We are gathered around a glass case on the second floor of the Historical Museum in Oslo, Norway, contemplating a smallish skull that sports a couple of sizable holes.
The human head is a part of an exhibit called “Vikingr” (Norwegian word for Viking), which explores the travels of the Norwegian Vikings, the culture of their warriors and how the world was changing between 750 AD and 1050 AD.
“The skull probably belonged to a 14- or 15-year-old girl,” says our guide, Christiaan Dahl, who earned her doctorate in early Viking history, so we couldn’t ask for a better docent.
The skull, found in an area northeast of Oslo, is probably more than 1,000 years old. Keeping it company are a sword, spear, an ax and several arrows, all found in her grave — stark reminders of how brutal life was in Norway in the 10th century.
In her dissertation, Dahl challenged the dates of Viking activity and believes it actually began about 300 years earlier.
“The Vikings didn’t just suddenly start building their (perfect) boats in the 700s,” she explains. “There was a lot of trial-and-error that came before that.”
This museum stop is part of our 12-day visit to southern Norway and three-day visit to Denmark with Odysseys Unlimited, a small-group tour company based in Newton, Massachusetts. Our itinerary is a good balance of sights, landscape, history and culture.
Dahl also enlightens us about the origins of the word “Viking.”
“It was originally a verb,” she informs us. “It refers to their activities, what they did” — which wasn’t solely plundering and pillaging. Vikings also were traders and merchants, illustrated by the exquisite gold jewelry in another case.
As good as this exhibit is, the best is yet to come. The University of Oslo’s Museum of the Viking Age is set to open in 2026. It promises “the world’s three best-preserved Viking ships and more than 8,000 other objects from the Viking Era.”
The new museum will be located on Oslo’s Bygdøy peninsula, across the fjord from downtown Oslo. It’s also a block from the Kon-Tiki Museum, which enshrines the raft of the same name that Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and crew of five sailed from Peru to French Polynesia in 1947.
Heyerdahl’s goal with the 5,000-mile journey was to prove that peoples from South America could have sailed to the South Pacific and populated those islands. Despite the fact that he arrived safely after crashing the raft on a reef, many scholars dispute Heyerdahl’s theory. The 101-day journey was epic, though, and visitors can see the original raft, a second raft used in a subsequent expedition and even some of the equipment that the Kon-Tiki crew used.
Sidenote: I was anxious to see the Kon-Tiki because I met Heyerdahl in the mid-1990s when I attended the annual meeting of the Explorers Club in New York City. I was the guest of Oceanside resident, artist, author and Arctic explorer Claire Fejes. She was one of the first women to be invited to join the previously all-male club.
Norway’s largest city is not the only place to delve into Norway’s history and culture. Our guide in period dress at the Maihaugen Open-Air Museum in Lillehammer transported us to life on a 1700s-1800s Norwegian farm as she escorted through some of the museum’s 200 historic buildings. We learn about the rudimentary education of children, the pecking order of farm workers and how these hardy Norwegians survived the long, dark, frigid winters.
Norwegians are still coaxing the land to give all it can, and in some cases, the federal government subsidizes farms to encourage the preservation of farming. We visit a goat farm that has been in the family for several generations. Its over 200 head are moved to high pastures every summer for the grass that grows during the 20 hours of daylight.
Another stop brings us to a family fruit orchard and gives us the chance to sample some of the 27,000 apple cakes produced annually by the owner. We also visit a sustainable salmon farm, situated in the frosty waters of a scenic fjord, which according to the docent is highly regulated to prevent the spread of disease.