Viking longships' last voyage strikes fear into the heart of archaeologists

A ROW has broken out in Norway over a decision to move three ancient Viking ships, which may not survive the journey.

The University of Oslo has decided to move three longships, probably by lorry and barge, to a new museum, despite dire warnings that the thousand-year-old oak vessels could fall apart en route.

A retired curator of Oslo's current Viking Ship Museum has said that the delicately preserved ships, two of which are nearly 80ft long, were almost equal in archaeological importance to the Pyramids.

"Even if I have to live till I am 100, I will go on fighting this move," the former curator, Arne Emil Christensen, 70, said. "The best way to stop it is still through diplomacy, but, if necessary, I will be in front of the ships, chained to the floor."

The university's board of directors has to move the sleek-hulled vessels over the objections of Christensen and several other Viking Age scholars, including the former director of the British Museum, David Wilson, and the director of Denmark's Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Ole Crumlin-Pedersen.

The board wants to transport the popular ships from a remote Oslo peninsula where they have been housed for more than 75 years to a large, multifaceted museum in the centre of the capital.

The three ships were recovered in pieces from separate Viking burial mounds more than a century ago, then painstakingly reassembled with rivets, glue, creosote and linseed oil.

Since then their condition has deteriorated markedly. Christensen said they have the consistency of dry crackers are now too fragile to move.

The most spectacular of them, the Oseberg ship, was built around the year 800 and has featured on the covers of many history books.

Its towering, carved snakehead prow and 30 oars offer insight into the old English prayer, "Deliver us, O Lord, from the fury of the Norsemen." Viking raiders carried by such ships were the scourge of Britain and much of the European continent from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

Engineers from Det Norske Veritas, a risk management foundation, have modelled the Oseberg ship by computer and concluded it could be moved "with little probability of damage" if a gyroscopically controlled cradle is designed to bear all five tons of oak without the slightest stress or tilt.

The most likely travel route would be in three segments: downhill by truck for 750 yards, across the Oslo Fjord by barge for 2.5 miles, and uphill by truck again for several hundred yards.

"It will be a dramatic day, for sure, but I will stay calm," said the University of Oslo president, Geir Ellingsrud. "I am convinced that the move will take place without significant problems."

The Oseberg ship's rival for the attention of museum-goers is the more workmanlike Gokstad ship, dating to around 890. Its strakes, ribs and keel have not been analysed for strength. The third vessel, called Tune, is really only half a ship; but what remains came out of the ground in one piece, held together by the original iron rivets. The most brittle objects are a ceremonial sleigh and a wheeled wagon found in the Oseberg ship.

"We simply don't know what may happen if these things are moved," said Christensen, an archaeologist who recently retired as the ships' curator and has not yet been replaced. "In my opinion, we run the risk of serious damage to both the ships and the artefacts."

Ellingsrud, a mathematician, said Christensen and his colleagues were exaggerating the risk "out of emotion" stemming from their long association with the ships.

He acknowledged that they had one more card to play without turning to civil disobedience. Norway's Directorate of Cultural Heritage has the power to declare landmarks untouchable and is evaluating whether the current Viking Ship Museum and its contents should be protected as one monument.

"The point of no return has not been reached yet," Ellingsrud said.

Back to the top of the page