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Oslo Museums Present Floating Relics of the Past

The Oseberg, probably built as a pleasure craft, is one of three 9th-century vessels on display at the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo.
The Oseberg, probably built as a pleasure craft, is one of three 9th-century vessels on display at the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo. (Museum Of Cultural History, University Of Oslo)
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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nordic explorers don't always choose cold destinations. At the water's edge on the Bygdoy peninsula, a handsome section of Oslo, the Kon-Tiki Museum is dedicated to the great adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. The place is a revelation for those too young to remember the best-selling book and Oscar-winning documentary about how this zoologist sailed a balsa-wood raft for 101 days in 1947 from Peru to Polynesia.

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There sits the raft, with its square sail and bamboo hut on top, looking not much bigger than a tennis court. It's the antithesis of the solid Fram, the large wooden vessel that traveled from Norway into the Arctic Ocean and to Antarctica. The Kon-Tiki surely is not something you would think to row across Chesapeake Bay, much less the Pacific Ocean. Heyerdahl designed it to prove his theory that "primitive" South Americans had the wherewithal to make contact with South Pacific islanders nearly 5,000 miles across the ocean. The Kon-Tiki museum also houses a second vessel, the Ra II, a slender papyrus boat that Heyerdahl piloted across the Atlantic Ocean in 1970 from Morocco to the Caribbean.

A short bus ride from the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Viking Ships Museum makes plain what cultural traits men like Amundsen, Nansen and Heyerdahl inherited. On display are three well-preserved remains of 9th-century ships and other artifacts from the period when the Vikings dominated the sea.

One glance at the graceful prow of the Oseberg, most likely a pleasure craft, and the Gokstad, a larger, more robust wooden ship, and I could envision Erik the Red, Leif Ericksson and their swashbuckling sailors sailing to Greenland and eventually to the coast of North America.

-- G.L.


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