Feb 05

Oseberg: Rebuilding a Viking IKEA kit

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 0

South of Norway's capital, Oslo, a jaw-dropping experiment is under way. The first historically correct reconstruction of the most magnificent ship of the Viking Age will be launched in midsummer. Until then the shipyard is open to everyone 24/7. 


Have you felt it yet? The bloodlust rising again? We just can't get enough of the axe-swinging hordes. The sails of the latest Viking invasion have been sighted across the entertainment horizon. Last year Kenneth Branagh brought hammer-hero Thor to our cinemas. BBC4 aired last year The Viking Sagas and MGM has commissioned its own Viking saga from the creative team behind The Tudors and Camelot. 

An impressive invasion fleet is also reported to be sailing straight for the British Museum. The inaugural exhibition at the new gallery (World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre) due to open in 2014 will be devoted to the Nordic barbarians who stuffed their swag bags with goodies that might otherwise have become jewels of the museum's collection. That it will be spectacular, there is no doubt. The British Museum is good at that, as the critically-acclaimed Hajj exhibition, running now, excellently illustrates. 

The museum is already touting the inclusion in its 2014 show of an ancient longboat. But if tales of Viking voyages get your bloodlust bubbling, then an extraordinary longboat adventure is waiting for you right now. If you can get over to Norway in the next six months you will be made welcome at the site of one of the most ambitious historical experiments of recent times. Boat builders, historians, and volunteers are recreating the most splendid of all Viking longboats, the Oseberg ship. The shipyard is right outside the Choice Hotel in Tønsberg, Norway's oldest town – a short drive or train journey from Oslo. And only 15 minutes from Ryanair's hub at Oslo (Torp).

Made welcome? Oh yes, you might suppose that means the usual stiff ticket price and a roped off area for visitors from which they can gawp at experts from a distance and feel altogether rather belittled? Think again! There are three main reasons this event is truly unique. And the first is its accessibility. The shipyard is open day and night to all visitors. You can stand at the elbow of the carpenters as they hammer their chisels into the trunks of massive oaks. You can climb up into the bow as the finest woodworkers of their generation recreate the filigree of Viking imagery that decorates the stem timbers. Free of charge.

"We knew we were taking a risk by having complete public access", admits project leader Einar Chr. Erlingsen. "But the original Oseberg ship belongs here in Tønsberg. So we wanted everyone living here or visiting the city to identify with this replica, to feel a part of the process of building her." The shipyard stands alongside the town's busy quayside restaurants. "But not so much as a nail has been stolen!"

Other replicas of Viking longboats have been built. This project's second claim to be unique rests on the fact that it is the first time a replica has been constructed using only tools and techniques of the Vikings themselves. Now scheduled for launch in June, the ship was originally meant to be undergoing sea trials at the end of last year. Erlingsen explains the delay: "We have had to re-learn many forgotten boatbuilding crafts employed by the Vikings. Although we are using the finest craftsmen in Scandinavia, the alignment of the lower planks proved very challenging. For several tasks we have had to fashion tools from a mix of archaeological evidence and imagination!" 

Erlingsen takes the padlock off the toolshed door and shows me the galleries of implements that have been made, including enough axes for a small, but bloodthirsty invasion force. "The axes are very specialized, some are for felling, others for splitting wood. These bearded axes are used for slicing thin strips from the wood, so precisely in fact that there often is no need for planing afterwards!"

Intriguing paradoxes colour the rest of this tale. The first is the paradox of Norway and the Vikings. As a rule Norwegians don't share the enthusiasm for Viking history familiar in the USA, Britain, Germany, and other History Channel hotspots. Yes, really. In the land that fostered their culture you might think the Vikings would have given rise to exciting museums, highly profiled academic flagships, whole industries of commercial Viking adventures. On the contrary, a visit to Oslo on a Viking hunt can be a somewhat bewildering experience. The Historical Museum has its Viking exhibits, but the stuffiness of the place is uninspiring. And then of course there is the Viking Ship Museum. A chapel-like building where, apart from the one whole and two partial ships on cramped display, much historical background and seafaring ambience is either offered at a dry, academic level, or left to the imagination.

It wasn't always thus. In the drive for independence around 1900 Norwegians polished up on their history as a bold maritime culture dating back 2000 years. The Oseberg ship was discovered in its burial mound outside Tønsberg in 1904, just one year before full independence was won, and became a proud icon of national continuity. But then, in 1940, disaster: the invading German army and local sympathizers harnessed the symbolic power of the helmeted, Nordic warriors for their own ends. The taboo has lasted until today, images of Vikings are still carefully chosen to avoid comparison with the strutting fascist poster art of the war years.

Norway's Viking heritage may get a much higher profile in the future. A new National Museum is planned, but all progress has stranded because of an increasingly bitter academic quarrel about whether the Viking ships are too frail to be moved.

In the meantime, then, look to the county of Vestfold, south of Oslo! In addition to the reconstruction of the Oseberg ship, this richly historical area on the west coast of the Oslo Fjord boasts the truly inspiring burial mounds of the Viking Age at Borre, and the Midgard Historical Museum (see picture).  Erlingsen: "This is the true heartland of Viking history!"

Another paradox. The replica of the Oseberg ship will be more true to the original than the original is. Let project leader Erlingsen explain:

"The Oseberg ship, today the jewel of the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, was found in 2000 pieces. It was a huge jigsaw puzzle. In putting it together the archaeologists of a hundred years ago took some short cuts to get the bits to fit together. The ends of some wooden ribs were even sawed off to make them fit."

Beautiful though the Oseberg ship is, this Nordic construction kit might also serve as a warning beacon for all IKEA customers: yepp, it turns out that the bits the historians discarded were in fact necessary. Full-size replicas of the Oseberg ship were made in the 1980s, copying the original inch for inch. They put to sea – and sank.

"When they came up in 7 to 8 knots the bow wave washed alongside the ship and flooded the deck. This was the real starting-point for our project. Why on earth would the Viking boat builders construct a vessel that was not seaworthy, when they knew better?!"

This, then, is the third unique aspect of the new Oseberg Ship: after years of scientific and archaeological study the New Oseberg Ship Project was initiated, the goal to build the ship with a wider profile and a keel that begins to rise towards the bow at an earlier point.

There's one more astonishing paradox. The Oseberg ship is the most admired treasure that has come down to us from that most masculine of historical periods, the age of Viking expansion and invasion. Also in its day it was a highly prestigious possession, as were the other exquisite grave goods, suggesting that the person who was ceremonially buried with the ship sat at the very summit of Viking society. A great warrior chieftain, perhaps? A seafaring captain who brought untold riches and slaves back from his voyages? Well, no. The Oseberg ship was the last resting place of perhaps the most awe-inspiring cultic figure of the Viking Age: an 80-year old priestess, bent double by osteoporosis and arthritis, and with a gammy left knee.

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