved there by his son, King Harald Bluetooth, who’d converted to Christianity and wanted to ensure his parents went to Heaven, too. (And yes, the runes for Harald’s initials form the logo for Bluetooth Technologies. But that’s a story for another day….)

Other scientists think that it became “a thing” for a new leader to dig into the burial mound of an ancient chief and steal his sword, ring, or even his bones to show a transfer of power or the continuation of a dynasty, lineage, or rulership.  (Think Barrow Downs.  So is anyone else getting a serious Lord-of-the-Rings vibe yet?)

And then there’s the theory that the bones were carted off and reburied in church cemeteries after the Vikings were Christianized, so that kinfolk could make sure their pagan forefathers made it into heaven.  Clearly, this last bunch of unimaginative archaeologists aren’t big fans of Tolkien.

Keeping your balance while walking over these boulders is no joke. Note how the mounds can be easily seen from the sea.

Matthew and I thought about scaling one of the mounds to get a bird’s-eye view of the sea, but the loose rocks seemed to be real ankle-breakers.  We had our suspicions confirmed when a group of people passed us while escorting an older man back to his car, his head gushing blood from a tumble he’d taken from the top of one of the cairns.  So instead, for safety’s sake we merely parked ourselves on a rock and squinted out to sea, trying to imagine Viking ships sailing by while using the mounds as mile-markers to judge their position.

Nope, these aren’t graves. They’re educational displays showing you all the pretty rocks from different parts of Scandinavia that took a ride on a glacier and ended up here at Mølen Beach.

Lying there, contemplating life as an Iron-Age sailor, we began to inspect the astonishing variety of stones that littered the beach.  It’s not like the ancients had to look far and wide for mound-building materials.  A nearby educational display explained that Mølen Beach is essentially a moraine — a huge, winding ridge of rock left behind by a retreating glacier.

An Ice Age conveyor belt, the glacier had sat parked in this spot for about 300 years, growing and shrinking and grinding away with the changing seasons.  Long enough to unload quite a diverse pile of gravel.  Some of these colorful, non-native rocks had apparently immigrated on the ice flow from as far away as Denmark.  Geology aficionados can click on the photos below for more fun facts.

Looks like Matthew is taking a stroll down a blue whale’s back, right? It’s actually a huge finger of lava that sticks out into the sea.

We toddled shakily over the enormous cobbles for awhile, listening to the crackling noise they made rolling against one another as the surf surged.  The sound was so like that of breaking bones that I found myself gritting my teeth and wincing.

Eventually we decided to stop challenging our sense of balance and made our way to a smoother section of the beach covered by an old lava flow.  The landscape here is fantastical.  The blackened fins of a prehistoric shield volcano reach out into the sea, looking like beached whales glistening in the sunshine.  Click through the gallery below for more gorgeous views.

As you can see, the modern world has closely encroached on the Elgesem gravesite. Only 21 of the original 38 stones survive intact today. The ship formation measures roughly 131 feet long by 23 feet wide (40 m x 7 m) and is oriented on an east – west axis.

Stone Circles
By around lunchtime, the crowds began to get pretty intense at Mølen, so we hopped back in the car and headed over to our next ancient cemetery, Elgesem.  Here, rather than a ship-shaped cairn, we found a ship-shaped stone circle bordered by a small field of eight burial mounds.

These kinds of stone “ship formations” are fairly common all over Scandinavia, but I’d never seen such a huge one up close.  The “bow” and “stern” of the boat are marked by bautas — tall monoliths that are thought to mark grave sites and perhaps also act as a kind of astronomical calendar.

It’s thought the field originally contained 20 to 30 burial mounds, but only eight remain today. Artifacts recovered during excavations tell us that the mounds were used from 500 B.C. to 1000 A.D.

When the site was excavated back in 1870, archaeologists found a runestone atop one of the mounds, inscribed with the runes for the letters A L U.  The meaning and use of the  word alu seems to be hotly debated.

