A Norwegian Cruise 7

Part Seven: 5th Port of Call, Nordfjordeid, Vestland, Norway

These cruise novices experienced something new in Nordfjordeid. The ship didn’t dock but anchored off shore which meant, we had to use a tender, a smallish boat to ferry us back and forth between the harbour and the Silver Whisper. Since it was a wet and blustery day, I would’ve preferred to stay under the covers and pretend to be in the middle of the Norwegian Sea, but Nordfjordeid had promised me a special treat called Myklebustskipet. A ‘skip’ is a ship in Norwegian, and this particular ship, dette spesielle skipet … well, let’s take it one plank at a time!

Looking toward Nordfjordeid from our balcony on that rather grey morning, I could already see my desired destination, the Sagastad Museum or the Sagastad Knowledge Center, as it was called at its inauguration in May of 2019.

It’s the blackish A-frame to the left of the red-roofed church and in walking distance from the harbour along the seafront, or should I say fjordfront?

I enjoyed the preliminary homework I did on Nordfjordeid and its Sagastad Center, a museum that displays the replica of a Viking longship. It was a chance to wade knee deep in Norse history, customs, and lore, something I remember discussing with my father when I was a teenager. Aside from more academic historical matters, he got a huge kick out of reading a novel called “Röde Orm” (in German) by Frans G. Bengtsson, which told of Viking exploits as far distant from Scandinavia as the Byzantine empire and featuring the hypochondriacally inclined anti-hero Røde Orm Tostesson. Orm felt that Southern women were ‘soft in flesh’ in comparison to Norse ladies. I could never forget that phrase.

In my virtual pre-cruise trips to Nordfjordeid, I found a few other places of interest, for example the Norsk Fjordhest Senter. It would be such fun to see these pretty and sturdy fjord horses, maybe even dare an outing on horseback! But my focus remained on the Saga(story)stad(city) museum. In my own interpretation of the name it became a Place of Storytelling.

But not everyone was equally eager to hear its story, as I noticed in a Trip Advisor review, where a potential visitor to the museum expressed her annoyance. This German mom complaint about the steep ticket prices for her family ‘just to see a copy of some boat’. She did have a point, Norway is pretty expensive and that’s exactly what you see in the museum, a copy of an old boat. Albeit a painstakingly executed artisanal reproduction of a historical Viking longship that sailed into war against King Harald Fairhair in 876 CE. The ship’s captain, a Fjordane client king named Audbjørn Frøybjørnsson of Firda was mortally wounded in combat. Back home in Nordfjordeid the ship became his funeral pyre during a cremation burial in accordance with the funerary customs laid down by the Norse God Odin himself. The museum linked oral history of the early Middle Ages in Scandinavia with the Islander Sagas written 300 years later to weave a tapestry of a rich and profound pagan culture.

Taking the tender to town was a rather wet and breezy affaire

And walking toward the museum through a persistent drizzle also put our rain gear to good use. The Silver Whisper looked rather huge out there in the fjord, even though she’s a small ship, designed to carry only 380 passengers.

Cruising is such a controversial affair, isn’t it, wasteful, polluting, and plain ugly? Just last week, a petition signed by more than 50K residents to stop cruise ships was handed over to the city government of Marseille, while Venice finally closed its lagoon for cruise ships, and so forth. On the other hand, cruise lines are huge employers and they also provide extensive commercial opportunities for on-shore businesses. But I haven’t studied any factual pros and cons regarding cruising, so I can’t comment properly.

Instead, let’s walk on toward the museum. On the way we met Kåre outside his large and beautifully stocked wool shop.

We’ve come to regard wool shops as quintessentially Norwegian now. There is at least one per block and several per village. Kåre’s was especially nice!

The distance to the museum turned out to be further than anticipated and crocodile stick and I were struggling through the increasingly heavy rain. I was quite relieved when we rounded a corner to see the large door of the Sagastad Knowledge Center. The museum sits rather prosaïcally in the company of a DIY shop, a small discount shopping mall, and a parking garage. Lots of concrete, no landscaping whatsoever, just another shed housing a boat, ergo a boathouse, and yes, there was a ramp in the back to launch a boat straight into the fjord. The sloping roof of the boathouse had an overhang with a rounded edge recalling a burial mound in its shape. Inside, we would find a large wooden object displayed so cleverly within this cavernous space that it became the embodiment of magical Norse sagas. I have to smile now, thinking of that German lady’s disappointment. She should’ve entered, she really should have, because the inside of this plain ol’ shed is gobsmackingly amazing!

