Oseberg Ship: the Oldest Known Viking Longship

Oseberg ship is the oldest known (the 9th century) Viking longship as well as the best-preserved one to have ever been discovered thanks to the blue clay and turf covering the ship. It was discovered by Oscar Rom who purchased his neighbor’s house in 1903 in a farm outside Tønsberg, a Norwegian county of Vestfold. After his discorey of the ship remains, Rom went to Oslo to inform the archaeologist Professor Gustafson from the University Museum of National Antiquities.

oseberg ship
Dietmar Schwanitz

After investigation, Gustafson confirmed that it was a ship burial site from the Viking Age. Then, he purchased the land and begun excavations in summer, 1904. Gustafson and his team revealed one of the most important discoveries of the Viking history in three months.

photos from the burial of oseberg ship

The structure of the ship was crushed due to the weight of the earth and stones. It took 21 years to piece the burial ship back together. 90% of the timber used in the reconstruction was original. Today, the Oseberg Ship is exhibited in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

photo of the burial site
Kulturhistorisk museum
oseberg ship

Oseberg longship became an icon for the Viking history.

The rich decorations with animal and human figures on the prow and stern as well as the bowhead carved into a spiralling snake head reflect the expertness of Vikings.

carving of the bowhead
A Bean
animal head from oseberg ship
animal head from oseberg ship
Kulturhistorisk museum
animal head
Kulturhistorisk museum
viking carvings
Glenn MacLeod

The ritual of burying people in a ship is probably a symbol of status.

Two women were found inside a purpose-built wooden tent decorated with woven tapestry in the middle of the ship. The timbers of the tent were dated back to 834 AD via dendrochronology. According to the rediocarbon test resullts, the women also died around the same time period.

Experts reached several informations about the women through scientific investigations. For instance, one of the women died between the ages of 70-80, while the other passed away around 50-55. Their diet consisted mainly of meat, a luxury during that age as most Vikings ate fish. The younger woman’s teeth were in good condition, showing that she used a metal toothpick to clean her teeth. This was also a luxury item for the 9th century. However, there was no clue about the way she died.

tapestry from oseberg ship
Kulturhistorisk museum

As for the older woman, it was discovered that she died of cancer. Because of insufficient DNA, the relationship between them is still unknown. Nevertheless, multiple theories have been suggested abiut their identities. Most popular ones are a Queen and her daughter or an aristocrat and her slave. The latter is more probable because an Arab traveller, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, wrote how he witnessed the sacrification of a slave with their master during a viking burial during the 10th century. So, the younger woman, whose cause of death is unknown, could be a slave.

the cart in the ship
Kulturhistorisk museum

Several everyday items and animal skeletons were found in the Oseberg ship as well.

The discovery of bones from 15 horses, 6 dogs and 2 oxen most likely represented sacrificial animals that were to serve the buried women in afterlife. This provides further information on the Viking beliefs about death.

findings of oseberg ship
Kulturhistorisk museum

Moreover, several items were scattered within the burial. These included a neatly designed cart (the only one belonging to the Viking Age found so far), three decorated sleighs, pieces of luxury textiles, five finely carved animal heads, beds and other everyday items like farming tools and combs. A bucket decorated with two humans sitting in a lotus position is labelled the ‘Oseberg Buddha’.

Gustafson also stated that theirs was not the first excavation of this site. According to him, the burial was robbed of its valuable metals by treasure hunters in the Middle Ages.

findings in the burial site
Kulturhistorisk museum
findings in oseberg ship
Kulturhistorisk museum