Taken at face value, it simply translates as “beer” — in fact, our word “ale” derives from it.  Strangely, the word seems to be graffitied on lots of different runestones and gravestones all over Scandinavia.

The Elgesem Runestone dates to around 400 A.D. It’s about 5.6 feet tall (172 cm) by 3 feet wide (90 cm) by 7 inches thick (18 cm), and it now resides at the Viking Ship’s Museum in Oslo.

Yeah, yeah, we all know the Vikings were a hard-drinking lot.  And yes, literary sources tell us that these ancient Norsemen traditionally got hammered during nine-day burial rituals.  (Beer was an important part of pretty much every Viking ceremony.)

But linguists think the frequent appearance of alu on grave markers wasn’t merely a common epitaph carved into the tombstone of the town drunks. Neither was it likely scrawled by devoted mourners who wanted to give thanks for plentiful liquor during local funerals.

Old Norse poems and the Icelandic sagas tell us that alu is a “charm word” or an “ale rune” given to mankind by the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa to help ward off evil.  In other words, it was probably carved into the gravestone to invoke a kind of protective runic magic that would either safeguard the spirit of the dead during his journey to the afterlife, or keep his ghost at bay so it wouldn’t bother the living.

Here’s a kinda fuzzy aerial photo from 1973 showing the basic layout of the two stone ship formations and three stone circles at Istrehågan. Photo from Widerøe / Vestfold Museums.

Matthew and I sat for awhile, enjoying the dappled sunlight filtering down through pines, wishing for our own pint of alu, and basking in the peace of the place.  But of course, we’re not ones to let the grass grow under our feet, so within ten minutes, we’d jumped back in the car.  A series of crazy turns down back-country dirt lanes brought us to Istrehågan, our final destination and last stone-circle site — hopefully you can handle just one more.

Check out the largest of the ship-shaped graves. Might give Stonehenge a run for its money just for the cool Viking ambience.

Istrehågan is an archaeological bonanza, with two stone “ship formations,” plus three stone circles.  The largest ship stands 82 feet long (25 m) and consists of 18 standing stones, again with towering bautas marking the prow and stern of the boat.

In the middle of this huge ellipse (thought to represent a longboat), is a kind of fire pit, probably used to prepare food for a funeral ritual.  Excavated in the 1960s, the center of the grave also contained hair combs, stone gaming pieces, charcoal, bits of iron, pottery and burned bones that were probably remnants of cremation burials.

This ship-shaped grave is my favorite. It really looks like a stone boat, complete with oarlocks.

The second, much smaller ship-shaped grave measures only 32 feet (10m) long, but it looks as it if it’s filled with cobblestones, like ballast aboard a boat.  Excavations here turned up a clay toy, bear claws, and more cremations, as did the tombs in the center of the three stone circles.  Most of the material came from the Iron Age, ca 400-600 A.D., right about the time when the Viking Era got its kickoff.

While it seems likely that the stone circles themselves acted as some sort of astronomical marker, in all my research, I couldn’t find out anything more about exactly what was being tracked.  I’m presuming the local proto-Vikings spent a lot of time marking equinoxes and solstices.  Observing solar positions using standing stones was common for most agricultural communities worldwide.  Yep, that’s right.  Although the Vikings were a seafaring people, they were farmers at heart.  Monitoring the sun’s position to predict the changing seasons helps determine the best time for planting and harvesting.

Archaeologists found a grave in the center of each of the two largest stone circles, one which also contained a whetstone for sharpening iron blades.

Luckily, we managed to get in some decent photos before a huge busload of druidic Norwegians showed up.  They canvassed the area with their guide, then everybody pulled out divination rods and started stripping down naked.  That was our cue to exit and head for Oslo — and no, I have no photos of elderly, portly, hairy, and radioactively white Scandinavians in the buff to share with you.  Sorry ’bout that.  I know you’re disappointed.






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