From Viking silver coins to chess pieces and a whole Viking ship, these are some of the best on display around the world.

1) The Oseberg ship - displaying Viking maritime and artisanal skill

In terms of "wow factor," there is no finer surviving Viking Era artifact than the majestic Oseberg Viking Ship. Though discovered more than a century ago by archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson, buried in a mound on a farm just outside Tønsberg, Norway, this 21.5-meter-long ship is a powerful symbol of the maritime and artistic skill of peoples in Viking societies during the early medieval period.

The ship was constructed in southwest Norway around 820 CE and, after what was obviously a brief spell on the water, buried in a mound around 834 CE. The 70.5-foot (21.5 meters) long ship has room for 30 rowers and is presumed to belong to a chief or a ruler.

What Gustafson did not expect, however, when he unearthed the ship was a literal treasure trove of grave goods buried along with the ship. Along with the ship itself, there were two female skeletons buried in a sacrificial grave (assumed to be a high-ranking older woman and her younger slave servant – who was possibly sacrificed) as well as an elaborately carved four-wheeled cart, wooden chests, four sleighs, imported silks, textiles, and even bed posts!

Yet the grave goods buried alongside the ship should not detract or diminish the beauty of the ship itself.  The clinker-built ship, made entirely out of oak, was beautifully decorated with delicate woodcarvings, especially the famous "dragon head" on the prow. This not only showed the skill and proficiency of carpenters and artisans in this period, but it also helped disprove the common myth that the Vikings were mere pillaging barbarians and not skilled artisans.

For those wanting a close-hand look at the Oseberg Viking Ship, you will have to wait until 2026 when the ship, along with two others and a wealth of Viking Era artifacts, will take pride of place in the Museum of the Viking Age in Oslo, which is currently under construction. More information can be found on the website here.

The Oseberg Viking ship, photographed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway, in 2019. Photo: Halisov / Shutterstock

2) The Gjermundbu helmet - shattering a historical inaccurate popular image

Some people blame Richard Wagner's operatic costume designer, who was Swedish. Other people blame the Asterix comic book creators René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Others still blame Hollywood. Whoever did it first is irrelevant, but the image of a Viking helmet with horns is now very much embedded in popular culture. However, this image is, quite frankly, wrong. Viking helmets most likely never had horns on them. The Gjermundbu helmet is a powerful example of just what a Viking helmet looked like.

Like so many Viking Era artifacts, this helmet was uncovered, in 1943, on the Gjermundbu farm, near Buskerud, Norway, in the middle of a grassy field. Academics from the nearby University of Oslo were notified, and the investigation was ground-breaking (pardon the pun) in more ways than one. 

Though under the notional direction of  Sverre Marstander, his number two was Charlotte Blindheim, an archaeologist who was the first female in Norway to be permanently employed as a member of a University's scientific staff. Alongside the helmet, Blindheim helped uncover a burial chamber full of weapons, including chain mail armor, axes, swords, and even dice.

Yet there is no doubt that the Gjermundbu helmet should take pride of place. It is the only surviving example of a complete Viking helmet uncovered…yet. The helmet is believed to have been forged around 970 CE and belonged to a minor king – one of the two men buried alongside the helmet and goods on the Gjermundbu farm. What made this a fascinating find for archaeologists and historians is that the helmet was buried in 9 pieces, so this proved invaluable insight into just how a Viking helmet was constructed.

This iron helmet is on display at Oslo's History Museum.

The Gjermundbu helmet. Photo: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

3) The Spillings hoard, real-life buried treasure

It is not often that you discover buried treasure in everyday life. However, that is exactly what happened on July 16, 1999, on the Spilling farm, just near Slite, on the Swedish island of Gotland, right in the middle of the Baltic Sea. 

A team of reports from Swedish television channel TV4 was on hand to film the discovery of the world's largest Viking treasure by archaeologist Jonas Ström and a professor of numismatics (the study of currency including coins). Using a metal detector, they selected the farm as some 150 silver coins had been discovered there earlier. Yet when the metal detector of Ström blinked "overload" in a field, he knew they had struck something big.

