Sometimes procrastination pays off.
For months we’ve talked about writing a story on the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. In October, the journal Nature published proof that the Vikings were the first transatlantic voyagers to the New World—471 years before Columbus—exactly the history presented at the Viking Ship Museum. Suddenly we were eager to have another look and tell you about the world’s best-preserved Viking ships and finest surviving artifacts of the Viking era.
Certain a place identified on an Icelandic map from the 1670s as Promontorium Winlandiae marked the location of an ancient Norse settlement, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, travelled to northern Newfoundland in 1960. George Decker, a local fisherman, led them to L’Anse aux Meadows, “the bay with the grasslands,” where they immediately recognized the grass-covered ridges as Viking-era ruins like those in Greenland and Iceland.
Excavations resulted in this being the only confirmed Viking landing in North America, so far.
But precisely when the Vikings arrived in America was uncertain because radiocarbon dating was imprecise. (Although it’s known the Viking Age was from 793-1066…)
As announced in Nature, a new dating method using a solar storm in 992 AD as a reference on point three pieces of wood cut from three different trees showed 29 further growth rings, confirming the settlement date was 1021 AD—a thousand years ago. This date also conforms to Icelandic Sagas depicting Vikings in a settlement in America they called Vinland—Newfoundland.
Elegant as a black swan, the Oseberg Ship filled me with awe for the ingenuity of Nordic design the second we walked in.
The Viking Ship Museum, part of the Museum of Cultural History of the University of Oslo, features three ships, each named for the places they were found: Oseberg (b. 820 AD), Gokstad, and Tune, as well as amazing treasures from the Borre, the latter three built around 900 AD.
And what superlative construction!
To add strength, oak planks and frames were cleaved following the tree’s fibres. Planks were overlapped to create greater distance between the frames, a distinctive style called Nordic clinker that gave Viking ships longitudinal strength. Inside, pine decking was removable, an advantage for storage and easier bailing when the seas were rough. Outside, tar on the planks provided waterproofing. A single piece of oak, cut with an ax instead of a saw, ensured the keel’s structural integrity. The shallow draught caused waves to lift. (The Vikings’ seafaring expertise is reflected in Old Norse language, which has 150 words for waves.) The keel’s design enabled them to navigate shallow water and travel further inland—Viking ships could function in only half a metre of water. The single, square sail was woven from wool strengthened with walrus hide and coated with animal fat and oils to prevent rotting. Long, light and slender, these vessels of beauty were capable of lightning speed (14 knots/hour) and had the strength to survive ocean crossings.
The final journeys of Viking ships are even more intriguing.
All four sleek, speedy longships at the museum were used to transport the bodies of high-ranking chieftains (men and women) to the kingdom of the dead. A rich collection of gifts accompanied them on the voyage.
The ships at the museum are well preserved because each one was buried for more than a thousand years in six-metre high mounds of damp, peaty soil around Oslofjorden. The Oseberg and Gokstad would still be seaworthy even today!
(Speaking of fierce Viking women, Freydis Eiríksdóttir accompanied her brother Lief to North America. One story says she fought off a raid in Vinland, single-handedly, while eight months pregnant!)
Viking Queen Åse, mother of Norway’s first king, was buried on the Oseberg, a “Viking-era superyacht” likely used for journeys around Oslo. Queen Åse was accompanied by a young woman, either her daughter or a slave girl sacrificed to accompany her into the afterlife, scholars aren’t sure. Queen Åse wore a red woollen dress and a white linen veil decorated with combs and pearls, the younger woman wore a plainer dress and veil in blue wool. They were buried with more dresses, horses, cows, dogs, sleighs, a carriage adorned with mythical figures and carved animal heads.
Although it’s much the same size as the Oseberg, the Gokstad Ship is more seaworthy and was likely an ocean-going trading vessel for a Viking king. It may have travelled as far away as England, Iceland, the Mediterranean or the Black Sea. Between one and four men sat at each oar of the ship so archaeologists estimate up to seventy people sailed in it. (An exact replica of the Gokstad Ship sailed to America in six weeks in 1893.) The Gokstad was discovered in 1880 with two male skeletons onboard but no weapons or jewellery. Burial gifts included horses, dogs, peacocks, small boats, a tent, beds, harness fitting and a board game.
A year ago, Norwegian archaeologists hoped to complete the excavation of another longship at Gjellestad, the first discovery of its kind in Norway in a century. The excavation leader says the ship burial could have been for a king, queen or jarl, a noble warrior equivalent to an Anglo-Saxon earl.
Magellan and I were most struck by the intricacy of the wooden carvings of the Vikings. Did the Vikings have slaves we wondered?
Uh-huh says Google. As many as thirty thralls per household.
Many of the Viking carvings we saw at the museum looked Asian. Like Buddha Bucket” with its two small, brass figures in the Lotus position. Scholars say it’s possible the Vikings had contact with Asian cultures but it’s more likely “a result of coincidental hodge-podge of styles from their many Northern European contacts.”
The first designs for the Viking Ship Museum were drawn up in 1914, but it didn’t open until 1957.
Built to accommodate 40,000 visitors annually, more than ten times that many people visit now, threatening the fragility of the ships and artifacts. Restrictions limiting the number of visitors were put in place and finally, acting upon the advice of experts, the museum closed this year for rebuilding nearby and will reopen as the Museum of the Viking Age in 2026.
Remember the rhyme we were taught to remember history?
In fourteen ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
We need a new one.
How about this?
In ten twenty-one sailed Eriksson, the New World race he clearly won.
Peter, Laurence.”Norway excavates a Viking longship fit for a king.” BBC News. December 4, 2020.
Pryser Libell, Henrik, and
Shaw, David. W. “Secrets of the Viking Ships.” Scandinavian Review. Autumn 2016.
Viking Ship Museum website.