Stockholm’s Viking Museum is one of the best places in the world to learn about the fascinating history of the Viking Age.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Eric Östergren – one of the museum’s amazing Viking experts – and asked him to take us through the museum’s collection and more.
Read on to find out what life as a Viking was really like, what items you should take with you if you time-travel back to the 9th century, and who the Leonardo da Vinci of runestone-carving was.
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Meet your insider: Eric from Stockholm’s Viking Museum
What do you do for the Viking Museum in Stockholm, and how long have you worked here?
I’ve worked here since the museum started, so five years! I was one of the first interviews they had for staff and have been here since then. My role has changed a bit over the years; these days I’m the senior guide manager. I give our guides the information they need to keep giving people the best and most accurate view of the Viking Age possible. I have my degree in archaeology here from Stockholm, so I always try to keep an eye out for any new developments!
The Viking Museum has universally positive reviews from people all over the world – Spain, Italy, Germany, as well as locals. What is it about the Viking Museum that makes it so special?
Part of the answer is part of the question: we have something for everyone! If you’re a local Stockholm family, we have something specifically for your kids, with knowledge aimed towards their learning level.
For tourists, most of their experience with the Viking Age comes from pop culture, which is a great gateway to learning more about the real history behind their favourite shows. Museums are not for everyone; some people think they’re boring. That’s why we’ve worked quite a lot with the environment here to really give people a feel for the Viking Age. The guides welcome people and wear authentic Viking clothing – like the tunic I’m wearing now, which is based on a find from Denmark from the 11th century!
Part of the reason that so many people enjoy being here is that there are so many different ways to take part in the Viking Age, as well as many different ways to learn. Maybe you think museums are not for you, but then suddenly there’s a staircase going down, and you wonder ‘’Hey, what’s down there?’’ – and it’s an adventure ride!
You’ve worked at the Viking Museum for five years! There’s obviously something that keeps you here and keeps you excited about the Viking Age. What do you love most about your role?
My friends will tell you that I never stop talking about the Viking Age. My colleagues are my friends as well, so when we go to parties outside of work they’ll get me started on something Viking-related and then I’ll just start talking – after a while, other people join in and I can talk to them about the Viking Age!
I really like to teach people; I want people to enjoy learning. Here, I can really do that – there are so many different ways I can talk to people. We have guided tours every hour, and some of the best parts of my work are when I notice that someone learns something that they didn’t expect to learn – an insight, that ‘’aha!’’ moment.
Many people, especially here in Stockholm, think that they know a lot about the Viking Age because we have to learn about it in school. But there are so many more layers, and once we start getting closer to those layers the bigger picture becomes clear.
For example, we have heard about these Vikings that went away on long journeys; but once we start to think about the people back home who made those journeys possible, then suddenly we have a working world! It’s not just one mighty warrior going away, but we have a whole society – this is something that I really like to talk about, because it lets you understand the Viking world on another level.
Stockholm’s Viking Museum: Highlights & Hidden Gems
What is your favourite part of the Viking Museum?
As you might have guessed, there are so many things – I can find something everywhere! However, I really like the art part of the Viking Age. This is something that people can be quite surprised by. We think of Vikings as brutes and barbarians, but artwork and fashion was a very important part of the Viking Age.
We have a corner in our exhibition where we talk about the artwork and how it changed over time, but also about runestones, these monuments that were made 1,000 years ago. Some people call me ‘Rune Eric’ because I always talk about runes and runestones – so I really like to hang around there.
We also have a big cutout stone where people can write their own messages using rune symbols. They often write their own name, sometimes they write some not-so-nice-things as well, but I just like seeing how people realise they can write in another writing system – they can learn to write as a Viking would have.
One of my party tricks is that I know the runes quite well, so when people are writing their name, I can come up behind them and say ‘’Ah! Frederick!’’ and surprise them.
One man who works here has also built what looks like the front of a Viking house; there are panels with Viking artwork, which he made in wood, based on artwork from the Viking Age. Each panel reflects a different artistic era, from the Borre style of the 800s to the Jellinge style closer to the end of the Viking Age.
If you had to create a highlights reel for the Viking Museum, what would you feature?
When you come here, you have to stand eye-to-eye with our recreated man! We call him Leifur. He’s based on a Viking Age skeleton, and we got lots of knowledge about how he lived from this. He was quite tall for his time, based on his teeth we could see what he ate, and he was not a warrior – he has no injuries from battle, but rather from working hard as a farmer. His face was reconstructed from his skull using the same method as the police would do. Based on DNA, we could even find his real hair colour and eye colour.
