Monday, November 12, 2012

Norwegian Cultural Heritage

Runes on the Alstad Stone, from Oppland, Norway, dated around 1000-1025

One of the reasons Bea wanted me to have a few days in Oslo is so I'd have a chance to see the museums, particularly the National Gallery and the Museum of Cultural History. This last is in two parts: the Historical Museum in downtown Oslo, near the National Gallery, and the Viking Ship Museum out on the Bygdøy peninsula. There's also another site called the Norwegian Folk Museum that's on the peninsula, a large complex that includes the Royal Farm, traditional buildings and demonstrations of folk art and craft and dance, a church dating back to 1200, and other family-oriented displays. I didn't get to that one due to lack of time and generally crummy weather that afternoon, plus I was hungry and my feet hurt, and it was raining ... You can also go see the Kon-Tiki or the Fram (Amundsen's 100-year-old Arctic exploratory ship), and the #30 bus takes you to all the sites. There's a ferry that goes across from the Oslo waterfront, but only in the summer months.

I found the Museum of Cultural History very interesting, both for their permanent exhibits of Norwegian civilization and culture from the Stone Age through the Middle Ages, and their current year-long exhibit (through May 2013) titled "Horsepower," tracing the history of humanity's relationship with horses but focused (naturally) on the role of horses in Bronze Age and Viking culture in Norway.

This brooch reminded me of ones that Mom and John and I saw at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, back in September 2007, and might date to the same era (the 9th century, that is, not 2007). There were stone and bronze-edged pots from ancient hearths, rows of flint spearheads in one case and later lines of narrower iron ones in another, carved altar and grave offerings, beaded necklaces and dainty pins, and massive axe heads for work and war.

Left: carving depicting Sigurd slaying Fafnir, from a 12th-century church
Right: ship's weathervane, 12th century, from Tingelstad church

Settlements, ships, and Christianity from the 10th century on were represented by bits of carvings from churches around Norway to an entire painted ceiling from the 13-century Ål Stave church. The Vikings raided the British Isles and came home with religion, the monasteries of northern England having provided them with God as well as gold. Catholic for 600 years and Protestant after the Reformation, Norway's now a country with very low church attendance (5% or less make regular visits) and, as of May 2012, there is no "Church of Norway" any more, ending a thousand years of church and state.

"Who hung from a tree, pierced by a spear, suffering from thirst, in order to enlighten the world?" - "Who?" - "Odin!" - "OMG!" - "Or maybe his son Baldr, who also has a similar mythos attached to him which predates Christianity!"

The "Horsepower" exhibit is on the third floor, and several dozen of the items from the permanent exhibit below have been moved up to this exhibit, including Viking saddle pieces, bits and stirrups, and a collection of lead figurines from the Middle Ages. And, as the exhibit gleefully shouted, "horse poo!" When an ice field melted in the summer of 2011 near Lom, Norway, archaeologists found a campsite (undated, but "perhaps [from] Viking or Medieval times") containing horseshoes, horse bones, and horse ... poo. I sent Leah some pictures from the exhibit, but really wish she'd been there to see it with me.

Grey and cold and drizzly was the afternoon I walked out into, but I had my hotel-provided bright-red umbrella, and I hopped on the bus for the peninsula. The Viking Ship Museum isn't very big - about the size of your standard American (non-mega-evangelical) church, and is laid out in a cross shape, with hulls of 9th-century wooden vessels running down three of the four arms. These ships were discovered and excavated in the last part of the 19th century from burial mounds near the towns of Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune. There are other bits and pieces of artifacts found in the ships at this site (though some had been sent over from here as well to the Horsepower exhibit), but not much remained that wasn't too big to carry away easily, since all of the graves had been looted over the centuries.

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