Can the Oseberg Viking finds be saved?

When the Oseberg burial mound was excavated in 1904, many of the objects that were found were conserved in hot alum solution. New research shows that this has caused partial degradation of the wooden artefacts from the graves. Now a major rescue project is starting, the success of which is as yet uncertain.

Excavated in 1904, the Oseberg ship was the last of the three large Viking graves – Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg – to be discovered. The ship and the artefacts were highly fragmented; the ship alone was in several thousand pieces. To conserve the fragile wood, many of the objects were immersed in a solution of hot alum salts. Afterwards the pieces were glued and screwed together, and then varnished for display.

– Back then, there were not many good conservation methods to choose between. Alum salts were used to conserve most of the items, except for the ship itself, says Professor Jan Bill, head of the Viking Ship collection at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Time is running out!

«Saving Oseberg» is a major conservation project to save the artefacts from the Oseberg grave. The project is being funded directly in the national budget with a grant of NOK 30 million. This research project is essential if there is to be any hope of these objects still existing in fifty years' time.

– It is an ongoing battle to save these items. Their lifetime will be very limited if we do not do something with these important finds from the Viking era. Research on the future preservation of the artefacts and new conservation methods is largely related to the development of new scientific techniques. Using chemical analysis, 3D scanning and X-ray tomography, we are able to find out what is inside the objects and how best to treat them. If the graves had been found today, we would have freeze-dried the artefacts under low pressure and temperature conditions, says Bill.

Poor conservation methods

For a long time, four of the animal head posts and some of the dragon heads from sledges were simply stored in water.

– This was done because they saw that the alum salts ruined the fine carving on the first animal head that was conserved. The four animal head posts lay in water for several decades, before being conserved using new methods in the 1950s. One of them had been seriously degraded by then, as it had been left without water during the Second World War, says Bill.

The entire collection suffered during the war years. The degraded animal head post is currently in the museum archives.
It will be possible to apply the findings of the "Saving Oseberg" project to the conservation of other materials.

– We are looking at the objects with new eyes. Some of what we are learning is specific to the problem of alum-salt conservation, but new knowledge is also being generated about the conservation of organic matter, which will be useful in relation to future discoveries, says Bill.

Learning more about the Vikings

New scientific methods are being used to analyse the Oseberg ship and the other burial ships. For example, X-ray tomography is used to measure the thickness of the growth rings in the objects from the graves, without damaging them. On the basis of these analyses and measurements, we have been able to ascertain that not only the Oseberg ship, but also one of the three boats that were found in the Gokstad grave, were built on the west coast of Norway. Chemical analysis of metals such as iron, lead, copper and silver will eventually be able to provide information about where the objects made of these metals came from.

– Many of the artefacts from the burial ships have not yet been examined, says Jan Bill.

– When they are, I am sure we will discover new things about the Viking era. Take the object known as the 'Oseberg pipe' – a wooden tube some 108 cm long that was found in a box in the burial chamber. Computer tomography and 3D scanning suggest that it is perhaps a kind of wind instrument called a lur. Maybe the women wanted to take music with them when they died – or into the afterlife?

By Ellen Semb
Published Dec. 11, 2012 4:26 PM - Last modified Mar. 14, 2013 3:55 PM