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Norway’s Crumbling Viking Longships: Can They Be Saved In Time?

Norway’s Crumbling Viking Longships: Can They Be Saved in Time?

As Jan Bill contoured the sides of a Viking longship in late October for an interview, he pointed to cracks that have appeared in the hull. “This damage is only the beginning of something that is going to get worse,” he said. His expression was cheerless and bleak. Jan is the co-curator of Oslo’s museum of cultural history, and he’s been worried about the condition of the ships for some time. The vessels survived for 1,200 years underground, preserved by low oxygen conditions in the soil. Now, displayed in the museum in an oxygen-rich environment, the wood’s age is beginning to catch up with it. As the ships continue to crumble, efforts to fund their preservation have come up short. 

In October 2018, Jan had the opportunity to speak with researchers involved with the discovery of a new longship found in Østfold. It had been hoped the new artifact would find a home among the museum’s other ships. Their rapid rate of decay, however, has caused many to rethink the move. Jan explained the situation at the museum and the efforts being taken to save Norway’s most extensive collection of longships. “We are taking necessary action when we deem it necessary, such as the building of support underneath the Gokstad ship, but these are short term solutions. The challenge for us is to find a long-term solution…but we have not implemented long-term preservation efforts because we simply lack the resources,” he explained in the interview.

Since 2014, museum curators, researchers, and preservationists have warned of the decaying condition of the ships. They proposed the construction of a new museum that could better preserve the vessels, and they received public support for their plan. When the government unveiled a new budget plan for this year, however, everyone was left in shock. Not a single penny was allocated to funding the new museum.

“It is clearly the talk of the day,” said Ellen Marie Næss, an archaeologist and a university lecturer who works at the Viking Ship House. Given the funding shortfall, she has grown weary of transporting the new discovery from Østfold to the museum. “The conservation conditions are probably better in the soil than here,” she said.

To make matters worse, the funding shortfall has slowed progress on restoration efforts that could protect the ships until the building of a new museum. At the current rate, even if a new museum were built, the damage to the boats could make them unsalvageable for display. “We risk ending up in a situation where – when a museum is ready – we will not have come far enough to understand what the ships will need to survive,” Jan said. 

Read Jan Bill’s original interview here:

Much to the relief of all involved, on January 17, 2019, the Norwegian government passed a unanimous resolution to fund the construction of the new longship museum, to be built at Bygdøy. Svein Stølen, Rector of the University of Oslo, expressed relief at the decision: “We had many sleepless nights at the University. This work is important for our national culture and our understanding of Norway.”

The government’s change of heart will fund research and preservation for future finds, but Norway’s crumbling Viking longships are far from out of the woods. As Jan Bill pointed out, the rate of decay could spell disaster for several of the ships on display today before the new museum ever opens. Whatsmore, funding for the new museum has become a pawn in the politics of government, and it could be taken away as quickly as it was given.

You can read the original news story here:

Christophe Adrien

A bestselling​ author of Viking historical fiction for young adults.

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