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Viking Art: From Ships and Swords to Ornate Brooches

Viking Ships Besieging Paris (845), 19th Century, Scanned from the German history magazine Der Spiegel Geschichte (6/2010): Die Wikinger - Krieger mit Kultur: Das Leben der Nordmänner. Spiegel-Verlag Rudolf Augstein GmbH & Co. KG, Hamburg 2010, p.33

Middle Ages

Viking Art: From Ships and Swords to Ornate Brooches

Vikings and their culture have filled our lives since their days of domination. There are TV shows, sports teams; Nordic culture and mythology permeate the media with superhero characters like Thor; anime series such as Attack on Titan utilize Norse mythology in their story line(s). Viking history and Viking art represent something epic, in a sense. And for the past centuries since their exploration and reign in the known world, the Viking has garnered the constant attention of academics, comic book aficionados, and people of all ages in general.

Whatever their involvement in history, the Vikings left a lasting impact in their wake.

Viking Travels, Routes of travel and settlements by the Vikings from the 9th century to the 11th century. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019

A Brief History of the Vikings

The Vikings were active from roughly 793-1066 AD. The Viking Age was a period in European (Northern European and Scandinavian) history which followed the German Iron Age (400-800 AD). During this period, Scandinavian Norsemen explored Europe by its seas and rivers for ‘trade, raids, colonization, and conquest.” It is safe to say that their interaction with the world around them vastly changed history.

The term “viking” stems from the word for “pirate” in the early Scandinavian language. Because the Vikings were from the Northern European peninsula, the term took on different meanings in each language and culture. But the term ‘Viking,” as we know it today, stems from the time period from the 8th to the 11th centuries when the Vikings were on the path to conquest and colonization.

As an extension of their unique history, Viking art has an enamoring quality.

When Viking Art Becomes the Grave: The Preservation and Restoration of Centuries Old Artifacts

The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo has several examples of preserved and restored Viking long ships and artifacts which were previously used on the sea but eventually returned to land to act as the burial place for their owner(s). Ranging from full-scale restorations to merely parts of the ship re-pieced together, the Museum showcases three main ships. These ships were more than likely a part of the vast maritime technology of the Vikings which allowed them to reach multiple continents centuries before the Age of Discovery when those in power sought to race others for exploration and colonization of the ‘unknown’ world.

Gokstad Ship, ca 890 AD, Photographer Unknown, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo: Oslo, 2019

The Gokstad Ship

The Gokstad ship, while less threatening in appearance now, would have been a site to behold on the seas in which it sailed. Upon its discovery, archaeologists found 32 shields attached to the side(s) of the ship itself.  At roughly 16 feet across and 76 feet long, the Gokstad was able to carry upwards of 34 men.

Scholars believe that grave robbers took many of the items from the burial; while much was missing, much still existed by which to assess the nature of burial and status of the deceased. Among kitchen utensils and 64 shields, there was a “gaming board with counters of horn, fish-hooks and harness fittings made of iron, lead and gilded bronze,  six beds, one tent, a sleigh and three small boats.” Like other burials in neighboring cultures of the time, archaeologists also discovered animals ranging from horses and dogs to the exotic peacock.

Tune Ship, ca. 910 AD, Photographer: Morten Krogvold and Svein Kojan, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo: Oslo, 2019

The Tune Ship

Much like the Gokstad ship (above) and the Oseberg ship (below), various items are believed to have been buried with the deceased: horses, weapons, and utilitarian items such as a saddle were documented from this ship. Because the Tune ship was discovered in 1867, and outside of modern archaeology techniques, much of what was documented or found has never been turned into the museum, leaving it as the first Viking ship discovered but less put together than the other well-documented collections.

Oseberg Ship, Photographer: Eirik Irgens Johnsen, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo: Oslo, 2019

The Oseberg Ship

The Oseberg ship, both a sail boat and used for rowing, would have held up to thirty oarsmen. The ornate decoration of this particular early 9th century ship leads scholars to believe that it was reserved for someone of more aristocratic status. From the spiraling serpents’ heads at each end of the ship, to the animal design(s) that decorates the sides of the oak and pine ship, no detail was spared.

As a grave, the Oseberg ship held two women of significance. A full list of the items in the burial chamber with the women and ship can be found here. It is an extensive list that ranges from food items to animals and appears much more extensive than the lists of the two above ships.

Barbarians: Were They or Weren’t They?

If we take a look at the actual art work of the Vikings, specifically looking at the utilitarian pieces such as buckles, swords or ships, it is quite easy to see that they did not earn the title ‘Barbarian’ because of their art work. More so, it was because of their brute force and domination of the seas and places they pillaged. BUT, if we go based off their art work, it was much more progressive than the term ‘Barbarian’ would have us believe.

The oval brooch shown below is only 11.4 x 7.5 x 4.3 x 11.4 cm in size; large enough to be used as a clothing fastener for women in the Viking community. Classified in the metal-work and copper department, the animal heads adorning the front of the brooch would have originally been covered in some gold work (even though gold was not as common as silver in Viking culture).

Oval Brooch, ca. 900-1000 AD, Scandinavian, Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York City, 2019

The sword shown below was discovered in Langeid, Norway. Measuring at 91 cm in length, this mostly-preserved sword is one of several thousands recovered over the years. What makes this sword unique are the mystical signs on its hilt and pommel which differs from earlier-known examples where there is little to no decoration. The symbols on this sword can be linked to Christianity with the use of Latin letters. But the Museum is yet to clarify the true meaning of everything, as this is a recent find.

The Langeid sword, Photographer: Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo: Oslo, 2019

Architectural Influence(s) in America: Tahoe’s Hidden Castle

Roughly 9 years ago, I visited Lake Tahoe, CA/NV with my husband. Amidst the vacation homes and ski resorts of the mountain town lies a Viking-inspired home. The location of the home is only accessible through private boat or a 1-mile hike down a rather steep hill. The home was completed in 1929, after the owner Lora J. Knight saw Emerald Bay in which the land sat and was reminded of a Scandinavian fjord. Her nephew by marriage and Swedish architect, Lennart Palme, designed the home. During their 1928 trip to Scandivia, Palme and Knight gathered many ideas for what would become Vikingsholm.

Exterior wide shot of Vikingsholm, 1932, photographer unknown, Vikingsholm: Lake Tahoe, 2019

Old wooden churches, stone castles, and rural homes provided them with much inspiration which Palme directly translated to this now 90-year old home.

Exterior shot of Vikingsholm, 2010, photo: Rachel Witte, Lake Tahoe, CA, 2019


Exterior shot of Vikingsholm, 2010, photo: Rachel Witte, Lake Tahoe, CA, 2019

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Art historian (art lover, artist), general nomad, writer, Mom, and a pilot wife. When she’s not spending all of her free time reading and writing YA novels, she can be found at her favorite coffee shop drinking coffee in all its various forms…right now, that’s an iced vanilla latte half sweet with almond milk…in case you were wondering. Favorite art style is impressionism. Favorite theme is the Annunciation.

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