The Viking Ships in Oslo

On our recent trip to Oslo in March we probably spent the majority of our time in museums (you can see the first few in this post). One of the highlights for us definitely has to be the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy. The museum itself is pretty simple, as it mostly just consists of a large hall with three quite different viking ships inside. As the starting point and the centrepiece is the magnificent Oseberg ship. After probably spending quite some time staring at this first ship in awe you’ll find the Gokstad ship and Tune ship behind and to the left and right. Finally at the back of the hall you’ll see the wealth of artifacts that came with the ships and another ship find at Borre. There are plenty of grave goods, as the Oseberg and Gokstad were burial ships.


The Gokstad is slightly larger than the Oseberg, which is slightly larger than the Tune, but all three appear to be the same type of ship known as ‘karvi’ from the sagas which were relatively small vessels meant for the private use of chieftains and their followers for cruising along the coasts. The Oseberg appears to be more in the style of a pleasure vessel for use in good weather on closed waters, whereas the other two are more in the nature of sea-going vessels.


The excavation of the ships in this museum took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the latest being the Oseberg in 1904. For a long time since then these three examples were to remain the only full remains of the Viking Age shipwright’s craft. However, this eventually did change when in 1962 a significant finding was made in the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark where five ships had been sunk as part of a blockade of a channel that led to Roskilde. These ships are now restored and on display in the museum in Roskilde. In 1970 another addition was made to the Viking Age ships that exist today when remains were recovered from an excavation at Tjølling in Vestfold. This ship has also been preserved and restored, and is now on display at the Vestfold County Museum in Tønsberg. Thus in the course of a few years the number of known and more or less preserved ships from the Viking Age has increased threefold. This has added considerably to our knowledge of the building and use of ships in the Viking Age. These finds give a wide range in terms of geographical location and time, and there is now known to be far more variation in methods of ship-building and types of ship than previously found in written or artistic sources. Hopefully with the increasing interest in ancient ships and improving techniques in modern underwater archaeology there will be more Viking ship finds in the future, despite the rare conditions required to preserve a ship in any state.

The Oseberg Ship
The excavation of the Oseberg find took place during the summer of 1904 on the Oseberg farm at Slagen near Tønsberg. The archaeologist leading this work was Professor Gabriel Gustafson of the University of Oslo. The ship and its burial chamber had been covered by a very large grave mount of 44 metres in diameter and 6 metres high. The amount of tightly packed turf and clay that formed the soil around the ship was fairly air-tight and kept the wood and organic material of the ship in a remarkable state of preservation for more than a thousand years.


However, the ship and its contents had not gone entirely undisturbed all through time, as is common with large barrows. At some point, probably early in the Medieval period, robbers had broken into the mound, made a hole in the bow of the ship and made their way into the burial chamber. The grave itself was therefore found greatly disturbed and most of the contents were found in the entrance made by the robbers. The ship itself was also in a poor state when first excavated. At the time of its burial it had been filled with a large quantity of stone, the weight of which had pressed the ship into the ground and eventually broken it into thousands of small fragments of wood. This meant that the entire ship had to be taken and practically rebuilt from all these parts.


The ship and burial chamber contained a large amount of goods still. First there were the ship’s accessories and equipment including oars, a gangway, a bailer, and various tubs and pails. There were also some richly decorated pieces such as a cart, three sleighs and a sled. There were four finely carved animal head posts, three beds and two tents. Inside there were the skeletons of at least ten horses, and several other horses and an ox outside the ship. In the entrance made by the grave robbers there lay the remains of two human skeletons, both women, that were most likely laid upon the beds to begin with. There were large quantities of textile remnants and down and feathers that must have come from the bedding. There were also a number of chests and personal objects of the dead such as implements for textile work. It us unusual however that there were no traces of jewelry with the dead, especially considering that this is the richest grave of its kind to be discovered. It is almost certainly the jewelry that the robbers would have been seeking, so they most likely took it.


The ship itself was reconstructed once it was fully excavated, and was eventually in a more or less finished state by 1926 with some new material being necessary for its completion. The ship is made entirely of oak, along with some of the other objects in the find, and thus they could all be preserved using the same methods. It’s full length is 21.58 metres, it measures 5.10 metres at its widest point, and its depth from gunnel to keel is 1.58 metres in the middle. Apart from a full height of the mast, the ship now appears in this complete condition at the Viking Ship Museum.

The Gokstad Ship
The Gokstad sip was excavated in the summer of 1880 on the land of the Gokstad farm in the borough of Sandefjord. Like the Oseberg it had also been covered by a very large barrow of 50 metres across and 5 metres in height, and thought to originally have been larger. Archaeologist and antiquarian Nicolay Nicolaysen was responsible for this excavation. The mound had been made of a mix of clay and sand, and the ship was filled with clay, meaning a similarly excellent condition of preservation as the Oseberg find. Some parts of the ends of the ship that were not fully covered by the clay did completely decay however.


The burial chamber of this ship contained a fair amount less than the Oseberg. There were some good remnants of wool and silk, probably from clothing of the dead and part of the remains of a bed. There was also a gaming board with one antler gaming piece, some leather which may have been a purse, a socketed iron point, the clasp of a casket and three iron fishing hooks together with a large number of harness mounts in iron lead and bronze. Outside the chamber were a number of objects such as buckets and pots, a cauldron and some timbers. A strange find was the remains of a skeleton and some plumage of a peacock. Outside the ship itself were the remains of several horses and dogs, the ship’s equipment such as oars, tiller, rope, the rusted away remains of the anchor and some kitchen utensils. Some of the larger objects were the remains of six beds, three small boats and one sleigh. Finally some of the metal objects included a large copper cauldron, and some iron implements including two augers, a palstave and a small axe blade.

This burial appeared to be for a man by the remains of the one human skeleton found inside the burial chamber. However, this grave had also been subject to plundering, but probably closer to the time of burial than the Oseberg, so presumably more appears to have been taken. Usually a Viking Age man’s grave, especially a large ship burial, would contain plenty of weapons, as well as some jewelry.


As said before the Gokstad is slightly larger than the Oseberg. This ship was built for 16 pairs of oars whereas the Oseberg was built for 15. It’s length is 23.24 metres, its maximum width is 5.20 metres, and depth from gunnel to keel is 2.02 metres. The weight of the hull when fully equipped is estimated to be at over 20 metric tons based on an exact copy made of the ship in 1893. In addition to the larger dimensions the Gokstad ship also has a more study construction than the Oseberg, making it more seaworthy, demonstrated by the sailing of its copy across the Atlantic.

Like the Oseberg, along with the other parts of the exhibition, this ship can be found in a complete state at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. If you ever find yourself near there, then I definitely recommend you go see them!


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