The future of the past

New Viking discoveries are the topic of CLU’s Nordic Spirit Symposium

Nordic Spirit Symposium

Photo: Ernst F. Tonsing
Runologist Henrik Williams, professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, stands with a large engraved runestone. Recent discoveries in runic material is revealing new insights into the Viking World.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

With state-of-the-art space technology, Viking Age history will never be the same! We now know that the era began earlier than was previously thought—and the existence of women warriors was not just a myth.

The 20th annual Nordic Spirit Symposium in Thousand Oaks, Calif., will bring the latest discoveries about Viking life to the public in a format that blends presentations by leading academics and authors with drama, film, and music by leading artists.

And while it’s all based on history, many of the recent discoveries have been made possible through the use of space-age technology, including the distant surveillance which led to finding a 1,000-year-old ring-shaped fortress in Denmark, the first such discovery in 60 years.

Changing history

Nordic Spirit Symposium

Photo: Ernst F. Tonsing
A replica of one of the famous Jelling stones from Jelling, Denmark. The use of vibrant colored paint along with the etching was widespread, according to runologists such as Henrik Williams.

Two ship burials have recently been discovered during road work on the edge of the Baltic Sea in Estonia, in what is described as the most significant Viking discovery of the last 100 years, indicating that Viking raids began nearly half a century earlier than what was previously seen as the first Viking invasion at Lindisfarne, on the English coast.

In North America, more than 100 objects claimed to be runestones have been identified. Technology has made these and other discoveries possible, shedding new light on Viking life and travels.

These and other astounding new discoveries will be the topic for a line-up of distinguished archaeologists, authors, and Viking Age experts at the upcoming Nordic Spirit Symposium, to be held at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks on Feb. 8-9.

This will be the 20th annual symposium, a series that has covered a variety of Scandinavian subjects—but the several installments relating to the Viking Age have been favorite subjects, according to Howard K. Rockstad, founder and director of the series.

“Especially in light of the astounding recent discoveries, the Viking Age has become a newly enriched landscape,” Rockstad noted, adding that interest in Vikings continues to rise in the United States. “There is no other subject that seems to interest Scandinavian Americans more.” And with international experts in the field doing the reporting, the audience will become more informed—as well as being entertained, Rockstad said.

Several aspects of the new finds will be featured at the event. Taking on the history-changing Estonian boat burial discovery will be Neil Price of Uppsala University, who will speak on how the new find changes the timing of the Viking Age.

Women warriors 

He will also speak about Viking Age “warrior women” or “shield maidens.” Extending from the Valkyries of Old Norse prose and poetry to Wagner’s operatic fantasies, the Viking woman has taken on a new lease of life through mass media and television dramas such as the “Vikings” series, Price noted, adding that the shocking discovery in 2017 that a famous Viking warrior burial was in fact the grave of a woman has given new life to their existence.

Summing up the treasure trove of recent discoveries, Cal Lutheran professor Sam Claussen will show how the picture of Viking Age Scandinavia is changing as a result of scientific exploration.

New insights into the Viking world are being revealed in recent discoveries of runic material, and leading runologist Henrik Williams of the University of Uppsala will highlight the new finds, using frontline research. “Runes may also be found in North America, and not just in Kensington, Minnesota,” Williams said, noting that about 100 objects claimed to be runic have been identified to date. He will discuss “the most interesting and the most mysterious” of these.

To wrap it all up, Jesse Byock, noted author and UCLA archaeologist, a world-renowned Viking expert, will lead a panel discussion with several speakers taking on aspects of the discoveries and what they reveal.

Film and drama

The Nordic Spirit Symposium traditionally includes a performance of music and the arts, and this year will feature the screening of a Viking film and a one-woman staging of a Norse saga. In 1981, Icelandic director Ágúst Guðmundsson made the film Útlaginn (Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli), a story of crime and revenge set in the 10th century. Segments of the film will be screened at the symposium.

Also from Iceland, singer and actress Thorunn Clausen will portray the first European woman in America in a one-person dramatic presentation based on the historical sagas. In The Saga of Gudridur, she will singlehandedly portray several characters representing the first Europeans to settle in North America more than 1,000 years ago.

Sponsors of the Nordic Spirit Symposium are the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation and Cal Lutheran. It is made possible by grants from the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation and the Norway House Foundation in San Francisco

The symposium begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Scandinavian Center at Cal Lutheran, and concludes with a Saturday evening dinner. Reservations are requested for the Friday reception and required by Jan. 31 for dinner on Saturday. Admission is $25 for the Friday evening lectures and $50 for the daylong Saturday program; these presentations are free for Cal Lutheran students, faculty and staff. For information and registration, contact Howard Rockstad at (805) 497-3717 or

This article originally appeared in the January 11, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.