Then, I also have to mention Ragnfrid’s Saga, the adventure ride we have with carts that go around – it’s an 11-minute-long story that lets you really experience the Viking Age. Everything there is based on history, archaeology, and the stories written down in Iceland a few hundred years after the Viking Age. That is also something you definitely have to do!
When you come up from the ride, you’ll find the restaurant. At 11:00, when it opens, everyone who works here on the island starts coming in for lunch. The restaurant also has the greatest view out over the water here in Stockholm.
Lastly, I would say join one of the guided tours. We have the tours on an hourly basis, switching between Swedish and English, and they are great introductions to the exhibitions. They’re also a great way of learning more about the Viking Age. For us guides, to stand there and talk to people, we simply love to do it – and we also notice that people enjoy being on our guided tours. It’s something I really recommend.
What do you consider the hidden gems in the Viking Museum? Which parts do you wish people would stop and appreciate more?
Of course, I think everything in the museum is worth attention!
But being the rune guy that I am, I have to mention the reconstruction of a runestone in our exhibition – it’s kind of in a corner, and some people might walk past it, but it’s based on a real runestone. The original stands maybe 40 minutes from Stockholm by car. The inscription is by two parents, who made the stone as a memorial for their son.
This family made so many more runestones that you can actually follow their story for five generations; it gives you a unique insight into a Viking Age family. You can really get close to people from the past.
Not far away, we have some artefacts on loan from the Museum of Gotland. These are in small display cases, but all of them are from the same grave belonging to a buried woman on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The items she had in her grave were all just top-notch things.
Many people back then had some kind of jewellery, like maybe some glass beads on a necklace. If you had a metal piece of jewellery, it was most likely bronze. This woman actually had silver and gold items in her grave, so we know that she was very wealthy. She also has a key in her grave, and this is something we often connect to important women in the Viking Age. It was up to the women to take charge of the farm; she had the power to lock that door to keep something out, or keep something safe inside.
Once you start understanding these layers, you go from just seeing a small box filled with artefacts to realising this woman is from Gotland because she has a local sense of fashion that’s different from mainland Scandinavia, and that she was rich and powerful.
But being rich and powerful didn’t stop her from being actively involved in society; she was also buried with items used to create textiles, which were used for clothing as well as making sails for the Viking ships.
It’s easy to walk past this little box of items, but the woman who owned these objects really was in the middle of the Viking Age; the Viking Age as we know it could not have been possible without people like her.
Many people are quite passionate about Vikings. That can lead to some interesting experiences. Do you ever get Viking superfans visiting?
We do! Many people who come here are super curious. We do also have some Viking villages around Sweden; they have authentic buildings and people go there to live as Vikings for a few weeks in summer. Many of these people come here in groups – lots of them already know a lot about the Viking Age, but often they can still learn new things here.
Some people are really into the different pop culture representations of Vikings, and they know everything about these fictional worlds! Then they come here to get the historical background as well. Since so many people who work here know many things about the Viking Age, there’s always someone to answer their questions.
Do you have a favourite story (or two) from your time at the Viking Museum?
I’m starting to realise I have been working here for some time now. We’ve hired many people over the years, and I saw that one of my colleagues was hired as #100 – and I am #4!
I really like talking to families – it can be difficult for children to grasp something that happened so many years ago. Every once in a while, I can see in their eyes that something has clicked and that suddenly they’re interested. This is something I can connect to myself; I have a life-long interest in the Viking Age, and there are photos of me when I was three years old standing next to a runestone.
Once, we got a message from someone who had been on one of my guided tours, and the message said “We were on Eric’s tour yesterday, and now one of my children says they want to be an archaeologist!” That made me think I did the right thing!
Separating Viking facts from Viking fiction with Stockholm’s Viking Museum
What are some common misconceptions about Vikings? What are things people don’t know? How about things people think are true, but actually aren’t?
That’s a great question! Despite our knowledge of the Viking Age, sometimes it’s tricky to arrive at one truth. One thing I enjoy doing on guided tours is asking people what they think: did the English people think Vikings were clean or dirty? At this point, some guests usually look at me suspiciously because they know I have a hidden motive for asking.
According to the English at the time, we have a written source mentioning that the Northerners were very clean people; they would wash often and comb their hair every day. In archaeological digs, we can find many combs – I’ve read that combs are the second-most common kind of artefact from the Viking Age. It appears that almost everyone had their own combs so they could make their hair look good and maybe get rid of some lice. This is definitely in contrast to how Vikings are often shown in pop culture.
