In 1903, Oskar Rom purchased his neighbour's farm located outside of Tønsberg, in the Norwegian county of Vestfold. That August he began to excavate a mound on his new property and it wasn’t long before he realised he might be onto something significant. It seemed he’d come across the remains of a ship but before he preceded any further, he travelled 64 miles to the capital city of Oslo to recruit the help of archaeologist Professor Gustafson of the University Museum of National Antiquities.
Gustafson arrived on site a short while later and began his investigations. It didn't take him long to confirm what Rom had found, believing the site to house a ship burial from the Viking Age. Gustafson purchased the land from Rom for a considerable amount of money but waited until the following summer to begin excavations due to the impending autumnal weather.
In 1904, Gustafson began his dig to much local fanfare. Fences and signs had to be erected around the site to keep people back and ensure none of the ancient artefacts below were disturbed. In just under three months, Gustafson and his team excavated the mound, revealing to the world one of the most significant Viking era discoveries in history.
The 17.8ft long, 16.7ft wide vessel is the oldest known Viking longship as well as the best-preserved to have ever been discovered, giving historians an unparalleled insight into 9th century Viking life. Although underground for over a millennia, the blue clay and turf under which the ship lay created damp conditions that helped to preserve the wood.
Over the years, however, the weight of the earth and stones crushed the vessel’s structure. It took 21 years for experts to piece the burial ship back together and the reconstructed Oseberg Ship (now exhibited in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo) is made with 90 per cent of the original timber.
The ship is a Karve, which is a small type of Viking longship and is made almost entirely of oak and could be both sailed and rowed. With 15 pairs of oar holes, up to 30 men could row the ship, achieving a maximum of speed of around 10 knots (11.5 mph).
The prow and stern of the ship are richly decorated with animal and human figures and the bowhead is carved to look like a spiralling snakehead. Since its discovery, the image of the Oseberg longship has become synonymous of the Viking Age, an icon for one of history’s most famous civilisations.
The expert woodwork on the ornately decorated vessel gave historians a new appreciation of the craftsmanship capabilities of the Vikings. It also hinted at the elevated status of those buried within its wooden frame, as such a fine ship could only be reserved for those of wealth and status.
In the middle of the ship was a purpose-built wooden tent, finely decorated within with woven tapestry. The timbers from the tent were dated via dendrochronology to have been constructed in 834AD. Discovered within the tent, lying on a bed made up of bed linen, were the remains of two women. Radiocarbon analysis of their bones matched the date provided by the dendrochronology of the timber.
Scientific investigations revealed that one of the women died between the ages of 70-80, whilst the other passed away around 50-55. Both were around 5 foot in height and had enjoyed a diet composed mainly of meat, a luxury during an age when most Vikings ate fish. The younger woman’s teeth were in good condition and evidence suggested she’d used a metal toothpick to clean her teeth, another luxury item for the 9th century. However, her remains reveal nothing of how she died.
This is not the case for the older woman, whose bones revealed she’d suffered a great deal in her final years from osteoporosis, a knee injury and two fused neck vertebrae. Her cause of death was discovered as cancer. The relationship between the pair is still unknown, insufficient DNA recovery meant it couldn’t be proven whether they were related.
Multiple theories have been suggested including a Queen and her daughter, perhaps even Queen Åsa, the legendary Norwegian Viking Age queen and grandmother of Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway. It’s unclear whether both women were of high wealth and status or just one. When the 10th century AD Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan documented witnessing a Viking burial, he wrote how a slave was sacrificed with their master. Could the younger woman on the Oseberg ship, whose cause of death remains unknown, be a slave, whilst the other her master?
Either way, one or both of the women were members of Viking aristocracy, holding important political or religious roles within their community. This discovery helped to shed new light on the role of women within Viking society.
Other skeletal remains found on the ship provided a window into Viking burial rites and beliefs. The discovery of bones from 15 horses, 6 dogs and 2 oxen most likely represented sacrificial animals, sent to the afterlife with the two women to accompany them on their journey.
Multiple lavish items were also scattered within the burial - a beautifully designed cart (the only Viking Age one found so far), three decorated sleighs, an array of lavish textiles, five elaborately carved animal heads, beds and other everyday items such as farming tools and combs. A bucket decorated with two stylised humans sitting in a lotus position has been labelled the ‘Oseberg Buddha’. The bucket most likely originated from Ireland and could represent booty taken by Vikings during an Irish raid.
Although extensive, the discovered grave goods were likely only a selection of what was buried as Gustafson soon realised during his excavations that he wasn’t the first to uncover the ship. Most likely grave robbers from the Middle Ages had looted the burial mound and any precious metals would most likely have been removed.
Even without these stolen treasures, the Oseberg Ship remains one of the most important finds from the Viking Age that continues to provide historians with an unprecedented look into the past.
For more articles about the history and culture of the Vikings, check out our Viking history hub.