Oseberg - Viking Ship Burial in Norway

The Viking Ship Oseberg, Viking Ship Museum
The Viking ship Oseberg on display at the Viking Museum in Oslo, Norway. Mark Edward Harris / Photolibrary / Getty Images Plus

Oseberg is the name of a Viking ship burial, located near present-day Tønsberg, Norway, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Oslo, on the banks of the Oslo Fjord in Vestfold county. Oseberg is one of several ship burials in the region, but it is the richest and best preserved of such elite graves.

Key Takeaways: Oseberg Ship Burial

  • Oseberg is a Viking boat grave, the interment of two elite women inside a working ship.
  • Created in 834 CE in eastern Norway south of Oslo, the ship and its contents were remarkably well-preserved. 
  • The ship was likely a royal barge built in 820 CE in western Norway.
  • Completely excavated in 1904, archaeological research has been focused on the analysis and conservation of the recovered artifacts. 

Viking Ship Description

The Oseberg ship was a karvi, a clinker-constructed ship built almost entirely of oak, and measuring 70.5 feet (21.4 meters) long, 17 ft (5.1 m) wide, and 4.9 ft (1.58 m) deep, from the railing to keel. The hull was constructed of 12 board planks stacked horizontally on either side; the port and starboard upper board planks have 15 oar holes, meaning the ship would have been propelled by a total of 30 oars—the oars were included in the burial.

Oseberg was an elaborately decorated ship, with several ornate carvings covering its hull, and it was decidedly not built for strength as a warship might have been. Analysis of the wooden parts of the ship suggested to archaeologists that the ship was originally a royal barge, built in Western Norway about 820 CE and used for short voyages along the coastlines. It wasn't terribly seaworthy, but it was overhauled immediately before the burial. The oars and yardarm were new and not the right size for the ship, and the anchor was too small.

Tools found aboard the ship included two small axes, kitchen equipment including a quern for grinding grain located near a butchered ox. The handles on both were well-preserved, with a characteristic herringbone pattern known as spretteteljing in evidence. A small wooden chest was also identified: although it was empty, it is assumed to have been a tool chest. Animals represented in the faunal assemblage included two oxen, four dogs, and 13 horses; there were also sledges, wagons, and a vertical loom.

Burial Chamber

Oseberg Viking Ship Burial, 1904 Excavation Image
Gabriel Gustafson excavation: News photo of the Oseberg Viking Ship Burial, 1904. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In the middle of the barge was a timber-built box with a tent-like cover of roughly hewn oak planks and posts. The chamber had been plundered in the 10th century CE—apparently part of ritual disturbances of many mounds during the reign of Harald Bluetooth (911–986 CE), who had ordered the destruction of mounds as part of his Christianization of the Scandinavian people. Despite Harold's efforts, the chamber still included the fragmented skeletal remains of two women, one aged in her 80s and the other in her early fifties.

When it was excavated in 1904, the interior of the chamber still contained the remains of several textiles. Some of the textiles may have been bedding, or wall hangings, or both. There were the remains of the women's clothing discovered as well: over 150 fragments of silk were found woven into the garments of the women. Twelve of the fragments were silk embroidery, the earliest found to date in Scandinavia. Some of the silk had been treated with madder and kermes dyes.

Some historians (such as Anne-Stine Ingstad, associated with the discovery of Leif Ericsson's L'anse aux Meadows camp in Canada) have suggested the elderly woman was Queen Asa, mentioned in the Viking poem Ynglingatal; the younger woman is sometimes referred to as a hofgyðja or priestess. The name of Oseberg—the burial is named after the nearby town—might be interpreted as "Asa's berg;" and the word berg is related to the Old High German/Old Anglo-Saxon terms for hill or grave mound. No archaeological evidence has been found to support this hypothesis.

Dating the Oseberg Ship

Detail of the Oseberg Cart from the Oseberg ship burial, 9th century.
Detail of the Oseberg Cart from the Oseberg ship burial, 9th century. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Dendrochronological analysis of the grave chamber timbers gave a precise date of the construction as 834 CE. Radiocarbon dating of the skeletons returned a date of 1220–1230 BP, consistent with the tree ring dates. DNA could only be retrieved from the younger woman, and it suggests she may have originated from the Black Sea region. Stable isotope analysis suggests the two had a primarily terrestrial diet, with relatively small amounts of fish compared to typical Viking fare.

Excavation

Prior to excavation, the large mound built over the top by the Vikings had been known as Revehaugen or Fox Hill: after the nearby Gokstad ship was discovered in 1880, Fox Hill was presumed to also hold a ship, and clandestine attempts to uncover parts of the mound began. Much of the soil was removed and used for fill before 1902 when the first official survey of what was left of the mound was conducted.

Oseberg was excavated by Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson (1853–1915) in 1904 and eventually written up by A.W. Brogger and Haakon Shetelig. The remarkable preservation of the contents was the result of the weight of the huge mound built above it, which pressed the ship and its contents down below the water table. The ship has been restored and it and its contents have been on display at the Viking Ship House at the University of Oslo since 1926. But over the last 20 years, scholars have noted that the wooden artifacts have become increasingly brittle.

Conservation

When Oseberg was discovered over a hundred years ago, scholars used typical preservation techniques of the day: all the wooden artifacts were treated to various mixtures of linseed oil, creosote, and/or potassium aluminum sulfate (alum), then coated in lacquer. At the time, the alum acted as a stabilizer, crystallizing the wood's structure: but infrared analysis has shown that the alum has caused the complete breakdown of the cellulose, and the modification of lignin. Some of the objects are only held together by the thin layer of lacquer.

The Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres have been addressing the issue, and conservationists at the National Museum of Denmark have been working on developing a comprehensive approach to the preservation of waterlogged wooden objects. Although the answers are as yet unclear, some potential exists for the creation of an artificial wood to replace that lost.

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