I spent two perfect days in Oslo, visiting seven museums and the opera house; eating great food and sitting in some lovely bars. While the opera house was my favourite individual site, the Viking Ship Museum was my favourite museum.
Every guide book will show you the same entry shot of a Viking ship (above), and it really is an amazing sight. This is the first of three boats in the museum displayed along with artefacts excavated with the ships.
The first two ships are the most complete; both were built c.900AD and both ultimately met their end as grave ships before being excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It it is interesting that one ship burial held the bodies of two women, one who died of cancer and the other from unknown causes, while a man who died from multiple wounds from multiple weapons was buried in the second ship. The two ships are different too, with the one holding the two women being more slender with decorative carvings at the front and back, in contrast to the more robust and plain ship that held the male.
It it is not known who the individuals that were buried were, but they have been dubbed (fairly unimaginatively?) a ‘Queen’ and a ‘Chieftan’. Who knows how accurate that is and I’m not going to go into it here. But the ships that held them and the goods that accompanied them to the grave certainly are impressive.
The females’ grave contained, among other things, three sledges, a wagon, at least 12 horses, rigging, riding equipment, a beechwood saddle, a chest full of grain, cooking pots and equipment, a chair that is the only one known from this period, leather shoes and six beds. And this is just what was left behind after looting hundreds of years ago.
The women’s bodies were found fully dressed in elaborate clothes laid out in made up beds. Thanks to the blue clay that preserved the burial fragments of the red and white blankets and other fabrics including tapestries of ships, forests and warriors survived and are on display in the museum.
The museum also explores the problems of conserving all of these artefacts. Difficult choices had to be made when the ships were originally excavated the substances available for preservation had serious limitations. The substance (alum) that was used to preserve the carvings on the artefacts (although not the ships themselves) would destroy the red, black, blue and white colours that decorated them – the excavation notes show that this was known and a choice was made to preserve the carvings rather than the colours.
Today the alum used is causing further problems. Unknown 100 years ago the alum is producing sulphur dioxide that is slowly destroying the wood from the inside, turning it into a powdery dust. So more difficult choices lay ahead – do they treat the wood now with current methods without knowing the long term effects or wait until new research delivers better solutions? But by then will it be too late?
The museum is very well laid out, asks lots of interesting questions and is set in a beautiful part of Oslo. The displays are very much about the objects with not a huge amount of text, but I still seem to have come out of it full of new knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm for the mighty Vikings. Perhaps this was because the limited amount of text meant it wasn’t too daunting and I made sure I read every word.
Huk Avery 35, Bygdøy, Oslo, Norway