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Oseberg (Norway)

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Oseberg Viking Ship (Norway)

Oseberg Viking Ship (Norway)

Jim Gateley
Definition:

Oseberg is the name of a Viking ship burial, located about 95 kilometers south of Oslo, on the banks of the Oslo Fjord in Vestfold county, Norway. Oseberg is one of several ship burials in the Slagen district, but it is the richest of such burials. Prior to excavation, the mound 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 until 1902, when the first official survey of what was left of the mound was conducted.

The Oseberg ship was a karvi, a clinker-constructed ship built almost entirely of oak, and measuring 21.4 meters (70.5 feet) long, 5.1 m (17 ft) wide, and 1.58 m (4.9 ft) deep, from railing to keel. The hull is constructed of 12 board planks stacked horizontally on either side, and the port and starboard upper board planks have 15 oar holes, meaning the ship would have been propelled by a total of 30 oars. Oseberg was a decorative ship, with several ornate carvings covering its hull, and it was not built for strength as a war ship might have been. Thus, it likely was built to be used specifically as a burial vessel.

Tools found on the Oseberg ship included two small axes, found with kitchen equipment 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. Animals represented in the faunal assemblage included two oxen, four dogs, and 13 horses. Personal belonging included beds, sledges, wagons, textiles and a vertical loom.

Grave Chamber

The grave chamber was a tent of roughly hewn oak planks and posts, placed in the center of the ship. The chamber had been disturbed shortly after the burial, by either grave robbers or local animals. The fragmented skeletal remains of two women were found buried in the ship, one aged in her 80s and the other in her early fifties.

Some historians (such as Anne-Stine Ingstad, associated with the discovery of Leif Ericsson's L'anse aux Meadows camp in Newfoundland) 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"; 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.

Dendrochronological analysis of the grave chamber timbers gave a precise date of the construction as 834 AD. 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 and Conservation

Oseberg was excavated by Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson [1853-1915] in 1904 and eventually written up by A.W. Brogger and Haakon Shetelig. The ship and its contents have been restored and were placed on display at the Viking Ship House at the University of Oslo in 1926. But over the last 20 years, scholars have noted that the wooden artifacts have become increasingly brittle.

When Oseberg was discovered 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 aluminium sulfate (alum), then coated in lacquer. At the time, the alum acted as a stabilizer, crystalizing 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.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Viking Age and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bill J, and Daly A. 2012. The plundering of the ship graves from Oseberg and Gokstad: an example of power politics? Antiquity 86(333):808-824.

Bonde N, and Christensen AE. 1993. Dendrochronological dating of the Viking Age ship burials at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, Norway. Antiquity 67(256):575-583.

Bruun P. 1997. The Viking Ship. Journal of Coastal Research 13(4):1282-1289.

Christensen AE. 2008. Recreating Two Early-Norse Tool-Chests. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37(1):177–184.

Gregory D, Jensen P, and Strætkvern K. in press. Conservation and in situ preservation of wooden shipwrecks from marine environments. Journal of Cultural Heritage(0).

Holck P. 2006. The Oseberg ship burial, Norway: New thoughts on the skeletons from the grave mound. European Journal of Archaeology 9(2-3):185-210.

Nordeide SW. 2011. Death in abundance quickly! The duration of the Oseberg Burial. Acta Archaeologica 82(1):7-11.

Westerdahl C. 2008. Boats Apart. Building and Equipping an Iron-Age and Early-Medieval Ship in Northern Europe. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37(1):17-31.

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