Archives For Scandinavia

Roald AmundsenIn his latest book, The Last Viking, author Stephen Bown documents the epic life of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is best known for winning a dramatic race to the South Pole and becoming the first human to reach the bottom of the world. Bown presents readers with a modern retelling of Amundsen’s life and stunning achievements. Amundsen was not only the first to journey to the South Pole, he also was the first to reach the North Pole and to sail the Northwest Passage.

Divided into five parts, The Last Viking chronicles each of Amundsen’s polar explorations including his last ill-fated voyage to rescue the stranded crew of an Italian airship in the Arctic. Bown, though, resists the urge to focus solely on Amundsen’s explorations and presents readers with a portrait of a confident leader whose drive and attention to detail helped him become one of the most successful explorers of the 20th century.

Utilizing contemporary newspaper accounts and previously untapped archival materials, Bown describes in detail Amundsen’s voyages, personal financial problems and character flaws. The reader also learns of the behind the scenes struggles Amundsen endured with duplicitous agents, rival explorers driven by nationalism, and the cataclysm of World War I which hampered one of his voyages.

Each section of the book opens with a map of the region corresponding to the exploits Bown documents in that section. This is especially helpful to understand the vast distances Amundsen covered either by ship, sled, skis, airship or plane.

In a world where little is left to explore, Bown transports his readers to a time when great men battled nature to explore the earth’s last remaining terra incognita. As the winter months approach, readers would be well served to buy The Last Viking and curl up in front of a roaring fire to enjoy Bown’s gripping account of Amundsen’s epic polar adventures.

Vikings in America

Baffin Island
CC Image Courtesy of Mike Beauregard on Flickr

National Geographic reports that archaeologists working in Tanfield Valley on Baffin Island have uncovered evidence pointing to a second Viking camp in North America. Canadian archaeologists led by Memorial University adjunct professor Patricia Sutherland began excavations in the area in 2001. While excavating the ruins of an ancient building on the island, Sutherland and her crew found whetstones with traces of a copper alloy known to be used by Viking metalsmiths, but not natives of the region. Items with Viking origins have previously been found on the island including Viking yarn, tally sticks and whetstones.

Sutherland’s latest discovery solidifies evidence for Viking contact with the peoples of Baffin Island and provides further foundation for her assertion that a northern transatlantic trade route existed between the Vikings and Arctic natives. The high demand in northern Europe for ivory and furs would have provided significant economic incentive for the Vikings to trade with Arctic natives.

Archaeologists first discovered evidence of Viking contact with North America at L’Anse aux Meadows in 1960. Numerous modern day adventurers have utilized Viking ships and navigation techniques to sail from the Vikings’ Scandinavian homeland to various points in North America. The feat was even accomplished 120 years ago when Norwegian Magnus Anderson built and sailed a Viking longship replica from Norway to Chicago for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition. The ship is now on display in Chicago, Illinois.

polish palace

Kazimierz Palace
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Polish archaeologists and police are exploiting historically low water levels on the Vistula River to recover dozens of marble and alabaster decorative elements looted from Polish landmarks in the 17th century. Utilizing a Mil Mi-8 police helicopter, archaeologists are carefully lifting the sculptures from the riverbed and transporting them to drier locales for conservation and restoration. The decorative elements were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace by Swedish forces after they captured Warsaw during the mid-17th century. The loot was loaded onto barges and prepared for transit to Sweden via the Vistula and then the Baltic. At least one barge, though, sank en route and scattered its precious cargo along the riverbed. Polish archaeologists have known about the treasures, but river conditions have rarely cooperated such that they could retrieve the pieces. Efforts over the last 3 years have yielded some results, but nothing like the finds archaeologists are making now.

Today, Sweden is most often associated with IKEA furniture, safe cars (cb radio optional), cars born from jets and ABBA, but the Swedish Empire once encompassed 1.1 million square kilometers and dominated its northern European rivals. By comparison, the Holy Roman Empire was 1 million sq. km. and modern Sweden is 450,000 sq. km. The Empire was founded in 1611 by Gustavus Adolphus, a brilliant military commander, who defeated his rivals in the Thirty Years War and began the expansion of Sweden’s borders. Between 1600 and 1721, the Poles and the Swedes clashed no fewer than 6 times in conflicts lasting up to 11 years. It was during one of these wars that the decorative structures being recovered today were looted from Poland’s Royal Castle and the Kazimierz Palace. In addition to waging war against the Poles, the Swedes also attacked and occupied territory in modern day Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Russia. The Great Northern War which concluded in 1721 marked the end of Sweden’s status as a great power and the empire’s territorial breadth began to slowly recede.

Winter War

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1939, Soviet forces invaded Finland with the intention of bringing additional territory into the communist fold. Even though the Soviet forces vastly outnumbered the Finns, Finnish troops put up a heroic resistance and the conflict was resolved 4 months later with the loss of ~11% of Finland’s pre-war territory. Thus when Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 the Finns were quick to lend their support to the Nazis in an effort to regain their lost territory.

