Celebrating Oseberg! The story behind the most important discovery of the Viking Age

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
January 26, 2024

Here, we trace the story of the find, meet the men whose lives were transformed by its excavation, and explore its influences today.

Excavation of the Oseberg ship in 1904 | The Viking Herald

The discovery

It was 120 years ago that a savvy farmer, Oskar Rom, made history by walking into the office of Gabriel Gustafson in Oslo.

Archaeo - Histories on X: "The Oseberg Ship; a Viking ship discovered on a large  burial mound near the Oseberg farm in the Tønsberg region (Vestfold, Norway).  It was excavated between 1904-1905

The date was August 8, 1903. It was a Saturday and the professor’s 50th birthday.

Yet, perhaps because Rom had informed Gustafson of his visit in advance, the manager of Oslo University’s Collection of National Antiquities ensured he was at his desk.

What was to transpire would change the lives of both men and, with no little exaggeration, the modern-day perception of Viking history.

On his newly-acquired farm, Lille Oseberg in Slagen, Vestfold, 400 meters north of the twin-towered church built just two years prior, Rom stumbled upon something quite unusual.

He had only purchased the estate from his neighbor that same year, perhaps recognizing that the strange mound it contained was something worth investigating.

When Rom began digging, he found a piece of wood with unusual carvings, piquing his curiosity enough for him to contact the university.

Even today, nearby Eiktoppen is a two-hour train journey north to Oslo, so it would have been a reasonably serious undertaking for him to make.

It was good that he did so. Raised in Visby on the island of Gotland, brimming with artifacts from the Viking era, Professor Gustafson had earned his degree in archaeology 30 years before.

He knew he had to get to this tiny farm as quickly as possible.

Two days later, on a Monday, presumably canceling all other appointments, Professor Gustafson made that same journey south from the capital.

As soon as he found similar objects, he successfully offered Rom a small fortune for the land.

Celebrating Oseberg! The story behind the most important discovery of the Viking Age

The Oseberg ship is housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. The museum was specifically designed to house the Oseberg ship, along with other Viking ships and artifacts. Photo: Daderot / Public domain

The archaeologists

Instructing Rom not to interfere with the site or let anyone else near, he realized excavations would take several weeks if not months. He decided to let the ship lie for yet another winter.

As it would turn out, it had been some 1,069 winters since it had lain untouched.

Gustafson returned to Oslo to consult with a young archaeologist by the name of Haakon Shetelig.

Still in his twenties, Shetelig had not long been made curator and manager of the antiquities department of the University of Bergen Museum, where Gustafson had worked before Oslo.

For Shetelig, too, Gustafson’s decision to engage him on the project would be life-changing.

While Gustafson was Swedish, Oslo-born Shetelig was Norwegian, a nationality soon to gain its inevitable independence from Sweden.

The ship they would uncover would be arguably the greatest heritage treasure in Norway’s history to date, the pride of a new nation.

Gustafson also sensed that the subsequent digging, analyzing, research, cataloging, and publicizing would take several years. In the end, he would only live for another decade or so, having been awarded the prestigious Order of Saint Olav in 1911.

When the weather proved clement enough, and the ground was relatively soft, Gustafson and Shetelig returned to Slagen almost a year later, in 1904.

Initial excavations took three months, with more undertaken the following year. Restoration and reconstruction of what the team unearthed took 20 years.

The ship

Within the burial mound, Gustafson and Shetelig found a magnificent ship built about 820 CE, within which were the skeletons of two women later from around 834 CE. Other elaborately decorated objects included wooden sleighs and embroidered textiles.

Beneath the clay and turf, much of the wood had been perfectly preserved, especially oak, ash, pine, and yew.

Thanks to preservation techniques using a chemical compound known as alum, a compound familiar to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, along with linseed oil, most of the original timber could be dried without shrinking.

What we can see today is 90% of the original ship.

At 22 meters long and five meters wide, with 15 oar holes on each side, the vessel could have reached speeds of up to ten knots (almost 20 kilometers per hour) with a full crew of 30 oarsmen.

However, it wasn’t made for war or trade.

Given the lack of visible wear, it is fairly certain that the ship was built purely for burial purposes – which means that the persons being interred were of very high status indeed.

The ship is clinker-built, meaning the plank edges of the hull overlap and are fastened with iron rivets.

While the hull is made of oak, the deck and mast are pine, behind which was placed the burial chamber. The mast would have been around ten meters high.

The chamber was big enough to accommodate a wooden bed whose linen contained the skeletons of the two women. Items around them included four sleighs, a cart, other farm implements, and animal remains, including horses, cows, and dogs.

The sleighs and cart, the prow and the stern, a so-called Buddha bucket, and five wooden animal heads feature ornate carvings depicting Norse gods, cats, and serpents.

There may have been silver offerings, too – the human bones had been scattered, indicating that someone had previously broken into the burial mound after precious metals.

  • READ MORE: All you need to know about Viking ships

Celebrating Oseberg! The story behind the most important discovery of the Viking Age

This unique object, discovered in the Oseberg burial mound, is known as the Buddha bucket. Essentially a decorative brass ornament found at the handle of a container, likely a bucket or a pail. Photo: Saamiblog / CC BY-SA 4.0

The women

So what of the two women?

One was around 75 years old, very advanced for the time, but she suffered from arthritis when she died, and another serious disease had blighted her childhood.

Beside her, possibly her servant, the other woman was around 50, and her collarbone had been broken before she died.

Intriguingly, before both skeletons were reburied in 1948, scientists were able to ascertain that the better-preserved younger woman’s remains pointed to her roots in Iran.

There are hints in Snorri Sturluson’s sagas of the woman coming from the Black Sea.

There is also conjecture of the older woman being Queen Åsa, aka Åsa Haraldsdottir of Agder, grandmother of King Harald Fairhair. This is backed up by the assumed year of her death, 834, chiming with the age of the wooden casket.

Sadly, the lack of DNA samples of the older woman means that we will never know if the two ladies are related.

The textiles around them, however, the imported silks and woolen garments, are among the only ones ever found from the Viking era.

The aftermath

It wasn’t until 1926 that the ship, by now christened the Oseberg after the farm on which it had been found, could be fully reassembled.

Such was its prestige that an entire museum was created around it, the Viking Ship Museum.

By the 1990s, it was apparent that some of the wood was deteriorating and that damage would be permanent unless something were done.

The decision was made to construct an entirely new building to protect the ship, displayed for several decades alongside two of her contemporaries, the Gokstad, discovered in 1880, and the Tune, found in the 1860s.

This extension, a few meters away from the original Viking Ship Museum, will form part of the Museum of the Viking Age, which is due to open in 2026.

As already outlined in The Viking Herald, moving precious vessels requires an unprecedented feat of engineering.

The ship had already inspired several replicas; one particularly sophisticated replica was built in 2004, paving the way for another in 2010.

This is how the Saga Oseberg project began, on the waterfront in nearby Tønsberg, constructing a replica of the ship using only traditional methods – and showing the public how it was done, bringing them closer to their own living history.

The project wasn’t limited to shipbuilding; it also encompassed textile-making and various handicrafts. Around the project, a festival developed, currently in its ninth year of unbroken success.

In 2014, another replica of the Oseberg was put out to sea. This time, it successfully proved that the ship could have been used for sailing and not solely for a prestigious ceremonial burial dating back 1,180 years.

This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald’s Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You’ll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share with The Viking Herald?
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at hello@thevikingherald.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.