CROSSING NORTH 24: THE GJELLESTAD VIKING SHIP
Joakim Karlsen: I was kind of amazed. I didn't know that. But the room for interpretation is kind of large. So you can have very different visualizations of a longhouse that would fit the data. It can be this or this or this, and looks very different, but all are within what the archaeologists know. So… Because the problem with Vikings, they were really fond of wood. [*laughs*] Wood doesn't, kind of… You have other cultures that has built more in stone. That's kind of...
Colin Gioia Connors: Yeah, and when the wood doesn't survive, then you have to do a lot of interpretation to rebuild it.
Joakim: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
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Colin: Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.
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Few symbols are more iconic of the Viking Age than that of the Viking ship. Our best preserved examples are that of the Gokstad ship and the Oseberg ship, which were excavated in 1880 and 1904, respectively. The two ships were found on the western side of the Oslo Fjord in Norway where water-laden, clay-rich soils preserved nearly all of the ship’s timbers. These two ships, along with the smaller Tune ship, became viewable to the public in 1926 when the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo opened its doors for the first time. Over the past century, only a handful of new Viking ships have been discovered in Denmark, Estonia, Germany, and Sweden, but none can match the preservation or the splendor of the Gokstad and Oseberg ships. It seemed as if Norway had no new Viking ships left to discover. That is, until 2018, when a ground-penetrating radar scan of a farmer’s field east of Oslo revealed the outline of a ship in a burial mound. The name of that site is Gjellestad, and the story of that ship, the site where it was buried, and the excavation that uncovered it, is now accessible to the public through an online digital exhibit called the Gjellestad Story.
The online exhibit digitally reconstructs 1500 years of human habitation at Gjellestad, starting in the Bronze Age and ending in the Viking Age. The site is home to over a dozen monumental burial mounds, some of which, like the Viking ship burial, were built on top of earlier grave mounds, suggesting shifting dynasties over time, as one powerful family displaced another and erased or replaced their predecessors’ remains in the landscape. The online exhibit takes the visitor on a 3D tour of the site and tells the story of the mounds, the Vikings ship, and the large longhouses that formed a stately complex. Visitors can view a digital reconstruction of the ship, see how it was buried, and digitally “walk” in and out of the longhouses.
Dr. Joakim Karlsen was the project leader for the Gjellestad Story, and in the fall of 2022 he was a visiting scholar at the UW to pilot a research project on museum and school cooperation. I sat down with Joakim to discuss the challenges of making the digital exhibit and to learn about the possibilities of employing social media in science communication.
Joakim: Yes, my name is Joakim Karlsen. I'm from Halden in Norway. I'm an associate professor at Østfold University College. The field I'm in is digital media and design. So I have a mixed background in computer science and media studies and also as a documentary filmmaker, and I combine this, kind of, this experience in my teaching.
Colin: Could you tell me about the Gjellestad project? Where did it begin? How did you get involved with it?
Joakim: I was really lucky, I guess. That's what I think now. Because they have this kind of rather small field outside of Halden, kind of 10 kilometers from where I live and work. Beside the field you have one of the biggest, largest, biggest grave mounds in Scandinavia, and that has been kind of investigated, excavated. They didn't find much, but they could just confirm that it's a grave mound and, you see, it was built up with stones and so forth. And on this field you have these metal detector hobbyists [who have been] very, very active, and they have been there multiple times and they have actually found a gold necklace. It was a basket, kind of, and with a lid. And at one time they find the basket and another time they find the lid.
Joakim: That's kind of amazing because it's small, small, tiny stuff that is in the— Even if the field is kind of small, it's still “Good job!” to find these small things. So they knew that here we have something here, but they haven't had any money to look at it. But when the farmer that, kind of, owns this field decided to—he needed some new drainage— the county had the opportunity to do something more. So they kind of got some money together to do a geo-penetrating radar scan of the whole field. They expected to find longhouses, they expected to find grave mounds, but they really didn't expect to find a Viking ship in the same size as the ones you have in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. And that was kind of— it's over 100 years since last time. So this kind of just blew up. And this is kind of an international— this was news. Yeah, and we had millions of hits when this news were posted. And the image, kind of, you have this— It's kind of a ghost-like image of a Viking ship with a circle around it, kind of, because it was a burial, ship burial. That kind of just went viral, kind of all over the world. And I know these archaeologists, kind of. That's also kind of just luck. [*laughs*] I knew them before, and started talking to them. In that, kind of, being researching journalism and long form journalism and digital storytelling and, kind of, online digital storytelling, and with that background we kind of quickly came to, kind of, we should really make something out of this. Quickly. And kind of the purpose was to tell the story—that's the most, that's first—but also to kind of keep the momentum for further excavations and to kind of dig deeper.