Flowing from this cooperation was the use of Finnish naval forces to screen against Soviet naval forces while German ground forces advanced through the Baltic states. In one such operation, Operation Nordwind, one of Finland’s two capital ships, the Ilmarinen, struck a mine and sank with 271 casualties. The loss of the Ilmarinen on September 13, 1941 was devastating to the tiny Finnish Navy. For a force consisting of only 3,800 officers and sailors, the loss represented  7% of Finnish naval forces. By comparison, less than .8% of the US Navy perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Ilmarinen had been built in the 1930s as a coastal defence ship for the purpose of defending the numerous islands and islets of Finland’s Baltic coastline. Video of the ship in 1938 can be seen here (the Ilmarinen is the first ship shown in the video). The ship saw service in the Winter War defending the Finnish coast against the Soviet invaders and later shelled Soviet forces after the beginning of the German invasion.

Even though the Finns initially sided with the Nazis, they fought not for ideology, but for self-preservation. In September 1944, the Finns established a separate peace with the Soviets and engaged the Nazis in open combat in the Lapland region until the Nazis withdrew to Norway in April 1945.

Viking Longboat

The Viking by C. Graham. 1893.

In 1892, Norwegian Magnus Andersen embarked on an ambitious project – building a full-size replica of the Gokstad Viking ship that had been discovered 12 years earlier in a burial mound near Gokstad, Norway. As if replicating a nearly 80 foot wooden ship wasn’t enough, Andersen then sailed the ship from Norway to New York City up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal through the Great Lakes and finally to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Andersen’s exploits made waves both literally and figuratively at the Exposition and later as he sailed to New Orleans and back to Chicago.

The ship is now housed in Geneva, IL just outside Chicago and is considered one of Illinois’ most endangered historical landmarks. Friends of the Viking Ship have stepped up to preserve the ship and are currently resolving legal ownership issues so they can raise money to permanently house the ship in a climate controlled facility. The ship is open to the public from 1 – 4pm this Saturday (September 15, 2012) as well as October 20, 2012. For more information, see the Friends of the Viking Ship website.

Finland Shipwreck Champagne

CC Image courtesy of David Parsons on Flickr

According to the German publication Deutsche Welle, another 8 bottles from a 168 bottle collection of champagne are set to go under the auctioneers hammer. The champagne was discovered two years ago by diver and (ironically enough) brewery owner Christian Ekström. Ekström was exploring a wrecked schooner off the coast of the Åland Islands when he came upon the bottles at the site. Researchers believe the schooner sank in the 1840s making Ekström’s find the oldest champagne ever found. Now, two years after the discovery, 10 of the bottles have been sold at auction with one, a Veuve Clicquot, selling for a record breaking $26,700. Authorities on the Åland Islands plan to hold auctions of the champagne over the next few years as a method of bringing tourists to the area.

Ekström’s find isn’t the first fermented treasure trove found in the Baltic as there have been both beer and other champagne caches discovered in recent years. The discovery and re-creation of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey, though, is still perhap the most noteworthy alcoholic find of the past few years.

Viking longboat

CC Image courtesy of TNDrumGuy on Flickr

Divers operating near the Swedish village of Birka announced the discovery yesterday of underwater jetties dating back to the Vikings. The stone foundations found by the dive team were deeper than historians had believed Vikings could build. The discovery is causing archaeologists to re-examine some of their basic understandings of the Birka village and Viking building techniques. Historians have long thought Birka to merely have had small jetties and a trading post, but the foundations now lead them to believe the village could have been 30% larger than previously thought. They also now believe that it functioned as a port with a marketplace near the wharf

The village of Birka on the Swedish island of Björkö has long been the site of archaeological excavations because of its Viking history. Work in the area first began in the late 19th century and continues today. The village is a UNESCO world heritage site and contains a reconstructed Viking village and museum.

Baltic Sea UFO

August 16, 2012 — 1 Comment

Diver Peter Lindberg recently sat down with Red Ice Radio to discuss the “Baltic UFO” that was reported in several major media outlets earlier this summer (see here and here). At the beginning of this year’s recovery season, Ocean X, a Swedish salvage company, began further investigations of an underwater anomaly it discovered last year.  Some outlets questioned the veracity of Ocean X’s claims, allegations which Lindberg addressed in his interview.

Lindberg explained that he believes the most likely explanation is that the odd rock formation is an underwater volcano or, if artificial, a relic of the Ice Age.  He asserts that he never claimed for it to be a UFO and further research has ruled out it having been constructed during either world war. Much of the UFO speculation arose from Ocean X’s constant reports of interference at the dive site with its electronic equipment. Lindberg stated that while electronics and water don’t mix and equipment problems are common on dives, he’s never seen this level of interference.

His team just completed operations necessary to create a computerized 3D image of the object and have taken samples from loose rock around and atop it.  Ocean X is working with Stockholm University to process the data and samples and hopes to return to the site with a geologist and the tools to take a core sample. The team also used a frequency meter to determine whether or not the object was emitting radio frequencies and are awaiting final results.

While some may question whether or not Ocean X is using their “find” to garner publicity, Lindberg’s previous success in recovering the $8 million “Jonkoping Champagne” from the depths of the Baltic Sea definitively established his maritime exploration and salvage bona fides.

For the full interview, go to Red Ice Radio.