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Every year the anthropology department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a holiday party, and every year we wait with baited breathe to see what new creation master cake baker and archaeologist Eric Hollinger will unveil. This year’s impressive creation, a 29” chocolate Viking Ship, is modeled after the Oseberg Ship from Norway. Accompanying the ship are a Viking longhouse made of cake, a pretzel dock, and a jello ocean! The ship is manned by four Vikings preparing for a journey, or maybe just returning.
Ships like the Oseberg vessel are rare finds in the archaeological record because wood only preserves under very specific conditions. The Oseberg Ship was excavated in 1904 by Gabriel Gustafson and is one of the best preserved examples of Viking Age ship construction that exists. The 71’ vessel was made of oak, unlike our chocolate replica, and would have carried 30 oarsmen when it was fully manned. Given the impeccable construction, and elaborate decoration of the vessel, it is likely that the ship belonged to a very important member of society.
In addition to the ship, archaeologists uncovered a wealth of grave goods in the vessel. There were five intricately carved wooden animal head figurines, four decorative sleighs, an ornately carved wooden cart, textiles including imported silk, a bed, parts of looms for weaving, skeletal remains o at least 18 different animals, and many more practical objects for day to day living. These extravagant grave goods further the belief that the individuals interred in the boat were from the higher echelons of society.
The identity of the two women from the Oseberg burial has been debated for over a century. Archaeologists know that the women were buried during the summer of 834 AD and that the burial was broken into a little more than a century later, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth. As a result, the remains of the two women were scattered around the burial chamber, and many objects may have been removed from the burial in antiquity. Archaeologists have speculated that the two women may have been Völva, female seers in Norse religion, or that one of them may be Queen Asa, or that they were important political and social figures whose names have been lost through the millennia between their burial and rediscovery.
This burial has been regarded as somewhat of an anomaly for the century that modern scholars have known about it. The common assumption has been the Viking Society was male dominated but the Oseberg burial is the richest Viking Age burial ever found, and contained two women. So what do scholars make of evidence that doesn’t fit the prevailing theory? We revise our theories of course! Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton in a ‘typical’ and wealthy warrior’s burial at Birka in Sweden has revealed that the skeleton in the grave was actually a women. This study, as well as others that are currently underway, help us to reassess the past and learn more about century old discoveries that still have secrets to unlock. Regardless of whether we ever learn their names, these women and their burial have fascinated archaeologists for more than a century, and continue to inspire analysis and the creation of impressive and delicious desserts!
Americans, along with many other peoples around the world, have an obsession with their coffee. We drink it everyday, often in large amounts. We have ceramic mugs, travel mugs, color changing mugs, and even disposable stryofoam coffee cups. What does one do when none of these resources are at your disposal? This vessel, which comes from Lapland, looks similar to many other vessels found throughout the region but was specifically used to transport coffee! This coffee caddy was collected in 1893 by Hon. J.M. Crawford and was accessioned by the museum in October of that year. It is made of wood, and is ornately carved. While this caddy was most likely used to transport and hold dry coffee beans, it highlights the similarities and differences among cultures through the lens of something as simple as a beverage many people consume daily.
Intrepid explorer Captain Charles Francis Hall collected this Inuit drinking tube, carved from a narwhal tooth during one of three Arctic research expeditions he conducted during his lifetime. There are a number of objects in our collections that are made of or contain narwhal ivory. The material is very versatile and was used by the Inuit to make everything from belt buckles to decorative figures.
Motivated primarily by a desire to determine what became of Sir John Franklin’s 1840’s lost Arctic expedition, Capt. Hall initially headed north to find evidence of the crew’s fate. Along the way, and accompanied by a host of scientists and researchers, Capt. Hall interacted with Inuit people and collected both information and objects illustrative of indigenous life in the Arctic region. In 1865 Hall published an account of his first expedition, Life Among the Esquimaux: Being A Narrative of An Expedition In Search of Sir John Franklin In The Years 1860, 1861, and 1862, which offers an interesting look into the people and places Hall encountered on his first expedition, during which he discovered not Franklin’s expedition, but Martin Frobisher’s second while searching for a Northwest Passage to China.. Unfortunately, Capt. Hall’s final expedition was seemingly doomed—Hall himself died on board his ship off the coast of Greenland, and the remaining crew became stranded and were forced to shelter on an ice floe for over six months until being rescued.
In total, Capt. Hall’s collection donated to the museum in 1871 consists of over 60 objects of various materials and purpose, collected in or near the Arctic. Capt. Hall’s endeavors invite us to think about how the motivations, resources, and practices behind the history of Arctic exploration shapes the knowledge we now have about the region and the peoples who have lived there successfully for centuries. Objects such as this seemingly non-descript drinking tube offer insights into how indigenous Arctic communities harvested and used materials, such as narwhal ivory, that are considered highly precious in other parts of the world.
To hear some Inuit perspectives on indigenous connections to the narwhal, check out our new exhibit “Narwhal: Revealing and Arctic Legend” which opened August 3rd!