Colin: So to “keep the momentum”— so a way to hopefully get funding for doing more research?
Joakim: Exactly. Because the county actually, they coughed up some money to do this and then we had a project to make Gjellestad Story, to make an online exhibit. But kind of not right after this, the state, the Norwegian state found some money to do a small dig to verify— Is it just a ghost— [*laughs*] This image, is it real? Do we actually have a real Viking ship beneath the soil? And that was kind of, that was fun because I could actually visit as much as I wanted. And I visited several times and can follow this process where they dug a small test trench and could verify that they found some planks. But the main find was the keel. So that moment where they kind of— they had this probe that they can just stick into the ground and try to kind of find the right point, and you can kind of hear it, kind of: [*imitates sound: dunk; then laughs, pauses, and imitates again: dunk*]. And everyone's kind of: [*imitates a gasp*]! So this, that moment, that was— that was fantastic. And from there it was all about just finding the money, and the Norwegian state found the money for a real kind of full scale excavation of the ship. So that [the full scale excavation] was done in 2020.
Colin: The geological probe that Joakim describes is essentially a large metal tube with a window on the side. Archaeologists often use these probes to get a quick look at the stratigraphic layers in the soil beneath their feet. Imagine pushing a clear straw through a layer cake, and then extracting the straw to view the layers trapped inside. The cylindrical probe, which must be pushed or hammered into the soil, will cut through anything soft, but its progress is impeded by anything solid, such as, for example, the hull of a ship. When the archaeologists’ probe went “dunk,” they knew the ghost image was in fact a solid ship. That discovery told them where to dig, and that’s how they discovered the ship’s intact keel.
Archaeologists began their full excavation of Gjellestad in 2020 and worked through the winter, and completed the excavation in 2021. The site had to be sheltered with a tent and heated and humidified during the winter to preserve the wood, and defended from field mice that sought to dig new burrows in the exposed ship. As archaeologists gradually uncovered the ship, they discovered that its state of preservation was far worse than that of the Gokstad ship or the Oseberg ship. This was not entirely unexpected, as the geology of the eastern side of the Oslo Fjord is much sandier and drier than that of the western side where the Gokstad and Oseberg ships were found. The wooden planks of the hull had decayed from 1 inch in thickness to just 1 millimeter. The hull was more like a stain in the soil than a solid object, and little of it could be preserved. The ship’s wood wasn’t the only material found in a sorry state of preservation. The iron rivets that once held the planks of the hull together were so friable that they would disintegrate in your hands. The archaeologists first mapped their position, so that they could be later digitally reconstructed, and then they extracted them intact with the soil around them using a tool like a cookie cutter that could remove a solid block of soil. A total of 1400 rivets were transported in this fashion to the lab where archaeologists are still carefully excavating them one at a time, each rivet yielding precious clues to the ship’s unique construction.
The best preserved portion of the ship was the two inch thick keel—which had only lost an estimated half inch from decay—and could be dated with dendrochronology. The youngest growth ring in the keel dated to 732 CE, but because the keel wasn’t made from the outermost rings of the tree, the tree must have been felled some years after 732. Stylistic dating of jewelry found in and around the burial—beads made of glass, gold, and amber—points to a date circa 800 CE for the burial. Grave goods were few and far between. Disturbances in the soil layers indicated that the ship grave was plundered during the Viking Age. When exactly the plundering occurred is a more difficult question to answer. The Gokstad and Oseberg ships were plundered as well, and conveniently, those grave robbers left their wooden shovels behind, which could be dated with dendrochronology to the mid-tenth century. Scholars suggest that these grave robberies were politically motivated, because they roughly coincide with the conquest of the region by the Danish King Harald Bluetooth, and it is possible, even likely, that Gjellestad was also robbed during that same period.
While the excavation finished in 2021 and the slow post-excavation and meticulous analysis are ongoing, in 2019 Joakim found himself hard at work to quickly share news of the discovery and what already had been learned from the radar scan and test trench excavations.
Joakim: I took the initiative and set up a project to create an online exhibit with some collaborating partners. So we had our archaeologists, and we had a firm doing 3D modeling, and we had another research institute in Halden that works a lot with application of 3D models in industry, and we had people on graphic design and sound. So I actually— I put together a team to produce this and was the project leader and working a lot with the story itself.
Colin: Why did you choose to do a—so, your background is in, you mentioned, doing documentary film—why choose to do a digital online exhibit?
Joakim: I said journalism earlier, that I researched long-form journalism. And I see documentary film as kind of, a type of long-form journalism. So my research is about what is long-form journalism in digital media, looking at something that has been called transmedia. You think about a media product that is on multiple platforms and over time and where the focus is to kind of create a following, a community. As before, documentary film, kind of, you produce it and it's kind of 30 minutes or 50 minutes or 1½ hours and you screen it on television and on cinema and that's it. [*imitates sound: zzhwhip*] I know that's how it has used to be. But the kind of multi-platform, cross-platform, transmedia documentary? That can be so much more. So for me it was very natural to think, “how can we create an online experience?” So it's kind of a bridge between old thinking and new thinking, I would say.
Colin: Then tell me about the goals for the digital exhibit. How do you tell a good story?
Joakim: I'm mostly interested in telling a good story, but that doesn't really help if no one hears it. [*laughs*] Of course it's nice in the self, kind of, when you look at it, and “Oh, this is beautiful,” but it's only me that— you see my point? To attract an audience online is extremely hard. You kind of depend on established channels of communication. Like, the news outlets have that. They have a front page that a lot of people kind of visit every day anyway. But when you create something like this, you don't have that. So that's the first thing. How to get this invitation out? “Come and see!” And when you have done that, then it's all about how to kind of keep your visitors interested, and that's where kind of the storytelling comes in that you need a hook and you need to keep it interesting. But what we chose to do when it comes to the first challenge: I tried to get the cooperation with NRK. That's kind of the “Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.” [*laughs*] So initially we got lots and lots of people coming to see the online exhibit. But when I look at the numbers, I also see that many of them just kind of [*imitates sound: zzhwhip*]. That's how it often is online. People use very little time and then just [*imitates again: zzhwhip*] move on. They just understand what it is and leave. [*laughs*]
Colin: Yeah. [*sarcastically*] What is the headline? Why read the whole article? I know the story now.
Joakim: Exactly “Oh! Oh, ship. I've seen it.” [*imitates again: zzhwhip and then laughs*] Move on. So I think it's kind of one in four maybe. So of each four persons visiting the site, one of them have used more time and kind of dived in into the story.
Colin: Digital spaces are so different from reading a book because you pick up a book, you go from the first page, second page, third page— you just go through it in one order. With all of the options that hyperlinks afford us, a person can go in any number of directions. So when designing your exhibit, how did you deal with that, with that difference? Were you trying to create a linear experience or trying to create one that could go in different directions?
Joakim: I think we did something smart. We made a ship viewer. Just a model of the ship with some information points that you can click on and get more information about the keel, the grave chamber, did this ship has a sail or not? And so that can be embedded in other web pages. So that was what the NRK did. They just embedded the ship viewer as we call it on their page. So people can access this directly from there, so that's kind of— And a lot of viewers has kind of come into Gjellestad Story that way and got kind of the main headlines very kind of, very easily accessible and direct.
Colin: No, I love that because you're turning the game on its head. Instead of “how do I keep everyone here,” knowing that only 25% are going to stay and look at the thing, “how can I get my story out to other people where they are?” So, “how can I make smaller media products that other people can share and I can let them do the work of publishing and sharing and bringing attention to it?”
Joakim: Exactly. That worked.
Colin: Yeah, that's very smart. [*laughter*]
Joakim: But kind of, still, the users that we have cared most about is the ones that actually come to Gjellestad story and kind of go through the guided tour as we have designed it, because this is not a story about the Viking ship only; it's about the site. It’s a story about Gjellestad over 1500 years, not only the ship burial. It's a long time span. For instance, the guided tour starts with this overview of the site and the when and where, kind of, context— context is important—but I must say, after a kind of very intense and flashy teaser intro film with tall waves [*laughs*] and Viking ships, and kind of a hook to get people kind of going. To address what you kind of bring up, people are impatient. And so we also made it possible to just open the map and kind of skip ahead. Kind of to choose, “Now I just want to go directly to the ship and learn more about that.”
Colin: How did you fill in the gaps? Because making an exhibit is also an act of interpretation. The archaeologists are doing their interpretations. Were there challenges trying to figure out what do we show? How do we fill in the gaps?
Joakim: Absolutely. [*laughs*] No, it was kind of— I enjoyed that part of the project, really. Because we had some 3D modelers, kind of, young people and and they have a background in gaming and they have their understanding of what should a Viking game [*laughs*] environment look like. And they brought that into this, when kind of the landscape was in place and kind of the main— the longhouses and the mounds. And I think they thought this looked kind of, “Oh, this is too little or too bare or kind of— not very interesting.” So they kind of started, they started adding stuff. They added stones and some plants and some trees and food and some fish, and the kind of stuff to kind of make this kind of more rich. And then the archaeologist kind of, [*smacks lips*] “No, no, no, no and no!” [*laughs*] So it was kind of a crisis. It was a crisis, of course, in the project because they had put in some fishes from like South America. [*laughs*]
Colin: Okay. [*laughs*]
Joakim: And they had put in plants that kind of the archaeologists just immediately— we didn't have this here then. Kind of, this was not early in the project, but we still had time. So then we arranged so that the 3D modelers and the archaeologists could work together more, sit together. And kind of then the archaeologists could look at these, “This? This is OK. This looks— you could put, you could put that there. That's— that's within.” But of course, when it came to the longhouses and the ship itself. I was kind of amazed. I didn't know that. But the room for interpretation is kind of large. So you can have very different visualizations of a longhouse that would fit the data. It can be this or this or this, and looks very different, but all are within what the archaeologists know. So… Because the problem with Vikings, they were really fond of wood. [*laughs*] Wood doesn't, kind of… You have other cultures that has built more in stone. That's kind of...
Colin: Yeah, and when the wood doesn't survive, then you have to do a lot of interpretation to rebuild it.
Joakim: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Colin: One of the big questions of interpretation is whether the Gjellestad ship had a sail or not. The adoption of the sail in Scandinavia is one of the features that makes a Viking ship a Viking ship, and marks the start of the Viking Age. Although Scandinavians could and did cross long distances in row boats, the adoption of the sail in Scandinavia is what made long-distance travel more accessible in the Viking Age. When Joakim made the Gjellestad story, the evidence for a sail could have gone either way, and Joakim chose to depict the ship with a sail. But now, after the full excavation, the evidence appears to be pointing the other way. Archaeologists on the project, however, are hesitant to draw any conclusions until the post-excavation analysis is complete. When studying a ship, one typically starts by examining the keel in cross section—a narrower keel suggests a rowing ship, and a wider keel suggests a sailing ship. The Gjellestad ship’s keel is narrower than that of both the Gokstad and Oseberg ships, which suggests that the Gjellestad ship was more likely to have been a rowing ship. The next portions of the ship to examine are the keelson and the mastfish, large wooden pieces that fix the mast in place. These are not needed in rowing ships, since they have no mast. Neither a keelson nor a mastfish was recovered from the Gjellestad ship, again suggesting a rowing ship. But the archaeologists are slow to jump to conclusions. The keelson and mastfish may have been removed by those who buried the ship to be reused in a new construction; we know that Viking Age peoples in Scandinavia recycled ship parts. Or the keelson and mastfish might have been destroyed, albeit on accident, in the late 19th century when the farmer at Gjellestad leveled the field in order to start using a mechanical plow. This action sheared the tops off of all the burial mounds in Gjellestad field except the largest mound, which was left alone. Consequently, the ship’s gunwales and prows were sheared clean off, and reports from the time mention finding broken pieces of wood in the newly plowed earth.
Joakim: It's actually… that's a tragedy. I've thought about that many times. It kind of makes me cry. [*laughs*]
Colin: For now, the archaeologists are unwilling to give a definitive answer, and they are waiting until they have analyzed all the data from the ship’s 1400 rivets, which may yet yield more answers.
Joakim, you said that one idea of transmedia is that you can create community across different platforms. Is that something you were able to do in this project?
Joakim: The people at NRK that I had collaborated with, they wanted to make something. So they come up with this idea to stream the dig. They put up cameras in the tent and just put it on.
Colin: That's fantastic. I don't know if our listeners will necessarily be familiar with “slow television” [*laughter*] that Norway has done so well and sort of given a name to, of just putting a camera onto the train and just going for a ride along the train. So that's really wonderful that you're able to do some “slow archaeology” television.
