The Vikings

Norse Ships in the Early European Middle Ages

The Oseberg ship was discovered in a burial mound in Norway and is one of the finest artistic and archaeological finds from the Viking Age.

Learning Objectives

Identify the important artifacts found in the burial mound of the Oseberg ship

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Vikings used their great ships to invade European coasts, harbors, and river settlements on a seasonal basis. These ships were not only vessels used for war and trade but also the primary means of artistic expression. The Oseberg burial mound contained numerous grave goods and the remains of two female human skeletons. The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834 CE, but parts of the ship date from around 800 CE, and scholars believe that ship itself is older.
  • The bow and stern of the ship are elaborately decorated with complex woodcarvings in the characteristic “gripping beast” style , also known as the Oseberg style.
  • The Oseberg burial contains agricultural and household tools as well as a series of textiles included woolen garments, imported silks, and narrow tapestries . The Oseberg burial is one of the few sources of Viking age textiles, and the wooden cart is the only complete Viking age cart found so far.

Key Terms

  • Oseberg Ship: A well-preserved Viking vessel discovered in a large burial mound in Norway.

Of Scandinavian descent, Norsemen are often called Vikings after their trading locations on the Norwegian shoreline. Known as pre-Christian traders and pirates, Vikings used their great ships to invade European coasts, harbors, and river settlements on a seasonal basis. They created fast and seaworthy longships that served not only as warring and trading vessels, but also as media for artistic expression and individual design.

The great ships of the Vikings contain some of the major artworks left from this time. For instance, the Oseberg Bow demonstrates the Norse mastery of decorative wood carving and intricate inlay of metal. Likewise, the ship head post—representing a roaring beast—is five inches high with complicated surface ornamentation in the form of interwoven animals that twist and turn.

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Osberg Ship Head Post: Animal head post found in the Oseberg ship. Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. The exact function of the head post is unknown.

Other examples of artistic design on Norse ships include the “King” or “Chieftain” vessels designated for the wealthier classes. Chieftain ships were distinguishable by the design of the bow of their vessel with designs such as bulls, dolphins, gold lions, drakes spewing fire out of their nose, human beings cast in gold and silver, and other unidentifiable animals cast in bronze metal. Typically, the sides of these vessels were decorated using bright colors and wood-carvings.

A Ship Burial

The Oseberg ship (Norwegian: Osebergskipet) is a well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold County, Norway. This ship is widely celebrated as one of the finest artistic and archaeological finds to have survived the Viking Age.

Image of a group of people viewing the ship in a museum.

The Oseberg Ship: The Oseberg ship (Viking Ship Museum, Norway)

The Oseberg burial mound contained numerous grave goods and the remains of two female human skeletons. The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834 CE, but parts of the ship date from around 800 CE, and scholars believe that ship itself is older. The bow and stern of the ship are elaborately decorated with complex woodcarvings in the characteristic “gripping beast” style, also known as the Oseberg style. This style’s primary features are the paws that grip the borders around it, neighboring beasts, or parts of its own body. Although the Osberg style distinguishes early Viking art from previous trends, it is no longer generally accepted as an independent style. Although seaworthy, the ship is relatively frail. It is thought to have been used only for coastal voyages.

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Oseberg Ship: This detail from the Oseberg ship demonstrates the elaborate woodcarving designs used as ornamentation on the bow and front of the ship.

The skeletons of two women were found in the Oseberg burial mound. One may have been sacrificed to accompany the other in death. Regardless, the opulence of the burial rite and the grave goods suggests that this was a burial of very high status. For instance, one woman wore a very fine red wool dress of fabric woven in a lozenge twill pattern (a luxury commodity) and a fine white linen veil in a gauze weave. The other wore a plainer blue wool dress with a wool veil, showing some stratification in their social status. Neither woman wore anything entirely made of silk, although small silk strips were appliqued onto a tunic worn under the red dress.

The grave had been disturbed in antiquity and many precious metals that were initially buried with Oseberg ship went missing. Nevertheless, many everyday items and artifacts were found during the early 20th-century excavations of the site. These included four elaborately decorated sleighs, a four-wheel wooden cart, bedposts, wooden chests, and other richly decorated items. For instance, the so-called “Buddha bucket” is a well-known object from the Oseberg site that features a brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs. The bucket itself is made from yew wood held together with brass strips, and the handle is attached to two anthropomorphic figures often compared to depictions of the Buddha in lotus posture (although any connection to Buddhism is uncertain). Archaeologists also found more mundane items, such as agricultural and household tools, and a series of textiles that included woolen garments, imported silks, and narrow tapestries. The Oseberg burial is one of the few sources of Viking-age textiles, and the wooden cart is the only complete Viking-age cart found so far.

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“Buddha Bucket”: The so-called “Buddha bucket” (Buddha-bøtte), brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs.

Jelling Stones

The Jelling Stones are visual records of the transitional period between Norse paganism and the process of Christianization in Denmark.

