Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Oseberg Ship Burial
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The Oseberg ship, once a great seafaring vessel, was buried in Vestfold County in modern day Norway circa 834 CE. This is a strange location because it is located so far from all the known Viking settlements from that period, meaning that it either had to serve a ritual purpose, or it was intentionally separated from the public sphere of power. As was customary for Viking funerals, the Oseberg ship was filled with many different types of grave goods ranging from tapestries and textile working tools and kitchen utensils to wooden staves, transportation equipment, and even animal sacrifices. But there were also goods present in the Oseberg ship that could only have appeared after the ship was closed and buried.

    The presence of several stretchers and wooden spades made after 834 CE were also found among the grave goods at the Oseberg burial. Archaeologists analyzed these tools and found that they dated to the period between 953 and 975 CE. This, along with the man-made destruction inside the ship indicates that the Oseberg ship was broken into just over a hundred years after it was buried. But this break-in does not appear to have been carried out by grave robbers – it was far too large-scale an endeavor, and there was far too much effort to destroy things, as opposed to simply stealing them. One of the most striking aspects of the break-in was the treatment of the bones of the deceased individuals buried in the Oseberg. They were removed from their final resting places and tossed carelessly into a shaft. But who were these individuals, and what made them important enough to be buried in such a monumental way?

    Unlike most of the other ship burials from the Viking period in Scandinavia, the individuals buried on the Oseberg ship were two women. Scholars disagree about the exact ages, although there seems to a be a consensus that both women were between 50 and 80 years old, with one on the lower end and the other on the higher end of that range. There are no signs of lethal violence, and further investigation has shown that one died of cancer, and the other, potentially, of a brain tumor. Both women were dressed in clothes that indicated wealth and high social status. However, scholars argue over who exactly these women were.

    Initially, scholars thought that it was a royal individual and one of her loyal servants, however there are no indications of sacrifice on either body, and both women were dressed in rich clothing. This suggests that they were both of some level of importance. Some scholars say that they are religious figures, sorceresses, or travelling women, others say that perhaps one is a Danish princess, or a nameless queen, while others argue that they are no more than important housewives from a nearby farm. The sorceress claim is particularly interesting since researchers have identified a wooden staff, called a volva (translating as staff or wand bearer) staff, and a wagon among the grave goods as linked to magical practices. One of the most intriguing proposals about the identity of these women, however, suggests that they were powerful political figures who rose to importance through their use of or control over textiles. This theory arose from the presence of many textiles, textile working tools, and silks among the burial goods. Among the textile working tools were small looms which indicated skill in weaving, as well as high social status, and were not used for everyday weaving.

    For the Vikings, silk and other luxury fabrics like samite – both of which were found in the Oseberg burial – were symbols of high social status. It is possible that the silks and tapestries on the Oseberg were actually much older than the ship, and had been passed through many generations before they got there. This would suggest that at least one of the women on the ship had come from a long line of powerful individuals, or was in some way associated with one. Silk was seen as a status symbol because it was foreign and a token of good affiliations with other areas like the Mediterranean. To the Vikings, even the lowest quality silks were considered markers of high social class.

    The Oseberg burial stands out because it is one of only a few ship burials for women. It was uncommon for a woman to hold a particularly high position of authority or power, however it was not inconceivable for the Vikings. Though there were separate gender roles for women and men, females were considered equally important to society because they held the keys to their households where they had a strong influence over their husbands, fathers, and brothers. But unlike the modern day concept of ‘home’, Viking homes were not necessarily private spaces. Often times large farms were used as both religious and administrative centers, and a woman controlling a space like this would have significant power. We can also see, through finds like the Oseberg burial, that it was possible for women to be treated in the same way that men were. In addition to being one of the most complete and well preserved Viking ship burials, the Oseberg is also an important find because it suggests that Viking women could be powerful, and honored like their male counterparts.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Archaeology Burials Grave Goods Human Remains Ships Textiles Vikings
  • Geographic Area: Scandinavia
  • Century: 9
  • Date: 834
  • Related Work: Cart from the Oseberg ship burial;
    Sleigh from the Oseberg ship burial;
    Woven decorative bands from the Oseberg ship burial.
  • Current Location: Oslo, Norway, Bygdøy, University of Oslo, Museum of Cultural History, Viking Ship Museum
  • Original Location: County of Vestfold, Norway, Lille Oseberg at Slagen
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Ships
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Oak and pine wood
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 600/550/2400
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bill, Jan. “The Oseberg Ship and Ritual Burial.” Vikings: Life and Legend.  Gareth Williams, Peter Pentz,  and Matthias Wemhoff.  Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 2014. Pages 200-201;
    Bill, Jan, and Aoife Daly.  “The Plundering of the Ship Graves from Oseberg and Gokstad: An Example of Power Politics?” Antiquity 86, 333 (September 2012): 808-824;
    Maher, Ruth Ann.  Landscapes of Life and Death: Social Dimensions of a Perceived Landscape in Viking Age Iceland. Dissertation.  The City University of New York, 2009;
    Moen, Marianne.  “Women in the Landscape.”  Kvinner i vikingtid.  Edited by Nancy L. Coleman and Nanna Løkka. Scandinavian Academic Press, 2014;
    "Oseberg", Viking Ship Museum, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. Introductory pages on the ship and the grave goods;
    Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings. Oxbow Books, 2014;
    Vedeler, Marianne. "The Textile Interior in the Oseberg Burial Chamber." A Stitch in Time: Essays in Honour of Lise Bender Jorgensen. Gothenburg University, 2014. Pages 281-299.