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Dr. John Hale explores Viking-era naval technology

This year’s Boldt lectures have chosen to focus on the historical study of material culture. In keeping with this theme, University of Louisville archaeology professor Dr. John Hale visited St. Olaf’s campus on Thursday, March 1 to deliver three distinct lectures on material archaeology. Dr. Hale concluded his day of lecturing with an engaging talk on Viking naval technology and its impact on contemporary culture titled “Dragons of the North: Voyages of the Viking Longships.”

Dr. Hale was greeted by a packed room of eager listeners in Tomson Hall.  A great showing in the audience was made by both St. Olaf and Carleton students, the greater Northfield community and some members of other Minnesota towns. He spoke eloquently and engagingly, beginning the lecture by expressing his gratitude for all those who warmly welcomed him to this “wonderful corner of America.”

Archaeology professor Dr. John Hale shown here beside a deep sea exploration vessel.

Tying his topic in with the Boldt lecture series’ larger theme of material cultural study, Dr. Hale stated that Viking longships perfectly represent a balance between material and artistic beauty. They are both supremely masterful as machines of warfare and aesthetically beautiful pieces of artwork.

Quite apparent from Dr. Hale’s lecture was many Americans’ desires to incorporate the Vikings into part of their cultural story. Many often romanticize the Vikings as fierce uncivilized explorers, as the antithesis to dark-age Europe. Dr. Hale noted these desires are easy to spot in American society if one knows where to look. It might be most apparent in our own state of Minnesota, considering our NFL team takes its name from the Norse marauders of the 9th-13th centuries, but these desires run deeper than that.

Dr. Hale explained the desire to have a Viking essence incorporated into the American mythos may be best exemplified by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor.” In this poem, Longfellow mentions the Old Stone Mill Tower in Newport, Rhode Island. This tower was said to have been a Viking construction predating Columbus’s voyage. However, 1993 carbon dating showed that the structure was the remains of a 17th century windmill, not a mystical Norse structure. So why does this American fascination with Vikings exist? People seem to love the idea of the Vikings as a group of marauding vagabonds who reject civility and propriety in favor of lawlessness and ultimate freedom. This was most noticeable at Dr. Hale’s lecture amidst the cheers and proud laughter of many audience members when Dr. Hale recounted an old 9th century British prayer stating “God preserve us from the fury of the Northmen.” It seems this idealized version of the Vikings speaks to the wilder side of human nature.

Dr. Hale’s lecture was not limited to contemporary culture. He also discussed at length the difficulties of Viking-era underwater archaeology. Swedish Vikings burned their longships in burial ceremonies, making it very hard to obtain any archaeological evidence from them.  However, searching for Viking longship remains is not futile. Well-preserved longships have been found in Norway and Denmark. These ancient ghosts have been masterfully revived by dedicated recreation teams. The recreation of the Skuldelev Ships is one of the most masterful of these revivals. While Dr. Hale noted that these ships initially had a consistency “like brie cheese,” the recreation team remade the Skuldelev Ships so intricately that they were able to sail the ships from Denmark down the river Seine, ultimately docking in Paris. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this recreation was the team’s unwavering commitment to rebuilding the longships using historically accurate crafting techniques. The team went so far as to find the exact breed of sheep the Danish Vikings would have used for the wool in their sails. These elusive sheep – found on a remote island off Denmark’s coast – were not easy to find. Although Viking underwater archaeology presents some challenges, the impressive dedication of archaeologists and their assistants has gifted the world with awe-inspiring Viking naval artifacts.

Throughout Dr. Hale’s presentation, the crowd’s energy was palpable. Perhaps a high level of Scandinavian blood in the room led to this energy; perhaps it came from a general fascination with Viking history; or perhaps it came from Dr. Hale’s tremendous oration. Whatever the cause, it seems clear the Northfield community has a deep affinity for all things Viking.