Monday, August 17, 2015

This summer I had the opportunity to see one of the world's best known examples of Public Archaeology: The Oseberg ship.  This 1,200 year old Viking Ship is one of Norway's national archaeological treasures, a direct link to their past, and currently one of the most visited tourist sites in the country.  And we can all thank a local Norwegian farmer for it's current existence. Housed at the Viking Museum in Oslo, Norway, The Oseberg burial ship dates back to 834 AD with parts of the ship dating back to 800 AD and the ship itself thought to be even older.  The ship is astonishingly well preserved. It is richly decorated and more than 90% of the fully reconstructed Oseberg ship consists of its original timber.

Built almost entirely of oak it measures 70.5 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 4.9 feet deep from railing to keel and researchers estimate it could achieve a speed of up to 10 knots (11.5 MPH).  There are 15 oar holes on each side, so fully-manned the ship would have had 30 oarsman, but is believed could have held up to 70  people.  


Two women were buried with the ship, whose identities remain a mystery. One woman was 60-70 years old upon death and the other 25-30.  Of course there have been many theories as to their identities; One being the older woman was a viking queen or noblewoman and the younger woman her slave.  Others believe they were both female shaman.  Regardless, it is clear from the richly decorated ship and elaborate burial that at least one of these women was highly revered.  One of the outfits even included silk imported from the distant land of China.

Viking textiles from the ship: woven fabric, tapestries, embroideries and bands
(Photo by Oslo Museum of Cultural History)

In addition to the imported silk, woolen garments and tapestries (and textile equipment) were also included in the burial, making the Oseberg burial one of the few sources of Viking age textiles. The burial chamber was dug right behind the ship's mast and the women lay on raised beds.  Included with them was everything a person of importance would need for a long journey: clothes, combs, animals, weapons, tents, wagons, carts, furniture, and of course, elaborately carved animal heads. Precious metals were also believed to have been included at the time, but were looted not long after the ship was buried.

carved animal head found in burial
The only complete Viking age cart found to date
 Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig and Swedish archaeologist Gabril Gustafson excavated the site in 1904-1905.  The excavation itself took less than 3 months, but it took 21 years to prepare and restore the ship and most of its finds!
Excavation of Oseberg Ship in 1904 (Photo: Oslo Museum of Cultural History)
The discovery was not made by an archaeologist, but by a farmer.   Knut Rom from the Lille Oseberg farm dug into the large burial mound on his property.  On August 8, 1903 the farmer visited Gustafson at The University's Collection of National Antiquities in Oslo and informed the professor of his discovery.  Two days later, Gustafson was on the mound and began his investigation.  Without the care and efforts of this farmer, this archaeological treasure could have been lost to the world forever.  That is Public Archaeology at it's best!

Text and Photos (except where noted) by FPAN Staff, Robbie Boggs

a good find in the Viking Museum gift shop

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