Collier’s Weekly: What a Viking Encounter Showed Me About the Past

The “Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center provides a good reminder of history beyond the recent past.
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Last week, I stopped by Carnegie Science Center to see the fun and engaging exhibit “Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea.” With more than 140 artifacts — including several delicate pieces more than 10 centuries old — it gives a glimpse into the rugged, vibrant life of a people whose exploits and legends have remained in myth for a millennium.

It reminded me, oddly, of a particular walk I used to take in college. (Remembering that far back is, at this point, itself a journey into the sands of time.) In the semester I spent allegedly studying at NUI Galway, on Ireland’s western coast, I passed over the River Corrib every day on the way to campus. The Corrib, which flows out into Galway Bay, is not a particularly large river; we’ve got three around here that put it to shame, as far as size is concerned.

It was big enough, however, for boats. Specifically, Viking ships. We were assured that raids reached into the Irish mainland by way of the River Corrib; more than a thousand years ago, Vikings sailed up this river. Now, I was sleepily ambling across it to get to class.

When this type of encounter with history happens in the wild, it’s remarkable. Often, though, we can only get these experiences in a museum setting. The “Vikings” exhibit is a wonderful example; when you’re investigating a 1,200-year-old necklace, forged by ancient tools in the shape of Thor’s hammer, you suddenly realize that this isn’t just an artifact — it’s an object that was seen, held and worn.

Pittsburgh is good at celebrating its history; in murals and landmarks, on guided tours, and through a thorough body of literature, we can point out the city’s DNA. That’s where the mills stood; that’s where the games were played. This building has been there for 150 years. George Washington marshaled troops right over there.

Here’s the thing, though: Everything I just said happened centuries after the Vikings sailed those long ships down that river I used to cross in Galway. (There’s a scale replica of one of those boats in the exhibit, by the way. You’ve gotta see it.)

We preserve the history of the Immaculate Reception, Iron City Beer and Fort Pitt — as well we should. The closer history is to the present, the more impact it has on our lives, the more it can teach us about where we come from and where we’re going.

But we often limit our view of history to the stuff that looks a good bit like us — buildings that aren’t too far off from our own, people who called their land by the same name we use today.

History, obviously, goes back much further than that.

For me, this was in stark relief last year on a trip to Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, the historical site south of the city. It traces the history of the region not merely over centuries, but thousands — tens of thousands — of years. One area is set up to resemble an indigenous village, beautifully illustrating the lives of people who lived in this area for countless generations before Europeans arrived. Another demonstrates the lives and livelihoods of early settlers who were present long before America was its own country.

And Meadowcroft’s astounding rockshelter shows where people gathered 19,000 years ago — long before there was a place called Pittsburgh, and long before the Vikings built those ships.

Meadowcroft is worth a trip, particularly when spring takes hold. In the meantime, go to the Science Center for a glimpse at a time long ago and a place far away. It’s a reminder that we stand on generations of knowledge, story and experience that go far deeper in the past than we can ordinarily see — unless we take the time to pause, think and consider.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly