Jakob Oftebro og Kristofer Hivju i Birkebeinerne web

Skiing in the Viking Age

A few years ago archaeologists made a breath-taking find: a 1300-year old ski with the binding intact. Last year the skis were reconstructed. Now they have been tested.

Foto- Espen Finstad reinheimen ski tested web
Testing the Reinheimen ski in a Norwegian blizzard. Photo: Espen Finstad

Ancient skis have been found by archaeologists before. However, the ski from Reinheimen in Oppland is unique because the binding was still intact. This means that a proper reconstruction has been possible.

They reconstructed the skis were made by Reidar Marstein and Kjell Berntsen and the test-riding was carried out by Dag Inge Bakke under the supervision of the archaeologist, Espen Finstad. The original ski was intact, which means that reconstruction was relatively easy.

The reconstructed skis are 170 cm long, 14.5 cm wide and made from birchwood. The bindings were made from leather straps.

Inspiration of how to ski was found in ancient depictions of skiers from the mountains of Altay in China, where cave paintings have shown skiers driving reindeer with the same techniques as are used today among the Chinese from that region. Those skies are also wide Basically it involves a sharp bend in the knees and with the body weight resting backwards. A long stick used as a kind of rudder is implemented while twisting and turning downhill. The bindings are rather loose.

According to Dag Inge Bakke and the team behind the reconstruction, the challenge appeared to be not to get the skis on edge, but instead keep the snow under the skis.

But the reconstruction has also found wider application: in a major film set to premiere in February 2016 telling the dramatic story of the feat of the “Birkebeiner” in 1206 , the actors have had to learn how to race downhill using the ancient technique. The skis in the film have been made by Ole Kristian Ødegård, who has made his own transition from modern racing skis to the old traditional skis made of birch. He considers himself more of an ancient mountaineer than a skier. As part of the contract he has helped to teach the actors, Kristofer Hivju, Jakob Oftebro og Pål Sverre Hagen to walk the talk. A preview may be enjoyed in the official trailer.


The background of the film is the civil war, which raged in Norway in the beginning of the 13th century and the story of the future king of Norway, Haakon Haakonson. His father was Haakon Sverresson (Haakon III), who was leader of the “Birkebeiner” faction in the on-going civil war against the “Baglers”, his mother was Inga of Varteig. Shortly after the death of the king in 1204, she gave birth to a son, named Haakon. This happened at Folkenborg in Eidsberg in the middle of bagler-controlled territory. In the winter of 1205-06, when the boy was no more than six or seven months old, the Baglers (supported by the Danes) searched for him in order to kill him off. The mother and child fled together with loyal Birkebeiners. However, the party was struck by a blizzard and two famous Birkebeiner skiers, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka volunteered to carry the child over the mountains to safety at the court of King Inge in Nidaros (Trondheim) in Trøndelag.At the age of 13 he was declared king, but at first, the church refused to recognize him and his mother had to prove his parentage through a trial by ordeal in Bergen in 1218, as his parents had not been married. The main source of information concerning Haakon is the Saga of Haakon Haakonsson which was written in the immediate years following his death. Commissioned by his son Magnus, it was written by the Icelandic writer and politician Sturla Þórðarson (nephew of the famous historian Snorri Sturluson). The history of the civil war and the later rule of Haakon Haakonson has played a significant role in the formation of different factions of Norwegian historians since the 19th century, alternately casting the king as a Norwegian hero or international sell-out.

In the 1930s the story and its political ramifications led to the creation of a popular annual skiing event, Birkebeinerrennet, which starts at Rena and ends at Lillehammer. All participants carry a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kg symbolizing the weight of a newborn babe. This distance is 54 km. The distance between Eidsborg and Trondheim on route E134 is 740 km.


Urgammel Ski testet pa Øyerfjellet (with a video presenting the test-run of the reconstructed ski)




1300-year old ski reconstructed

Skiing: from its origins to the modern practice of Nordic and alpine disciplines.

Human locomotion on snow: determinants of economy and speed of skiing across the ages
By Federico Formenti, Luca P Ardigò and Alberto E Minetti
In: The Royal Society: proceedings B, 2005



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