The Myklebust ship is the largest Viking longship found in Norway so far. Full stop. Let’s start at the more contemporary beginning of this remarkable Viking Era saga.

In 1874 Anders Lund Lorange, a lawyer and amateur archeologist from Bergen, appeared at the Myklebust farm in Nordfjordeid with the intension to excavate an ancient burial mound there, commonly called Rundehågjen that had been the centre of local attention and lore for a long time. Rundehågjen had a diameter of 30 m/100 ft, it was surrounded by a moat and it was 4 m/13 ft high. Over the centuries, the height of burial mounds tends to shrink when they become part of the farming landscape and as such loose soil through repeated plowing.

Lorange’s instincts had been correct. Under the remaining dirt of Rundehågjen, he found copious amounts of ashes literally filling the mound from edge to edge. In the centre of the mound they unearthed a double layer of ashes separated by sand, as if the burial crew had carefully covered the cremation remains with sand before piling the ashes of the ship’s bow and stern sections on top of it. The Myklebustskipet wasn’t the biggest longship ever found in Norway, instead it was the ashes of an enormous longship the archeologists dug up. But how could they know it was a longship? And how could they estimate its dimensions?

Other burial mounds had rendered remains of Viking longships, therefore longship technology and appearance were well known and the writings of Icelander Snorri Sturluson provided the necessary background to interpret such archeological finds. Snorri (1197 – 1241) was a poet, a lawspeaker, a philanderer, and the author and compiler of the Prose Edda, and the Heimskringla and the Ynglinga Sagas without which we wouldn’t know the first thing about the Age of Vikings. Among many stories about Norwegian dynasties and their wars, Snorri also recounted Odin’s instructions for burial practices for warriors and kings, even including the story of Odin’s own death and funeral.

Odin decreed that the dead must be cremated and the ashes should be tossed into the sea or buried. To honour valiant warriors, a stone should be placed. Higher ranking persons like chieftains, jarls or kings should be cremated in their ships for the journey into the realms of the dead and they should have the company of their dogs, horses, and a maid servant or two. Their best worldly possessions should be placed around them because the richer the funeral offerings, the posher the afterlife. A mound should be build over the funeral pyre to insure the world would remember how important the cremated person had been in life.

The size of Rundehågjen, the unusually large amount of ashes within, and Odin’s burial instructions as passed down by Snorri established that a longship had been burned here in honour of an important chieftain or a king. Among the ashes, the archeological crew recovered more than 7000 rivets and 44 shield bosses, further keys to the size of the ship.

Longships were clinker build, and the overlapping planks were fastened with rivets – that’s highly simplified, but you can see what I mean in the picture below.

What looks like nail heads are rivets that were pounded flat both on the inside and outside of the ship’s planking.

We’ll get back to the ship building questions shortly, let’s first finish with the other significant artefacts found in the grave, the bosses. A shield boss is a conical metal bump in the centre of a round shield to deflect strikes. If there were 44 bosses, one can safely assume that the ship had a crew of 44 rowers. Maybe even more, considering that Rundehågjen was only ever partially excavated.

There were human remains found in the grave, reverently collected in a brass cauldron of Irish origin, sealed with twelve shield bosses, all that remained of the shields with which the king was covered to protect him on his journey onward. Tests in the late 1980s indicated he was a strong, healthy man in the prime of his life. Slash marks in his leg bones and an arrowhead found among his bones seem to indicate these were the remains of a warrior who died of battle injuries.

