In 1904, archaeologists discovered the Viking ship Oseberg beneath a mound in southern Norway. Buried in the ninth century, the ship was fully equipped and contained the remains of two Norse women. The burial site is now 2Vi miles from the sea, but in Viking times it may have been closer.When buried the ship was hauled into a long trench dug into the local blue clay and then filled with rocks. On top of the rocks were layers of peat, grass-side down, packed tightly together, thus sealing the contents. Upon completion, it's been estimated that the mound was approximatly 20 ft. high and 143 ft. in diameter.
Because of the anaerobic conditions under the peat and clay, the ship and its contents were miraculously preserved from decay for more than a thousand years. Nothing, however, could save the ship from the considerable mechanical damage from the weight and the settling of the stones and turf on top of it.
Scattered throughout the ship was an astonishing variety of objects. Found in the stern were kitchen utensils, including two iron cauldrons, wooden dishes, ladles and knives. A stool and two small axes complete with wooden handles were also uncovered. Up in the bow were the remains of three beds, a small chair, two tents, a four-wheeled cart as well as the ship's gear—a gang plank, 15 pairs of unused oars and an anchor. In addition to the can, there were three sleighs and a sled. Around the site, both inside and outside of the ship were the skeletons of 13 horses, three dogs and an ox.
In the center of the ship, directly behind the mast, a tent-like wooden structure had been erected as a grave chamber.Parts can be seen in the photo. Under this wreckage lay the remains of two beds and the skeletons of the two women. The skeleton of the older woman was almost intact, but that of the younger had been disturbed. Intruders had chopped the bed into pieces and scattered the bones. The accepted view is that the younger of the two women was a certain Oueen Asa, and the older her crippled servant. (Queen Asa was a powerful, vengeful woman named in one Norse Saga as having instigated the murder of her violent husband).
The grave chamber had been richly furnished. It was hung with tapestries and provided with quilts, blankets and pillows. There were also several chests, one of which was intact and contained lamps, scissors and other personal items.
The Oseberg ship was built in the ninth century. Dated by its carvings, it has been determined the ship had already seen some 50 years of service before it was buried. Measuring 71 ft. 6 in. from stem to stern with a 17-ft. beam, this lapstrake ship was built entirely of oak. It was lightly constructed with a low freeboard, and was never intended for long sea passages. Like most Viking ships of the period, the vessel had no cabin or fixed shelter on board. Tents, complete with beds and bedding, were taken ashore and set up at night. One gets the impression of leisurely day-cruises in fine weather with most of the comforts of home.
Like the two burial ships previously excavated, the Oseberg ship lay with its bow pointing toward the sea. It was not anchored but securely tied to a large rock, as seen in the 1904 photo on the opposite page. Was this just the habit of a seafaring people? Or was it, along with the crushing load of rocks, to ensure that the ship made no more voyages but instead remained fast in the mound? Why, then, 15 pairs of new oars on board, who was to do the rowing?
Life After Death
To understand why the Vikings went to such enormous expense and labor to bury two people, it helps to know something of their traditions.
A casual reading of the Norse Sagas shows a belief that people continued their lives after death underground. This conviction was so compelling that it was natural to provide the dead with all the furnishings they had enjoyed during their lives. The higher the rank of the deceased, the more elaborate the burial.
There was an even darker side to this belief. There are numerous stories in Viking literature of the dead returning to abuse and terrorize the living. The more powerful and contentious an individual had been in life, the more capable of mischief after death. Good reason, indeed, to make sure that the dead lacked nothing for the continuation of their existence in the mound. Only by accepting the reality of this belief can one understand the motivation for the ship burials.
The power that these ancient ships still exercise over our imaginations is evident by the number of replicas built and successfully sailed across the sea to the "New World." The first of these was the "Raven" in 1893, and most recently, the 78-ft. "Gaia" arrived in Newfoundland on August 2. No doubt there will be more.
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