The Spillings hoard consists of over 14.295 coins and weighs in at over 148 lbs. (67 kilograms). Almost all (14.000) were Islamic dirhams, with a further 23 from Persia, four from Hedeby (in modern-day Denmark), and a single Byzantine coin. The coins are dated between 539 and 870 CE, along with a chest discovered which has been carbon dated to 675 CE. 

The burial of silver hoards was not uncommon in the Viking era and especially not on the island of Gotland. Since the discovery, more than 2.200 pounds (1.000 kilograms) of silver, from 700 caches buried between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, have been uncovered all over the island.

It has been suggested that the Spillings hoard was buried close to some of the island's best harbors during the Viking era. The position of Gotland, in close proximity to Sweden in the Baltic Sea, made it a strategically important place for Viking traders, raiders, and merchants journeying throughout the Baltic region. The silver coins were apparently enough to pay the total tax receipts of Gotland for five years.

The Spillings hoard also gives a unique insight into the close economic links between West Asia and Northern Europe during the early medieval period. The history of the Viking Age has often been so Eurocentric, but the discovery of the Spillings horde helps challenge common misconceptions and illustrates how interconnected the pre-modern world truly was.

The Spillings hoard can be viewed at the Gotland Museum. More information can be found here.

A closeup photograph of the silver hoard number 2 from the Spillings hoard at the Gotland Museum. Photo: W.carter / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

4) The Lewis chessmen - the end of the Viking Era?

One of the problems, for many would-be historians, is that history can often be watered down and diluted to a boring repetition of dates. The study of Vikings centers around, in Northern European history, the so-called "Viking Age," which traditionally starts from the raid on a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off northeast England, in 793 CE to the Battle of Hastings, won by the Norman Duke William the Conqueror in 1066 CE.

Outside of textbooks, history is more fluid than a series of dates. The Viking Age did not end on the battlefield of Hastings in the mid-11th century. It would take time, centuries even, before the Viking era polities of Scandinavia would transform into the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. A 19th-century discovery on a beach on the Outer Hebrides, off Scotland, shows how historical eras merge, blend and influence each other.

In 1831 CE, in Edinburgh, a collection of walrus tusk ivory game pieces went on display for the first time. It is unknown when these game pieces (called the Lewis Chessmen hoard) were first discovered, but they had been divided up and sold, with the British Museum, in London, and the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh now holding the largest share. The pieces are similar to those in the modern game of chess and include a blend of Christian and pagan influences.

The pieces have been dated to being carved sometime in the latter stages of the twelfth century CE and are of Scandinavian origin. The elaborate and Norse influence carvings have only been found elsewhere in Trondheim, so historians and academics believe it was here they were manufactured. Trondheim was, until 1217 CE, the royal seat of power and capital of Norway. Even after this period, the Nidaros Cathedral (where Norwegian monarchs have been traditionally crowned for over a millennium) made Trondheim a place of tremendous cultural and religious significance.

The Lewis Chessmen are fascinating as they show the merging cultures of older Norse traditions along with the relatively new (for Scandinavia) influence of Christianity. The bishops are depicted in clerical dress (some of the earliest depictions of bishops found among game piece artifacts) whilst the rooks (warriors) are depicted biting their shield – a throwback to the berserkers of Viking tradition who were said to enter a ferocious trance before fighting. Furthermore, the intricate and delicate designs on the back of the King and Queen's thrones have a very Norse influence.

The Lewis Chessmen hoard highlights how the new medieval Kingdom of Norway still has cultural and artistic links with its Viking heritage. With the cultural heritage of chess in Norway stretching back almost a millennium, it should be no surprise that the current World Champion in Chess is none other than a Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, who has held the title since 2013.

Most of the Lewis chess pieces can be viewed at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, Scotland. More information can be found here.

A visitor looking at the Lewis chessmen at the British Museum in London, UK, in 2016. Photo: Kraft_Stoff / Shutterstock

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