However, we do also have a source by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan from Baghdad, who met Northerners on the River Volga. He wrote the most horrific description of how they would wash! The chieftain would wash his face, comb his hair, blow his nose into the water, spit in it, and then pass the bowl to the next person, and so on! This is perhaps more what people would assume is a Viking Age thing.
So we have one very dirty Viking Age and one very clean one; which one is true?
Fascinating! What else?
With clothing, many people expect Vikings to look like cavemen covered in furs – while all of the clothes we have from the Viking Age are actually made of textiles like linen and wool, made on weaving looms. The Viking Age society wouldn’t have worked with only warriors; it required people with specialised skills.
We know from written sources that people valued the law as a very important thing, and they would often hold assemblies to discuss this. This feels quite far away from the mighty warrior stereotype people have. And poetry was also a very important part of the Viking Age!
There are many things that I think should get more attention – there are some movie tropes we will never get rid of, but if we have a depiction of a cool Viking Age that’s not 100% correct, that’s still good because it’ll get people interested.
When you watch a show like Vikings or The Last Kingdom, what’s something that they all get wrong? Does it bother you to see everyone running into battle without helmets or armour?
Yes, there are more and more shows like this – and The Northman coming up in a few weeks. I’m on Season 4 of Vikings but many of my colleagues have already watched the new Vikings: Valhalla. There’s also The Last Kingdom and more – like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which I’m playing right now!
Ever since Vikings started, we’ve taken important steps in the right direction. These shows are definitely not documentaries, but they also don’t claim to be documentaries! Like in Vikings, they have Ragnar Lodbrok, who is more of a legendary character – we can assume there to be some truth in it, like there may well have been kings named Ragnar… but in the main source we have for Ragnar, he also fights a dragon!
In the series, Ragnar’s brother is Rollo, who is on the other hand someone we can be 100% sure existed. If you wanted to, you could actually visit his grave in Rouen, France. These shows take people and events from different eras and put them together to make a good story – I can accept that! As I said, they’re not claiming to be documentaries.
When it comes to equipment and gear, we have some issues! They often have clothes that aren’t based on archaeological finds, and the hairstyles and beards… well, I understand what they based it on, but it’s not entirely correct. Once again though, it looks good!
I’m glad you mentioned helmets, which happens to be one of my specialties. Do you know how many helmets were found from the Viking Age?
No idea, but I feel like we’re about to find out!
Only four. And one of those might actually be earlier than the Viking Age! From Scandinavia, we have three helmets we can be quite sure of. Helmets appear to have been very rare. When people run to battle without a helmet, it’s actually accurate – many people wouldn’t have had a helmet, as they were very expensive. If you had that kind of money, you were likely an earl or a king, or a very high-ranking warrior.
I think the shield was the most important kind of armour back then – because if you need chainmail, that’s once again very expensive. Each ring is made by hand and riveted, so there’s so much work involved – they also weigh 15 kg so you need to be quite strong to wear it. I have a colleague who wears chainmail regularly because he thought: “I have the only job in Sweden where it’s acceptable to wear chainmail to work”. He can quit his gym membership because he gets a workout just from wearing that every day.
Some parts of how Viking warriors are depicted in pop culture are perhaps not super authentic, but we are slowly taking steps towards a more correct depiction of the Viking Age. I think it must be very boring to watch movies with me because I’m going “Hey, that’s not quite as correct as it should be!” For example, now I’m playing Assassin’s Creed, and I’m not looking for the fanciest or best sword – I’m trying to find the most authentic one!
On the other side, are there things that these shows get right? Have you ever been impressed at the historical accuracy of certain elements?
The thing I think is interesting now is that they use the real names of people – they’re not just inventing names like ‘Bjorn Vikinggson’, they’re using historical figures like Rollo, or Bjorn Ironside. These are people who have either existed or were in stories that were told for a very long time. I think it’s quite cool that pop culture is starting to use these real people. Even if these shows and films take some artistic liberties, they can still place the characters in their right environment and use real events.
This kind of thing used to be quite esoteric knowledge; not many people used to know about the Viking Rollo and how he was part of founding Normandy! I notice that in many of the questions I get while giving a guided tour, I can often tell whether someone’s been watching Vikings. It really shows me how much of a huge impact these things have had.