Learning Objectives

Examine the function and symbolism of the Runic Stones in Jelling

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Jelling Stones are strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both feature one of the earliest records of the name “Danmark.”
  • The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity.
  • The runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones are the best-known in Denmark.
  • Originally the stones were brightly painted in polychromatic palettes . The tendency to paint runestones appears throughout Scandinavia.
  • The styles in which humans, animals, and abstract interlace designs appear on Harald’s Stone bear striking similarity with popular styles in illuminated manuscripts and decorative arts in the British Isles. Contact between the cultures resulted in these parallels.

Key Terms

  • The Jelling Stones: Massive carved runestones from the 10th century found at the town of Jelling in Denmark.

The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Prior to the 10th century, stone carving was  extremely rare or non-existent in most parts of Scandanavia. Subsequently, and likely influenced by the spread of Christianity, the use of carved stone for permanent memorials became prevalent.

The older of the two Jelling Stones is attributed to King Gorm the Old, thought to have been raised in memory of his wife Thyra. King Gorm’s son Harald Bluetooth raised the larger of the two stones in memory of his parents, in celebration of his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and to document his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Art historians consider the runic inscriptions on the Jelling stones the best-known in Denmark.

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Jelling Stones: The Jelling Stones are massive carved runestones from the 10th century, named for the town of Jelling in Denmark. Here they are seen protected behind glass.

Scholars have long considered the Jelling Stones visual records of the transitional period between the indigenous Norse paganism and the victory of Christianization in Denmark. The larger stone, known as Harald’s stone, is often cited as Denmark’s baptismal certificate (dåbsattest), containing a depiction of Christ and an inscription celebrating the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. The Jelling Stones are also strongly identified with the creation of Denmark as a nation-state, and both stones offer the earliest examples of the name Danmark (in the form of tanmaurk on the large ston, and tanmarkar on the small stone).

The runestone of Gorm, the older and smaller of the Jelling Stones, has an inscription that reads:King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” The larger runestone of Harald Bluetooth is engraved on one side with an inscription that reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother. That Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Harald’s stone has a figure of Jesus Christ on one side and on another side a serpent wrapped around a lion. The depiction of Christ standing in the shape of a cross and entangled in what appear to be branches is of note. One scholar suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

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Harald’s Stone: Carving of Christ: The figure of Christ on Harald’s runestone. One scholar has suggested that this imagery was used to indicate that Christ had replaced the Norse pagan god Odin, who in one myth hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.

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Harald’s Stone: Inscription: This Jelling Stone, with its depiction of Christ and celebration of the Conversion of the Danes, is widely regarded as Denmark’s “baptismal certificate.”

Remnants of red pigment show that the Jelling Stones were once brightly painted. This practice was apparently widespread across Scandinavia, with runestones at locations such as Strängnäs Cathedral (Sweden) and Oppland (Norway) bearing similar hues . Replicas made from plaster casts in the twentieth century recreate the stones’ polychromatic appearances.

This replica shows the carvings on the stone brightly colored.

Replica of Harald’s Stone: This plaster-cast replica gives us an idea of the original polychromatic appearance of the Jelling Stones. National Museum of Denmark

The reliefs on Harald’s Stone bear a striking resemblance to the styles of humans, animals, and abstract patterns that appear in illuminated manuscripts and on decorative arts in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages . This common thread is a result of contact between the cultures through migration and invasion.

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Animal relief on Harald’s Stone: The drawing of this stone depicts a colorful, stylized animal that bears a striking resemblance to similar forms found in the British Isles, such as in the hoard found at Sutton Hoo.

Norse Timber Architecture in the Early European Middle Ages

Archaeological finds of political and religious architecture suggest a significant mastery of woodworking and engineering in Viking culture.

Learning Objectives

Identify the different kinds of timber structures created by the Vikings

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Viking long houses were typically inhabited by elite members of society. They were load-bearing structures with steeply pitched roofs that resembled inverted boats.
  • A stave church is a medieval wooden church with post-and-beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. This building technique is named after load-bearing posts.
  • The churches are commonly divided into two categories: the first without free-standing posts and a single nave is often referred to as Type A, and the other with a raised roof and free-standing internal posts is termed Type B.
  • The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting.
  • Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches descend from palisade constructions and later churches with earth-bound posts. Similar palisade constructions have been found in buildings of the Viking era.

Key Terms

  • triforium: A shallow arched gallery within the thickness of an inner wall, above the nave of a church or cathedral.
  • sill: A horizontal member bearing the upright portion of a frame.
  • long house: A structure typically consisting of one large room,  intended to house the elite members of society.
  • Stave Church: A medieval wooden structure with post-and-beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. This building technique is named after wood-bearing posts.
  • timber: A heavy wooden beam, generally a whole log that has been squared off and used to provide heavy support for something such as a roof. Historically also used in the plural, as in ship’s timbers.
  • palisade: A fence or wall made from wooden stakes or tree trunks, used as a defensive structure or enclosure.

Background

Timber architecture is used to describe a period of medieval art in which two distinctive wood building traditions converged in Norwegian architecture. One was the practice of building with horizontal logs notched at the corners, a technique likely imported east of Scandinavia. The other influence was the stave building tradition, which possibly evolved from improvements on the prehistoric long houses that had roof-bearing posts dug into the ground .

