The Oseberg finds
On 8 August 1903, professor Gabriel Gustafson of the University's Collection of National Antiquities in Oslo received a visit from a farmer: Knut Rom from the Lille Oseberg farm in Slagen in Vestfold.
Excavation of Oseberg ship in 1904
Photo: Museum of Cultural History (Photographer: Væring)
The excavation of the Oseberg ship
Rom had dug into a large burial mound on his property and had come across what he believed was a ship. Two days later, professor Gustafson started his investigation. He found several parts of a ship, decorated with the ornamentation from Viking times. The archaeologist was certain the mound was a ship burial from Viking times. But to avoid problems with the autumn weather, they waited until the following summer before starting the dig.
The excavation of the Oseberg ship drew great interest from the public. It became necessary to secure the dig with a fence, signs and a guard to ensure that nobody disturbed the work or got too close to the remains. In his diary, Gustafson complained of having to work in an exhibition.
When the excavation was finished, the longest and most demanding work was still to come. The excavation itself took less than three months, but it took 21 years to prepare and restore the ship and most of the finds. The ship was dried out very slowly before being put together. Great emphasis was placed on using the original timber and more than 90% the fully reconstructed Oseberg ship consists of original timber.
The Oseberg burial
In the year 834, two prosperous women died. The Oseberg ship was pulled ashore and used as a burial ship for the two ladies. A burial chamber was dug right behind the ship's mast. Inside, the walls were decorated with fantastic woven tapestries and the dead women lay on a raised bed. The women had a number of burial gifts with them. There were personal items such as clothes, shoes and combs, ship's equipment, kitchen equipment, farm equipment, three ornate sledges and a working sledge, a wagon, five carved animal heads, five beds and two tents. There were fifteen horses, six dogs and two small cows.
Investigation of the skeletons showed that the older woman was about 70 to 80 when she died, probably of cancer. The other woman was younger, a little over 50. We do not know what she died of.
Both of them must have held a special position in the community to have been given a grave such as this; were they political or religious leaders? Who was the most prominent person in the grave? Was one a sacrifice, to accompany the other into the kingdom of the dead? Were they related? Where did they come from? The two women from the past remain a mystery, but continued research may tell us more.
The Oseberg ship
For whoever built the Oseberg ship, it must have been very important to make it a particularly handsome vessel. He or she used great resources in having the ship decorated. Beautiful animal ornamentation has been carved from the keel, down below the waterline, and up along the bow post, which ends in a snake's head of twisting spiral. Such a richly decorated ship must surely have been reserved for special members of the aristocracy.
The Oseberg ship could be both sailed and rowed. There are 15 oar holes on each side, so fully-manned the ship would have had 30 oarsmen. There would also have been a man at the tiller and a lookout in the bow. The oars are made of pine. Traces of painted decoration have been found on some of them. There are no signs of wear on the oars. Perhaps they were made especially for the burial.
The Oseberg ship was built in western Norway around the year 820. It is made of oak. Each of the strakes overlaps the one below and they are fixed with iron nails. Each side of the ship consists of 12 strakes, or planks. Below the waterline, they are only 2-3 cm thick, which makes the ship's side very flexible. The two upper strakes are a little thicker. The deck is made of loose pine planks. The mast is also of pine and was between 10 and 13 metres high.