Imagine you’re going back in time to the Viking Age. You have one hour to prepare, and have access to the museum’s entire collection. What items do you bring back with you, and why?
I would try to be part of Viking society as much as possible! First, I would take authentic clothing – we do have a Viking clothing expert who works here at the museum. If I wear things that she’s made, then the people in the Viking Age would look at me and think I have a good sense of fashion! That’s the first step towards being OK with each other – taking care of your presentation in the Viking age is very important.
I’d also take a comb – in particular, a fancy comb. That’s the Viking Age equivalent of having the coolest new smartphone. You want to show people that you’re up to date and have the coolest accessories. Just having that social status back in those days would be a good advantage.
Then I’d take some things as gifts – gifts are always good and can be an important part of making friends. Bringing some amber would be a very appreciated gift! At the museum, we want people to have a feel for the Viking Age, so we do have some textile examples that we know were around 1,000 years ago. I would definitely bring some silk along, because if I give them some silk, they’d definitely like to be my friends. So amber and silk as gifts!
I would also bring my tools; I would not survive for very long in the Viking Age world. I’m not a very good hunter and there are so many things that I would not be able to do, like building a Viking house. However, I do know runes! What I would do is bring my chisel and hammer and tell people that I can make them a runestone – which they would really appreciate.
My aim would be to create friends so I can be part of a society – the Viking Age people knew this, and most people throughout history knew this: when you’re part of a group, you have a better chance at surviving.
It feels like you’ve thought about this before.
Maybe once or twice! It may have been one of the reasons I’ve tried to learn Old Norse as well, so I could communicate with them. For many Northern Europeans, if they went back in time, after a while they would get a hang of the words. The grammar is quite horrible with Old Norse, as there are many different ways to change a word, but I would know enough to not appear super weird. I’d be able to introduce myself at least! Okay, maybe I’ve thought about it quite a lot.
I’m not entirely sure what I would do if I was in the Viking Age, but I would definitely like to see my favourite rune carver work. I have a favourite rune carver – everyone should have a favourite rune carver – named Öpir, who signed about 50 runestones. I want to see him work and know who he was. The only thing we know is that he signed these amazing runestones with his name, but we don’t know anything about this life. I’d love to see it – it would be like watching Da Vinci for me.
Tips for planning your trip to the Viking Museum in Stockholm
We don’t usually ask people questions about their gift shops, but the Viking museum’s gift shop has some of the most amazing things in there. It’s like a Viking dream!
Yes, my colleague who’s in charge of the gift shop has put a lot of effort into creating the vibe of it – it’s somewhere in between a museum shop and a decoration/homeware shop. Once again, there’s something for everyone there. I’ve tried many of the things there! It’s quite dangerous to work here, because every once in a while I walk in there and buy something new. I really like drinking horns, so I have a few of those at home, and of course I’ve tried the beard products.
I also like the things that we have in the shop, not just because they’re Viking-themed, but because of the producers we work with. They’re often small-scale local producers, including one from a village right next door to where my family has a house. They make soap with tar in it, which was used for Viking ships – it smells great and it’s great for my beard!
You mentioned the restaurant earlier! Have you tried the food? Is there anything you would recommend? What’s the mead like?
I’ve only tried the non-alcoholic mead, but my friends have told me that all of them taste great. It’s such a good way to get a feel (and taste) for the Viking Age. Most people back then wouldn’t have drunk it every day because it was quite expensive, but mead really was the party drink for special occasions.
Every Friday they have hamburgers – and local people know this. Many people come here for them. The lunch menu is always super popular and has some nice vegetarian options too. Sometimes it’s food from far away, other times it’s a Swedish classic.
We do of course have meatballs – something you have to try in Stockholm.
Lastly: if people want to plan a Viking-themed adventure around Stockholm, their first stop should obviously be the Viking Museum – but do you have any other nearby recommendations for them?
There are so many ways to take part in the Viking Age in this area! If you want to go on a full-day experience you can go to Birka, which was a merchants’ hub in the Viking Age. You would be right where Viking Age people used to be. Another famous thing in Stockholm would be Skansen, right across the street from us, who also have four runestones from the Viking Age.
Not far away, we also have something called The Rune Kingdom, or Runriket – it’s best to go here by car. There are 40-50 runestones around the area, and here you’re really in the old neighbourhood of Viking Age people. You can see the diversity of the monuments left by the past inhabitants. It would take 40 minutes or less to get there with a car – I’m planning a bike trip there this summer, and really looking forward to it!