Oseberg Skeletons Exhumed

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The Oseberg ship burial of Norway is a mind-blowing find, full of Early Viking Period carved woodwork and textiles of unparalelled quality. Dated by dendrochronology to AD 834, the long ship and its contents were sealed under a clay barrow, perfectly preserved when excavated in 1904. I consider myself a stakeholder in the Oseberg find, as it was excavated by Gotlander Gabriel Gustafson. In 1881-82 G.G. had performed the first excavations with useful documentation at the Barshalder cemetery on which I wrote my dissertation some 110 years later.

The Oseberg barrow was opened during the Viking Period, maybe by robbers, more likely by descendants of the buried who wished to collect relics. Most of the metalwork was removed at this time. Parts of two skeletons were found in the collapsed robber’s tunnel, belonging to an older woman and a younger one. They are usually interpreted as one main character of the burial and one murdered thrall, but ideas diverge about who was who. Also, my buddy Fedir Androshchuk has pointed out (in Fornvännen 2005) that the burial contains three sets of many things, and that the remaining bronze metalwork is parts of ostentatious riding gear that is otherwise only found in male graves. His daring re-interpretation is that the Oseberg burial was actually a male grave with two murdered women, from which the male skeleton and weaponry were removed by relic hunters. This would explain why the female bodies were dropped unceremoniously in the tunnel. Ibn Fadlan reports that Scandinavians (most likely Swedes, I’m very sorry) in Russia murdered a thrall girl for her master’s funeral in AD 921.

Anyway, the Oseberg bones were reinterred in the barrow in 1948: silly and sad but true. Yesterday they were exhumed for laboratory analyses. Egil Mikkelsen and his team hope to establish by DNA analysis whether the two women were related to each other, what kind of diet they had, and whether they had eaten the same kind of things. The latter data might decide once and for all who’s the servant. Or show that both were.

Next in turn is the Gokstad barrow, where bones from an AD 910ish ship burial were reinterred in 1928. Neither that assemblage nor the Oseberg one will be reinterred after the analyses.

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Thanks to Dear Reader Tegumai Bopsulai for the link.

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9 thoughts on “Oseberg Skeletons Exhumed

  1. Fascinating. Our uni had a German paleopathologist visit recently and it was riveting. Love those old bones.

    What is the view on the reports of Ibn Fadlan? I read an archaeology text the orther day that seemed equivocal about his reliability.

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  2. Hans: I look forward to learning what kind of ship they’ve got sitting beneath that parking lot!

    Amanda: I have never read any discussion among Arabic historians about Ibn Fadlan, and they are the guys who should decide if he’s any good. All I know is that Scandy archaeologists quote him all the time and treat him like a good eyewitness. I have no reason to doubt him.

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  3. I hope this male point of view will not be accepted before a thoroughly investigation. Because we do not know what the religious beliefs were at that time. There can be more theories. Maybe one or both of the women were holy persons, or “queens” as the Sitones had as their leaders accordig to Tacitus writing, Germania, chapter 46.
    There are graves in Sweden with females and with rich gravegoods, Badelunda is one example. And in Valla härad in Vätergötland.
    Maybe there was no man in the grave at all, because in some graves there has been weapons and male attributs but a woman is buried, in England also. And the contrary also a priest of the cult of Cybele, a man with female attributs…

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  4. AFAIK, it was because the ship burials were so high-profile and had become symbolically linked to Norwegian nationalism. Most bones from excavations were just put in museum storage. But with the ship burials, there was probably pressure from non-archaeologists. The 1948 re-burial very likely had something to do with the German occupation scant years before. A nationalistic ritual.

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