What Inside Oseberg Excavation: More Than Treasure

Of all the Viking ships that we have excavated, the Oseberg has been by far the most well-preserved. But the Oseberg excavation is more than the historical artifact to us in this day and age. Because what was inside the Oseberg Excavation were the priceless proof attesting to many Viking theories.

How people conducted Oseberg excavation

On August 1903, Oskar Rom a farmer disturbed the archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson by a sudden visit. It was at dusk already. But the inhospitality of the archaeologist went away when he saw what the farmer brought to his gateway. It was the oak stick with silver and carvings that aroused his interest. Then off he went to conduct the excavation of the Oseberg grave.

Image of Viking Oseberg excavation ship burial mound
Viking Oseberg ship in the mound. Cre: Museum of Cultural History

The archaeologist conducted the excavation on the farm of Lille Oseberg at Slagen in the county Vestfold. There he found many ship remains with the decoration of the Viking era. He was certain that the ship dating back to the Viking age. The excavation seemed to attract the eye of the public so much that they put the fence around the mound at that time.

Image of Oseberg excavation
The prow. Cre: Museum of Cultural History

As time went by, they found out the most important things inside: human skeletons. There seemed to have two individuals inside the Oseberg burial. The skeletons belonged to two women and their positions were not original because of the grave robbers. Around November 1904, the archaelogists finally brought the last remnants to light.

Image of Oseberg Viking Ship
Excavation of Oseberg finished. Cre: Museum of Cultural History

The Women’s Skeletons

Beside the majestic Oseberg ship that we will talk later, the women’s skeletons inside attracted the most attention. One skeleton belonged to a young woman around 40 years old while the other was of the elder around 70 – 80 years old.

Image of Oseberg Viking Excavation
The old woman skeleton. Photo unknown origin

However, as the power of time and the disturbance of the grave, there have been no confirmed claim upon the skeletons. Theories and mysteries still cloak the story of skeletons in Oseberg ship. Though professors researched and studied the skeletons thoroughly, there was no consensus of opinion upon their positions in the Viking era. 

One theory claims that the young woman was the servant of the elder. The old woman seemed to have died because of advanced cancer and this woman might have experienced great pain during her last days. Meanwhile, the young woman might have been the sacrifice when her mistress died.

Toothprick marks. Cre: Per Holck

There was one reverse theory pointing that the young woman belonged to the noble. Because they found the toothpick marks between the jaw. The use of toothpicks in the Viking age was just among the high class of the wealthy and noble. The skeletons of the young woman were fewer because the robbers might have brought her body parts with priceless adornments away.

The Oseberg Ship

The Oseberg was a smaller version compared with the Viking longship. It is 21.58m in length and 5.10 in width. The ship has a pair of 15 oar holes meaning it could afford 30 rowers on board. The bow and the stern of the ship had beautiful wood carvings in the “gripping beast” style which we learn as the Oseberg style these days.

Image of Oseberg one of the greatest Viking ships
Oseberg Viking ship

Danish and Swedish shipbuilders attempted to build a copy of the Oseberg ship. After trial and error, the modern copy of Oseberg ship finally set sail from the city T√łnsberg in 2012. The construction was a success and the ship performed very well.

Grave Goods

Though nearly no precious things were found inside the Oseberg burial mound, daily items were still there. Those included the four-wheel wooden cart, four animal carved heads, bed-posts, and wooden chests.

Image of Oseberg Viking Excavation
Animal heads found. Cre: Museum of Cultural History

The animal heads were bound with a rope running through their mouth like a rein. For the good woodcarvers, creating an animal head was difficult, not to mention subtly decorating on the heads. With the designs of the animal heads, we can assume that they came from four different woodcarvers. None of them were similar and two of them were decorated with silver.

What we can conclude from the Oseberg excavation?

The Oseberg excavation finally sheds light upon many Viking mysteries.

First off, the Viking Oseberg could travel, not only made to be deep under the soil. As the archaeologists excavated the Oseberg ship, the modern shipbuilders can create a copy of the Oseberg ship and launch the ship into the seas. Of course, it is the copy so the shipbuilders try their best to copy every detail. As the copy of Oseberg managed to set sail, it somehow proved that the Oseberg could too.

The second thing we can conclude is that the Vikings respected their women. The women’s skeletons inside the Oseberg burial showed that the Viking women could have a social rank in their society. Because their burial was conducted lavishly with ships, slave, priceless goods, etc.

Thirdly, the human grave inside the Oseberg ship adds more clue to the Viking human sacrifice in death. Whether the young was the slave of the old or the other way round, one person was sacrificed to escort their mistress in death.

Last of all, the Vikings had the practice of ship burial in their tradition.

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