Vikings have never seemed quite real until I stand beside one of their ships. I'm so close I can see the iron nails that hold the planking together, and the chisel marks on its sculpted serpent prow. The ship is stained dark as a bog man's skin, and smells peaty and woody. If I stretched my arm beyond the low railing, I could rap my knuckles on the carvings that loop along its side.
Until now, Vikings were just something from a school project, a cartoon or a TV series. Now I'm standing in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum, and it's as if something from my childhood imagination has come alive. Three Viking ships sit in this whitewashed, chapel-like museum which, built for a gentler age of tourism, is cramped and overcrowded. But its contents are electrifying. This is the real deal, a splinter of the Viking age lodged in the 21st century.
There are three ships, although one looks like a failed Ikea project and is a pile of warped planks. The Oseberg ship, though, is in remarkable nick. It looks as if you could push it into the water of the Oslofjord and row it across the harbour. It still has a full set of oars, and a rudder, and was probably used as a light pleasure craft. It's adorned with carved dragons and serpents, and was the funeral ship of a noblewoman and her servant.
The Gokstad ship is less immediately striking thanks to its relative simplicity, but at 24 metres from stern to prow and fitting 32 oarsmen, it's the largest Viking ship ever unearthed. The fast, nimble ocean-going vessel would have been capable of impressive navigational feats. The Norwegians have sailed across the Atlantic in a replica.
All three are funeral ships, and all survived from the ninth century by being buried in layers of turf and blue clay. The Gokstad ship entombed a man in his 40s whose skeleton showed he died from sword blows to his thigh. Found with him were skeletons of horses, dogs and falcons. In quite the testament to the Vikings' far-flung trade networks, two peacocks also went with him to Valhalla.
The ships by themselves would be remarkable, but what makes this small Oslo museum a must are its other displays. It was customary to pack funeral ships with items considered useful in the afterlife, and many were recovered from these ships, marvellously preserved. On display are shields and weapons, kitchen tools and elaborate jewellery, wooden boxes and even leather and textiles. Some of the cloth is woven with gold thread.
They paint a picture of a sophisticated society that clashes with the imaginative idea that the Vikings were just plunderers in horned helmets. You won't see such helmets here – no horned or winged helmets have ever been found from the Viking era. But you can see a rucksack probably used for hunting, elegant brass-and-wood buckets, a tent, a games board and wonderful wooden posts carved with animal heads.
Even more remarkable than the ships, perhaps, is an entirely intact wagon, the only one ever found from the Viking age, made of oak and beech and elaborately decorated with animals and horsemen. The sides are lined by carved human heads, no two the same.
Nearby is a ceremonial sledge that would have been pulled by two horses. It makes you imagine wealthy Vikings snuggled up in layers of furs, taking a joyride through the snowy Norwegian landscape. Not quite your traditional Viking picture of steel and pillage, then. It's a fine museum that shifts your perceptions.
Finnair operates codeshare flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Helsinki via Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, with onward connections to Oslo. Phone 1300 132 944, see finnair.com
Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama has a very central location, and some apartments have kitchen facilities, a big bonus in a very expensive city. From NOK837 ($138) a night. See thonhotels.com
The Viking Ship Museum is open daily and costs NOK100 ($16.50). See khm.uio.no
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Finnair and Visit Oslo.