On-Site: Beyond the Germanic Reconstruction
A thousand years after Scandinavian raiders went a-Viking throughout Europe, their story continues to fascinate. The Viking legacy remains in the thousands of runestones scattered throughout Scandinavia, as well as in archaeological sites and museums where you can learn about how they lived, fought, and sailed the seas even beyond the boundaries of the known world.
The Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway The best-preserved Viking ships ever found are on display in a specially built museum on Oslo’s Bygdøy Peninsula. The three ships housed here were discovered between 1867 and 1904 in burial mounds in the Vestfold region along the west side of the Oslo Fjord. The first to be found was the Tune Ship, which dates from around 900 A.D. and is the most badly damaged of the three. Much more complete is the Gokstad Ship, the largest of the three ships at 24 meters (79 feet) long, with space for 32 oarsmen. Constructed around 890 A.D., it is a solid vessel built to withstand high seas. Both the Tune Ship and the Gokstad Ship were used as grave ships for men of high rank.
Less robust than the Gokstad Ship, the Oseberg Ship was a pleasure craft rather than a vessel made for long, rough journeys. It has a classic curled prow and would have been manned by 30 rowers. The oldest of the three ships, it was built around the period 815 to 820 A.D., and was used as a grave ship for a high-ranking woman who died in 834.
The Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark
In 1962, the remains of five Viking ships were excavated from the seabed of the Roskilde Fjord near Skuldelev in Denmark. The ships had been deliberately sunk in the 11th century to form a blockade during a time when Roskilde, then the capital of Denmark, was under threat of attack from the sea.
Unlike the Viking ships in Oslo, which were all constructed for and buried with people of high rank, the Skuldelev ships represent a range of Viking shipbuilding, from cargo vessels to warships. Because the ships lay underwater for nearly a thousand years, they have suffered serious degradation; archaeologists have painstakingly pieced together the remains like giant jigsaw puzzles. About 75 percent remains of the most complete ship, and only about 25 percent of the most badly damaged.
The ships are on display in a waterfront museum in Roskilde, with large windows that provide views of the fjord outside, where the ships would have sailed. Adjacent to the exhibit hall is Museum Island, where you can watch boatbuilders, ropemakers, and other maritime artisans at work. Berthed along the island are a large number of traditional Nordic boats, including reconstructions of all five of the Skuldelev ships.
On an island in Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm, lie the ruins of Birka, founded around the end of the 8th century. At that time, Mälaren was not yet a lake but rather a protected inlet of the Baltic Sea, making it an ideal trading hub for the entire region. Birka became a bustling town, attracting merchants and goods from all over Europe and beyond. Artisans of all kinds settled here, producing everything from bronze goods to textiles to jewelry. The community thrived for roughly two hundred years until, for reasons still unknown, the site was abandoned in the 10th century. Birka is not a museum but rather an archaeological site, where work is still ongoing as researchers seek to understand more about this settlement and life during the Viking Age in general. The best way to visit is on a boat excursion with Strömma Kanalbolaget; the trip is a scenic one and includes a guided tour of Birka on arrival, which gives a much better understanding of the site than if you explore on your own, since visible archaeological remains are hard to spot without the help of an expert. Strömma operates from Stockholm from early May to late September, and from Mariefred and other stops along Lake Mälaren during the peak summer period. Finds from the site are displayed in a small museum, along with a model of what the community may have looked like. Nearby is a reconstruction of a Viking village, with several houses you can enter to get a sense of the living conditions of the time.