Remains in the Oseberg Ship Burial

Oseberg Viking ShipThe Oseberg ship was buried in a trench dug into blue clay that preserved the oak almost intact for more than a millennium. The trench was filled with rocks and layers of peat, grass-side down. The Viking ship was tied to a rock, with its bow pointing towards the sea. It had an anchor, but it was not cast. Within the burial, archaeologists found an amazing variety of objects: kitchen utensils, axes, wooden chests, three bed-posts, a chair, two tents, a cart, three sleighs and a sled. It is interesting that the headboard of one of the beds had a Valknut symbol carved on it. Oseberg textiles included woolen garments, silks and even tapestries. On board and outside of the ship skeletal remains of 13 horses, 3 dogs and an ox were discovered. As a grave chamber, a tent-like structure made of logs was erected in the center of the ship. However, the burial barrow was opened early in Middle Ages either by robbers or by descendants of the buried who wished to collect relics. These unknown intruders dug a tunnel into the mound, hacked through the ship’s prow and the roof of the chamber. They took away nearly all the metalware, chopped one of the beds into pieces and disturbed the remains. Skeletons of two women, an older and a younger one, who had been buried on the Oseberg Viking ship were found by archaeologists in the collapsed tunnel.
Who were the two women? This riddle excited the minds ever since the sensational discovery. Researchers concluded that the elder woman was in her fifties. Allegedly, she was a queen accompanied to an afterlife by a slave woman in her twenties. The theory of a ritual killing was based on the fact that the younger woman had a broken collarbone, as well as on the account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th century Arab Muslim writer, who described the burial of a Viking chieftain in Russia. According to his account, during the burial ceremony a servant girl was strangled, then stabbed and buried with her master on a ship. In a Danish Viking grave a younger man was accompanied by a decapitated old man near him. Another theory suggested that two Oseberg women were royal mother and daughter who died at the same time. It was even supposed that one of the two was Queen ├ůsa, mother to Halfdan the Black and grandmother to Harald Hairfair, the first king of all Norway.
Remains from the Viking ship were reburied in the Oseberg mound in 1948 in an aluminium casket that was put inside a five-ton stone sarcophagus. However, a few smaller pieces were held back and stored at the University of Oslo. Later Dr Tom Gilbert at the Panum Institute in Copenhagen obtained a DNA profile from the remains of the younger woman. Quite surprisingly, her sample fell into the haplogroup U7, nearly absent in modern Europeans, but common in Iranians, which means that her forefathers may have lived in the Black Sea region. The sample from the elder woman’s remains were too contaminated to provide a clear profile.
More detailed tests were necessary, and in September 2007 Oseberg remains were exhumed again. Workers discovered that the casket was damaged at one end and was sitting in water, but the skeletons were intact. Results of the new study proved startling. It was discovered that the collarbone of the younger woman had been healing for several weeks before she died, which excluded the ritual killing idea. Moreover, her age was about 50 rather than 25, as was believed earlier. The remains of the older woman showed that she had terminal cancer and a hormonal disorder called Morgagni’s syndrome, that gave her a masculine appearance, including a beard. Both women ate high-grade food (meat rather than fish). The younger one used a metal toothpick, which was a luxury during the Viking Age. There was not enough DNA to tell if the two were relatives.
Egil Mikkelsen, director of Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, summed up the results of the new study: “There are still more questions than answers.” Indeed, many finds related to the Oseberg ship have no satisfactory explanation, including the image of Buddha that was found on it.

Photo: stern of the Oseberg ship. Courtesy jorn_pettersen. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

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Why was the osberg burried?


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