The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo is about to close down, and I decided to pay it a last visit. The closing day will be on the 30th of September 2021, and it will re-open in 2025 as a brand new and bigger museum, giving more space to artifacts, the ships themselves and for the people that come to visit.
Growing up with these ships always being accessible it’ll be strange for me to not see them in person for almost five years. So my last visit (for now) became quite a long one, and a bit emotional when I stepped outside knowing that years would pass until next time.
Who were the Vikings?
The Viking era had its beginning back in the year 793 with the first documented Viking attack being on a monastery at Lindisfarne in England. The era lasted more or less until the year 1050, and many historians set a final date with the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, were a large Viking army was defeated by the English King Harold Godwinson.
The people described as Vikings in those days lived in what is today Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Basically they were voyagers who ventured out of their home land looking for trade opportunities and perhaps new land to settle on, but they are most known for their Viking raids, plundering and pillaging villages, towns and religious buildings such as churches and monasteries pretty much all over Europe.
Why do we have these Viking ships in Oslo?
The success factor of the Vikings were their ships. These were innovative vessels, that could undergo long journeys in open sea. They were both slender and flexible boats which could carry many men, and be both sailed or rowed.
The Vikings were believers of the Norse mythology and had a strong belief in the afterlife. Half of those who died would go to Valhalla (ruled by the God Odin), and the other half would go to Fólkvangr (ruled by the Goddess Freya). When someone of great importance died, or when someone died in battle, it was therefor believed that when they entered the afterlife they would need their belongings to go with them. All the three Viking ships found in the museum in Oslo were located inside burial mounds. On each ship they found skeletal remains onboard together with many artifacts such as kitchen utensils, carts, sleighs, textiles, fishing equipment and also remains of horses, dogs and other animals.
A presentation of the three Vikings ships
Tuneskipet – The Tune ship
The Tune ship was found in 1867, and was the first of the three ships to be excavated. What first strikes you when you see this ship is that it is not as well preserved as the two other ones. There are several reasons for this. First of all the grave had been partly opened and excavated at an earlier time, and therefor oxygen had entered the grave leading to faster decomposing of the ship. It was also excavated at a time when modern archaeology had yet not taken form, so the methods of excavation were rather rough. As a result of this much of the ship, the man buried on it, and several artifacts were damaged in the excavation and transportation process.
Even though the Tune ship is smaller (18,7 meters – 61 feet long) than the two other ships in the museum, it is considered to have been a fast, sea-going vessel capable of quickly transporting people from one place to another. This can be said because of the very strong mast support, making it possible for the ship to have a sail as big as 100 square meters. In other words, it could move fast, and probably this made it into a very efficient warship taking the Vikings into battle. This could have been the main function of the Tune ship, but these are just speculations, and there are still today many questions unanswered.
Gokstadskipet – The Gokstad Ship
The Gokstad ship was built around the year 890 AD, and was a fast and sturdy ship that could cross oceans. Around the year 900 AD, what is believed to have been a rich and powerful chieftain or a person of Royal descent was buried onboard the ship. The “Gokstad man” was in his forties with a strong physique, and cutting blows to both legs indicates that he was killed in battle. The man was most likely buried with weapons and jewelry, but grave robbers have removed many of these items. Luckily there were many artifacts left, such as beds, a tent, a sleigh and the remains of several animals.
Looking at the Gokstad ship you immediately get the impression that this was a strong ship capable of crossing the big seas. As all Vikings ships it is klinker built, meaning that one strake (plank) is overlapping the other. The strakes are held together with iron nails, and the stem of the boat is attached to the oak keel with overlapping joints. The rudder is, like always on a Viking ship, placed on the right hand side. This was know and the “styreside”, steering side, or “styrbord”…. Starboard – It’s a Viking word!
Onboard there would be room for 32 oarsmen in addition to one man at the helm (rudder) and one man as lookout in the bow of the ship. The Gokstad ship is 23.22 meters (76 feet) long, and even though it does not have dragon heads, they found 32 painted shields that were attached to the side of the ship. What an impressive sight it must have been! But surely also inducing terror along the coastline among those who were about to be paid a visit…
Osebergskipet – The Oseberg Ship
The Oseberg ship is the first ship that meets you when you enter the museum, and WOW, what beauty she is!
Built around the year 820 AD, and excavated in 1904, this is a very elegant ship and the most beautiful Viking tomb ever found. Both the prow and the stern is richly decorated with wood carvings depicting animal ornamentation’s from far below the waterline and upwards ending in a spiraling serpent’s head. Onboard was found the remains of two women, who undoubtedly belonged to the upper class and held important positions during those times. Their identity is not known, but they were laid on a bed made up with bed linen, and they had numerous burial gifts with them. These gifts included items such as clothes, farm tools, a cart, three ornate sleighs, five beds, two tents and many animals (horses, dogs, cows) and much more. All so that they could continue to live comfortably in the afterlife.
On the Oseberg ship you can find 15 oar holes on each side, so fully manned there could be 32 men onboard including a helmsman and a lookout. The ship itself is made of oak, but the oars were made of pine. They show very little signs of use, so they might have been made especially for the burial. The Oseberg ship also lies quite low in the water, which makes it unsuitable for open sea voyages, and strengthens the theory that this was a ship for processions and special occasions. Seeing this ship today is a special occasion for sure!
I am a huge fan of this museum, and I consider it one of the most important and interesting museums that we have in Scandinavia. It’ll be a long wait until it re-opens in 2025, but I am sure it will be worth it. Read about the new museum here.
Thanks for reading this article. Share it with someone interested in the Vikings!