Joakim: The good thing about this is that they connected the stream with the chat, kind of, manned by competent people to create the opportunity for the audience to come in and ask questions and to participate in, I would say, actually, a co-interpretation of what was going on in this stream.
Colin: Wow, okay.
Joakim: So these two things together. I think that that worked really well.
Colin: So this is a step up from slow TV because it's a live stream. So it's like anyone who is live-streaming their video games; they have a community that is there participating and commenting in and there's an interaction going on.
Joakim: Yeah, I think it's something else. And they developed this during COVID, corona-lockdowns for lonely people to have, kind of, building community in a time of crisis. And then it was kind of, they made a choice of, okay, the same challenge: how do we attract people and how do we keep people here? So they had this idea of trying to use how Vikings are portrayed in popular culture as a hook. And they actually got Kristofer Hivju. He is the Tormund Giantsbane—
Colin: Oh yes— [*laughter*]
Joakim: —in, in… [*pauses*]
Colin: the star from Game of Thrones—
Joakim: Game of Thrones.
Colin: —and then also in The Last King.
Joakim: Mmm hmm, yes.
Colin: He has played the role of a Viking in a few different films. [*laughs*]
Joakim: And Silja Torp. She's in the Norwegian—it's more a comedy series— The Norsemen.
Colin: Oh yes.
Joakim: So these two came in and participated, did some digging themselves, and kind of— But then! [*laughs*] Of course, Kristofer Hivju, he came as Tormund Giantsbane. So he made a really show out of it and the archaeologist was really stressed out because, he [Kristofer Hivju] started to kind of dig hard and quick because he wanted to find a sword. [*laughs*]
Colin: Oh no!
Joakim: So, it was kind of an incident that was kind of… very interesting! But then NRK used this—he also tipped over a sieve—and then NRK kind of made this into something that they used in social media to attract more people. I didn't really think the archaeologists liked that. And I understand why. It's a serious thing, right? It's science. Archaeology is a science. And this ship is very, very fragile. And it costs, kinda, lots of money to do the dig. So, it's serious. [*pauses, and then quietly*] But it was also fun. [*laughs*]
Colin: For now, the only way to experience the Gjellestad ship is digitally, but soon it will be possible to experience it in person. The remains of the Gjellestad ship will find their new home in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, where it will join the Gokstad, Oseberg, and Tune ships. But don’t expect to see the Gjellestad ship for a few years, though–construction just began in February 2023 for a new museum facility designed to accommodate larger crowds and to control for warmer outside temperatures. The new museum will reopen as The Museum of the Viking Age, and it is projected to open on the centennial of the old Viking Ship Museum in 2026.
The Gjellestad ship has lived many lives. First as the individual trees that grew tall in Late Iron Age Norway, then as a seafaring vessel in the early Viking Age, next as a final resting place for an illustrious person or persons, then as a site of desecration and plunder, and in the 19th century, as just a memory in a field of potatoes, and now, as a digital testament to the long and storied history of Gjellestad farm. Joakim’s exhibit peels back the layers of the Gjellestad ship’s history to make visible what otherwise would go unseen. Take a look for yourself; it’s there for all to see at gjellestadstory.no.
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Would you or someone you know like to take a class at the UW to learn more about the Vikings or Scandinavia? UW summer study is open to any US high school student, college student, or member of the public. In 2023, we’re offering four courses. In SCAND 230 Intro to Folklore Studies, you can study folktales, legends, jokes, songs, proverbs, and other forms of traditional culture, together with the living people and communities who perform and adapt them. In SCAND 270 Sagas of the Vikings, you can study Icelandic sagas and poetry about Vikings in the context of thirteenth-century Scandinavian society. In SCAND 330 Scandinavian Mythology, you can study the pre-Christian Norse religions of Scandinavia, and in SCAND 375 Vikings in Pop Culture, you can study media representations of "the Vikings" in nineteenth- and twentieth-century advertising, comics, film, literature, music, poetry, propaganda, television series, and video games. Registration opens in April. Go to scandinavian.washington.edu.
Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Today’s music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit scandinavian.washington.edu to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at scandinavian.washington.edu. Once again, that’s scandinavian.washington.edu.
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Release Date: May 16, 2023
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors.
Learn more about the Gjellestad Viking ship at gjellestadstory.no
Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.
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