Grave Findings Could Solve a Viking Age Mystery
In the autumn of 834 AD, two elderly women were buried together in the magnificent Oseberg ship discovered in 1903 near Tønsberg in Vestfold, Southeast Norway. Ever since the ship was excavated in 1904-1905, many theories have been put forward about who these women were. The objects they took with them to the grave may provide the answer to this Viking Age mystery.
The very well-preserved and beautifully ornamented Viking ship was built around the year 820 AD. It is 21.5 meters (70.5 ft) long and 5 meters (16.4 ft) wide with room for 30 oarsmen, and was pulled ashore and used as a grave ship for the two women.
The oars found in the Oseberg ship showed no signs of use. Was the ship custom-built as an exclusive “coffin” ordered by the two women in the grave? (Photo: Digitalmuseum.no)
A burial chamber was built near the mast. Inside, the walls were decorated with a wonderful woven tapestry, and the dead women were placed together in a bed. The grave contained hundreds of items for both everyday use and solemn occasions.
Investigations of the skeletons show that the older of the two women was between 70 and 80 years of age when she died. She was overweight and in her belt, she was carrying a leather purse containing cannabis seeds. It is believed she died of cancer.
The use of the seeds is uncertain, but some believe she used cannabis for pain relief. Others think the seeds were used to grow hemp for making ropes.
The other woman was younger, but still between 50 and 55 years old. Scientists do not know what she died of. Both of the women passed away at a very old age considering they were living in the Viking Age where the normal life expectancy for women was about 39 years.
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This embroidered tapestry from the Oseberg burial probably portrays a religious procession. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)
Analyses of the younger woman’s teeth show that she used a metal toothpick, a luxury item in the 9th century.
The older woman wore a very fine red woolen dress with a lozenge twill pattern and a white linen veil in a gauze weave, while the other wore a simpler blue woolen dress with a wool veil.
Both women’s diet was mainly meat-based, a luxury when most Vikings ate fish.
There was not enough DNA to determine if the women were related.
Many differing theories have been put forward about who these women were.
Some researchers believe the oldest woman was a powerful queen or a queen mother who brought a slave with her, possibly a relative, to the afterlife. If this is correct, the woman is not mentioned in any of the sagas including Snorri’s Heimskringla, the best known of the Old Norse kings’ sagas.
This may be because Snorri wrote down the Heimskringla about 400 years after the two women passed away, a time when Catholicism was the official religion. The Roman Catholic Church had almost unlimited power, and influential women who followed pagan beliefs got no place in contemporary literature.
Others believe the older woman was an influential person who made a fortune by financing Viking raids from Vestfold to the British Isles and mainland Europe.
Women in the Viking Age had allodial rights and a strong position in society, and it is likely that they also had the opportunity to be involved in politics and trade.
Another theory is that the oldest of the women was a Norse religious leader, a völva (English: priestess, shaman), who took with her one of her closest helpers to accompany her in her travel to Valhalla.
The Osberg funeral ceremony taking place in Vestfold in the year 834 AD. (Illustration: kulturarv.no)
Hundreds of objects joined the two women on their journey, and here, the answer to the unsolvable mystery may lie.
By studying a selection of objects found in the Oseberg burial mound, you can make up your own mind:
Two cows, fifteen horses, six dogs.
Means of Transportation
The Oseberg ship with oars, ropes, rigging equipment, remnants of a sail, one bailer, one anchor.
One richly decorated cart, three richly decorated sleighs, one working sled, two tents, one framework belonging to a “shed” with walls of textile.