Field notes 2: The Viking ship museum, OsloPosted: August 26, 2014
On Sunday I had a free day in Oslo. I had arrived at the decision some time ago, thoroughly cemented after visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition in the British Museum where the somewhat sad remnants of the Viking ship Roskilde 6 were displayed in their rather more impressive aluminium exoskeleton, that if I could do only one thing in Oslo it would be to see the Viking ship museum.
The museum displays the spectacularly preserved carcasses of three ships and their associated finds from burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune. I’m not going to repeat much information about them here, as you can get that from the far more reliable source of the museum’s website, which I’ve linked to above.
According to the information boards, the decorative metalwork that may have accompanied these burials was seemingly robbed long before their excavation in the later 19th and early 20th century. The notable exception being the horse gear from another ship burial at Borre (the ship does not survive), which has lent its name to a whole style of Viking art.
In my last post, I talked briefly about the power of material culture to inspire intellectually. Perhaps because my knowledge of the Viking period is rather limited, these vessels did no so much provoke insight as evoke emotion. No quantity of photographs can communicate the sense of sheer, dark mass that these colossal vessels evoke, rising in such graceful yet powerful curves to tower over the viewer. Even as ancient museum pieces they don’t exactly appear fragile. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that intimidation, whether through conspicuous display or actual violence, was the purpose behind the construction of these hulks, but that’s certainly how I read them.
The decorative wood carving and its level of preservation on the Oseberg ship was remarkable. Once again, the motifs combine grace and elegance with the lurid and menacing world of the Viking mythos. This was also impressive on the four sleighs and other smaller items found alongside the Oseberg ship.
As a final comment, if you ever happen to visit the museum make sure to save some time to squint in frustration at the textile remains in their little darkened room, it’s worth damaging your eyesight for, and I’m half blind as it is.