Sunday, 13 April 2014

Viking ships and a Queen's burial

Leif Erikson discovering America
I come from a part of Britain (the Lake District) that owes much of its landscape and language to the Norse invaders/settlers who arrived over a thousand years ago.  They left behind their stone graves, pagan and Christian monuments and buried hoards of treasure.  Then, at university, I studied Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature and fell in love with those old accounts of sea-going adventures (hands frozen to the oars) and heroic deeds - whether slaying monsters as in Beowulf, or defeating invaders. But the accounts of the Viking invasions we read in old poems and the Anglo-Saxon chronicles chilled the blood - especially how Brihtnoth  before the battle of Maldon heard the Vikings' 'cold voices calling across the water'. So, when I went to Oslo, more than anything, I wanted to see the Viking ship museum.


This is the Oseberg ship - used as the burial vessel for two women whose skeletons were dug up with the ship.

No one knows who they were, or why they were buried together, but it's such a splendid ship, the presumption is that one of them was a Queen.  The vessel has a curved prow and a lot of carving and apparently was made for pleasure sailing, rather than invading!


Even the deck planking has survived.



And this is the Gokstadt ship - a sturdier, ocean-going ship that contained the body of a king.



Unlike our Sutton Hoo ship burial, these grave sites had been plundered long ago;  all that remained was the ship, perfectly preserved, and the skeletons.  On one of the ships, the wooden house erected on deck to contain the body and the grave-goods was also preserved, so it's possible to see how the burial was organised.



They were buried with sledges, carts, chairs and chests - all the goods that they would need in the after-life.



There were also ritual objects, like these metal rattles


and carved animal heads that seem to have been part of shamen's sceptres - they're very like the early ones shown in the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum.


This was a very emotional experience - the sheer beauty of the ships and the way they're shown is quite over-whelming.  I'm also full of admiration for the skill of the archaeologists in digging up these objects and preserving them.  I'd have given anything to be there when the Oseberg prow began to emerge from the mud!



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