Although specialists were able to establish a multitude of facts surrounding the Myklebustskipet and the cremated remains therein, many more interpretations had to rely on educated guesses rather than research of chronicled events because very few confirmed accounts exist of the turbulent times when the Scandinavian countries evolved from the early Middle Ages to fully established Christianisation. A time during which outside influences altered the Nordic cultures in fundamental ways, affecting not only religious practices and spiritual understanding, but also the spoken and written languages throughout continental Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland, and assorted archipelagoes. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, Proto-Norse gradually developed into several regional dialects of Old Norse, which in turn differentiated into modern Nordic languages. Equally, the alphabets changed from runic to Roman over the millennium between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance. This was also the time when the portrayal of events and people, like battles, rulers, marriages and so forth became more reliable. Until those dates, the sagas compiled and written during the 11th to 13th centuries were the principal sources of information and they in turn were to a large extend based on oral tradition and fragmentary ancient poems. Take for example King Harald I Fairhair or Finehair aka Harald hårfagre, who was also called Harald Halfdánarsson. He was born c. 850 and died c. 932. He ruled Norway from 872 to 930, then jointly with his eldest son Eric Bloodaxe Haraldsson till his death in 932. King Harald I is revered to this day as the founder and first king of a unified Norway. As such he was also the protagonist of the 2nd Battle of Solskjell in 876, during which our young King Audbjørn of Firda was killed. Or so Snorri Sturlason wrote, while some modern historians aren’t quite convinced there ever was a Harald Finehair.

In the museum we encountered many panels explaining both history, cosmology, customs, and lore surrounding the Myklebustskipet and King Audbjørn and their times, like Yggdrasill, the mighty tree of life, the holy Ash Tree that is the centre of all worlds, where the Gods hold council and fates are decided.

There were also VR booths, a theatre showing educational movies, and panels describing other historical personages of the Fjordane region and Nordfjordeid in particular, like Queen Ingrid Ragnvaldsdatter c. 1105 – 1162, who was the granddaughter of a Swedish king. Ingrid married four times, twice to kings and twice to lendmenn, Norwegian lords, and she was the mother of ten children, among them two kings, one bishop, and one illegitimate son between marriage 3 and 4. Her last husband was a local lendmann from Nordfjordeid.

Climbing a staircase next, I reached an elevated platform connecting to a short flight of stairs that functioned as the bridge to enter the ship.

Here we finally see the entire Myklebustskipet! I’m sitting on the elevated stern deck, where the helmsman would have stood to steer the vessel through the treacherous coastal waters toward Solskjell island in anticipation of defending Fjordane against King Harald Fairhair’s ambitions. A large, square sail would have supported twenty four pairs of oarsmen, sitting on their sea-chests, rowing in unison to advance their chieftain toward his destiny.

Above you see one of the “architectural drawings” used to build Myklebustskipet with two detail images. The drawings were signed by Saxe Bjørkedal, 24.11.1926 – 01.01.2022, boat builder extraordinaire. Above his name it says: Kong Audbjørn gravbrend i liknande skip på Myklebust Nordfjordeid = King Audbjørn was cremated in a similar ship at Myklebust Nordfjordeid. I couldn’t decipher the lines below, possibly having something to do with planks and rakes for the hull fore and aft, maybe …

The following link is a nearly 40 min long video, entirely in Norwegian, about the building of the Myklebust longship. It introduces the boatbuilders who created the reproduction of the Myklebustskipet, among them Saxe Bjørkedal and several of his nephews, who farm and build boats in a village called Bjørkedalen about 20 Km from Nordfjordeid. Even without a useful soundtrack for most of us, it’s still fascinating to see their skill and confidence. The village may go back as a boatbuilding centre for a thousand years, Snorri even mentioned it in one of his sagas. At least in his later years, Saxe himself seemed to have lived mostly in Florø, Norway’s western-most town at the edge of the sea. The town’s website lists both Saxe Bjørkedal and Eirik Blodøks aka King Eric Bloodaxe as famous sons. Circles within circles!

Viking longships were steered with a side-rudder commonly mounted near the stern on the right side of the ship, allegedly because most people are right handed. Another name for rudder is steering board, that’s how the term starboard for the right side of a vessel developed.

In the rear of the boathouse, we discovered a table with the dragon prow carving. Viking longships displayed menacing and fantastic dragon heads to show the ship owner’s power and wealth, scare the enemy, and subdue dangerous water spirits during a voyage. The dragon heads were detachable and should never be shown in friendly waters so they would’n frighten benevolent beings at home.

We got some refreshments and at long last sat down for a rest, yet the Myklebustskipet remained in full view thanks to the open design of this amazing boathouse.

It was a unique experience!

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