Although scant evidence exists of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures, the discovery of Viking ships (i.e. the Oseberg) and stave churches suggest a significant mastery of woodworking and engineering in Viking culture . Not counting the 28 remaining stave churches, at least 250 wooden houses predating the Black Death of 1350 are preserved more or less intact in Norway. Most of these are long houses, some with added stave-built galleries or porches. As political power in Norway was consolidated and had to contend with external threats, larger and more durable structures including fortresses, bridges, and ultimately churches and manors were built with stone and masonry.

Long Houses

Very little archaeological evidence of actual buildings from the earliest permanent structures in the Viking era have survived. However, in the Lofoten archipelago in Northern Norway, a Viking chieftain’s holding has been reconstructed at the Lofotr Viking Museum. In 1983, archaeologists uncovered the Chieftain House at Borg, a large Viking-era building likely established around the year 500 CE. Excavations later in the 1980s revealed the largest building ever to be found from the Viking period in Norway. The foundation of the Chieftain House at Borg measured 272 feet long and 30 feet high. After the excavation ended, the remains of what had once been the long house remained visible.

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Viking Long House: Reconstructed long house in the Viking Museum in Borg, Vestvågøy/Lofoten, Norway.

Also known as mead halls, long houses typically housed the high-ranking members of Viking society, particularly royalty and aristocracy. From around the year 500 up until the Christianization of Scandinavia (by the thirteenth century), these large halls were vital parts of the political center. They were later superseded by medieval banquet halls.
Typically load-bearing with post-and-lintel entrances, long houses had sharply pitched roofs that bore a curve similar to that of a ship. In fact, the roofs of many reconstructed long houses resemble inverted boats placed atop the exterior walls. This shape was likely due to the climate, as pitched roofs allow snow to fall to the ground without causing collapse.

Stave Churches

The most commonly cited examples of timber architecture are the Norwegian stave churches. Until the beginning of the 19th century, as many as 150 stave churches still existed. Many were destroyed as part of a religious movement that favored simple, puritan lines , and today only 28 remain (although a large number were documented with measured drawings before they were demolished).

A stave church is a medieval wooden church with post-and-beam construction related to timber framing. The wall frames are filled with vertical planks. The load-bearing posts (stafr in Old Norse , stav in Norwegian) lend their name to this building technique. The stave churches owe their longevity to architectural innovations that protected these large, complex wooden structures against water rot, precipitation, wind, and extreme temperatures. Most important was the introduction of massive sills underneath the staves (posts) to prevent them from rotting. Over the two centuries of stave church construction, this building type evolved to an advanced art and science.

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Stave Church: Example of a Norwegian wooden stave church: Stave church in Lom.

Forms of Church Construction

Archaeological excavations have shown that stave churches descend from palisade constructions and later churches with earth-bound posts. Similar palisade constructions are known from the buildings of the Viking era. Logs were split in two halves, rammed into the ground, and given a roof. This was a simple form of construction but very strong. The wall could last for decades if set in gravel—even centuries. Remains of these buildings are found over much of Europe and are commonly grouped into two categories. Type A had no free-standing posts and a single nave as seen in the Renli Stave Church.

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Type A: Reinli Stave Church: Reinli stave church with the old pillory and a single nave: Sør-Aurdal.

Type B had a raised roof and free-standing internal posts as in the Lomen Stave Church.

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Type B Lomen Stave Church Interior: Interior from Lomen stave church depicting a raised roof and cross braces between upper and lower string beams and posts. Intermediate posts have been omitted.

Type B churches were often further divided into two subgroups. The Kaupanger group had a complete arcade row of posts and intermediate posts along the sides and details that mimic stone capitals . These churches gave an impression of a basilica . The other subgroup was the Borgund group. These churches had cross braces joining upper and lower string beams and posts that formed a very rigid interconnection, resembling the triforium of stone basilicas. Many stave churches had or still have outer galleries running around the entire perimeter, loosely connected to the plank walls. They probably served to protect the church from the harsh climate.

After the Protestant Reformation , no stave churches were built. Instead, new churches were composed of stone or horizontal log buildings with notched corners. Most old stave churches disappeared because of redundancy, neglect, deterioration, or because they were too small to accommodate larger congregations and too impractical according to new architectural standards.

Ornamentation of Stave Churches

Even though the wooden churches had structural differences, they give a recognizable general impression. Facade difference may conceal common floor plans, while apparently similar buildings might have significant structural differences. Certain basic principles were common to all church types.

Basic geometric figures, simple numbers, just a few length units, simple ratios, and perhaps proportions were among the theoretical aids all builders inherited. The specialist knew a particular type of building so well that he could systematize its elements in a slightly different way from previous designs, thus carrying developments a stage further. Ornamentation included intricate interlace patterns, stylized human figures, and mythological animals.

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Hedal stave church portal: Drawing by G. A. Bull of the main portal in Hedalen stave church (c. 1853), depicting the intricate ornamentation.