Dale Dougherty

Viking Ship Museum Visit

Oslo, Norway

Skaper is the Norwegian word for maker.

I came to Oslo to participate in Maker Faire Oslo at the Norsk Teknisk Museum, January 18-19. The first snow arrived in Oslo about the same time I did, and everyone seemed relieved that it had finally come, even this later in winter. The next day I would see people carrying skis in hand at the train station as simply yet another form of transportation.

Frizt Grobe and Stephen Voltz of Eepybird, who have turned a viral video on Diet Coke and Mentos fountains into an act which has been a main attraction at many Maker Faires, had also come to Oslo. At a dinner with the event organizers, Fritz said he had made arrangements to visit the Viking Museum in the morning. I asked him if I could come along. He explained that he knew someone in Oslo whom he had met through theater workshops in Maine and this person had offered to take them to the museum. Fritz wrote me an email at 3:15 am to confirm that I could join them, and I replied right away, also confirming that I was having trouble falling asleep too.

On the bus in the morning, I met Fritz's friend, another Steve. He had a friend, Marie, and both of them were in a master's program in medieval literature. We also met Lee (or possibly Leif), who worked at the museum and was going to give us a private tour. "Today, you are visiting researchers," she said once we arrived, and we nodded bypassing the ticket booth.
Wooden Wagon and Sled
The Viking ship is what you see immediately, centered underneath the vaulted ceiling. I was drawn to it, leaving the group but not really meaning to do so. I just couldn't wait, attracted by the shape of the boat and its sheer size. The Vikings, the legendary explorers -- where had they gone in these majestic ships?
Along with the ship were buried a large wooden wagon and sled. The wagon's awkwardly beautiful wheels, which are made of solid wood, are so impressive. Lee mentioned that the wheels could not turn so this wagon could only go in a straight line, and only very slowly. It was likely that it was used for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps this important woman rode in the wagon during a parade as part of a religious festival.
The Viking Ship was made of oak. Looking closely, I could see the carvings along the prow. I noticed the oar holes along the side, each of which had a slit so that the paddle end of the oar could slip through. These ships were powered by as many as 30 men on oars; it also had a single large sail. Interestingly, there were no seats on the boat. It is thought that the men brought sea chests of their own and sat on them.

Only two lengths of board rode above water. The Viking were sitting very close to the waves in an open boat. While the ship might seem large, it does not seem nearly big enough for lengthy trips, too small foe the expanse of ocean that it travelled. What was it like on this ship during a seven-day voyage to Iceland? How could they have decided to venture even further to reach North America?
The detail work is also impressive. The carved heads at each corner of the wagon and the intricate patterns that form the sides of the wagon seem to have little to do with function. They are expressive details intricately woven in a braided pattern, communicating in a code that we don't know first-hand. There was some intention behind each element, just as there is in lines of code in a software program. It is a kind of art that passed from generation to generation and moved with peoples across new territories to influence other cultures. It is discursive and recursive.
The University team did not concern itself much with the human remains. Lee said the skeletons had been kept in boxes in a closet. Eventually, they were reburied with great ceremony. Only recently, as researchers realized that the remains could provide valuables clues were the graves exhumed. Unfortunately, because of how the bones had been handled, it was difficult to get clean DNA samples. Yet the bones themselves, which are on display, do tell their own story.

Who these two women were was first seen through a sketchy historical record, a mix of legend and lore. The discovery of the Oseberg ship happened when Norway gained its independence, meaning that the story wanted to acquire greater significance. The story that everyone liked to tell - and eventually teach - was that the older woman was a queen, exceptional in many ways but also a great beauty. A young slave, her personal assistant and companion in the afterlife, was the second woman. The queen was thought to be 50 and her slave was 25.

Closer study of the bones began to tell researchers a different story.

The Oseberg site was much older than any literary record, much of which came together at a later date. The older woman likely died of cancer but she had lived a long life, perhaps 80 years. The wear in her knee joints suggests that she was overweight. She also had a hormonal illness, judging from a growth on her skull, with abnormal levels of testosterone. This means she was likely very hairy. Lee said that this powerful woman was probably bent over when she walked, which she would have done with great difficulty.

It seems the evidence might not tell us the fairy tale that everyone wanted to hear. Yet the revised story could offer new insights into the unknown while reminding us how little is known. Just who are these women and why were they so important in their community?
Lee explained that these particular items, which were treated with alum, when they were removed from the burial mound, are rotting from the inside out. (The ship was treated differently and is not as fragile today.) Researchers are trying to figure out how to reverse this aging process. There is a real fear that these objects may not last for the next generation to see them. There are efforts underway to scan and digitize the objects as a fallback method of preservation.
Inside the ship was a crudely built shack. It was inside this shack that the two women were laid to rest. One line of reasoning is that this structure was hastily built and the bodies were immediately placed inside while the ongoing preparation of the burial site went on.
Isn't it interesting that what we know about our past, about the development of human culture, depends upon us interpreting the things that people made? The people are not here to tell us about how and why they made things. We only have the objects themselves that we can ask questions about. Yet they help understand ourselves as makers of things and creators of worlds that express the wide range of human activity, and that is how we continue to explore ourselves and our place in the world.

So, at the Viking Ship Museum, we have more than a Viking ship. We have a collection of objects uniquely preserved in a huge burial site containing two women who held great significance in their community. They were buried with all kinds of possessions. Yet each one of the things they were buried with also became symbols, acquiring a new cultural meaning that only intensifies the meaning of these objects in everyday life. Think of it: how important was tranportation? A ship, a wagon, a sled. It was how you moved from place to place, at short or long distances. Life was moving and when you die, it was expected you could keep moving.

Keep moving. We are going now and we bring our best things with us.

We look at them and they look at us. Like cats and dogs that know us.
I had climbed a few stairs to a position above the boat to take a look down, and when I descened the stairs, I ran into Steve who said the group was wondering where I had gone.

"I normally give tours to sixth graders," said Lee. I didn't know if that was meant for me. Lee began telling the story of the ship. It had been found buried in a mound on a farm in 1905. The Oseberg ship was excavated by a team from the University of Oslo. Because it had been covered in clay soil, and kept dry, the oak wood was unusually well preserved. Saving the ship had been the main focus of the university team. They excavated the ship, dried it out completely and treated the wood with linseed oil. Over 92 % of the wood from the original ship was used in its reconstruction. Lee hinted that some of the rebuilding was more freestyle than methodical and exacting by today's standards.

The Oseberg ship was built in western Norway around 820. It was in use for about 30 years or so before it ended up in the Oseberg location up a tributary from Oslo.

Lee explained that the other contents of the grave received lesser consideration. The Oseberg ship was the burial site for two women, one older than the other. The ship also included horses, cows and dogs, bread dough and drink, along with many other signs that at least one of these women was very important. Lee unrolled a scroll that listed all the things that were found in the grave. These personal effects were meant to accompany the two women into the afterworld. I couldn't help but think about how much material wealth had been disposed of instead of being passed on. Maybe some things are so personal that they cannot be used by others.
We left as others were arriving. We all thanked Lee for the wonderful tour and wished her well. Steve and Marie were going to walk to another museum nearby. Fritz, Stephen and I caught a bus back to the city center.