The Oseberg ship, built around 820AD, is one of three magnificent Viking ships preserved in the Oslo Viking Ship Museum in Norway.

The Oseberg ship, built around 820AD, is one of three magnificent Viking ships preserved in the Oslo Viking Ship Museum in Norway

The warriors known to history as Vikings or Norsemen were a complex people. Living in what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden, they hardly featured in recorded history until in the
year 793 they suddenly came from the sea and ransacked the holy island of Lindisfarne in north east England, slaughtering the monks and local population. ‘Viking’, or ‘wicing’, was an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘sea-raider’, and so these brutal warriors who came in their long ships and terrorised the British Isles and the coasts of Europe were given that name. The Viking Age, as it has since been known, continued for around 250 years, with much of Britain and Ireland colonised by Vikings until they were finally driven out by the Normans (themselves of Viking descent) after 1066.
The Vikings’ reputation for brutality was well justified, but there was more to them than just that. They were probably the greatest explorers of the Dark Ages, sailing as far west as Newfoundland 500 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ America, and as far east as Byzantium (Istanbul) via the inland rivers of western Russia and coastwise around the Atlantic and Mediterranean. They had long-established trading connections to the Middle East, Far East, and even North Africa and many exotic artefacts are found in Scandinavian archaeological sites. They were also fine craftsmen and had an artistic tradition of their own that was influenced by the treasures they traded and pillaged. There were clear similarities to Celtic and Anglo-Saxon knotwork patterns as well as some eastern ‘arabesque’ influences in the swirling patterns. They retained their warlike pagan gods until late in the 10th century, but their conquest of parts of Ireland led them gradually into Christianity, at which point we see many stone Celtic-style ringed crosses appearing in Britain with Viking decoration on them.
They produced metalwork and jewellery in complex interlaced patterns, and created many carved works in wood and stone. Wooden artefacts rarely survived for long, except in a few exceptional cases where the wood has been preserved by being buried in boggy ground where the absence of oxygen prevented decay. The best examples we have come from the famous burial ships, where important leaders were ceremonially buried in complete ships, laden with rich and ostentatious goods that would declare their status as they travelled into the afterlife.
Ship burials had been used in previous centuries by other pagan cultures, and the Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England, dating from 630AD are the most famous. However, unlike the Sutton Hoo ships, three Norwegian Viking ships were buried in boggy sites and were discovered in modern times in a remarkable state of preservation. They now reside in the Oslo Viking Ship Museum and are a ‘must see’ for any visitor to the Norwegian capital. 

The best preserved is the Oseberg ship (named after the place it was found), discovered and excavated in 1904. Carbon dating and tree-ring analysis indicate that the oak-hulled clinker-built ship was built around 820AD and the burial took place in 834AD. The grave contained many treasures (also in the museum) and the remains of two women. One woman was probably a Viking queen (she had to be important to warrant a ship burial) and the other may have been an unfortunate slave servant who was sacrificed to accompany the queen through the afterlife.

The Oseberg ship was ceremonially buried as a funeral ship in 834AD and was discovered and excavated in 1904

The prow of the Oseberg ship, and many of the wooden artefacts found within it, are magnificently carved in a variant of the Viking interlaced style that is called the ‘Oseberg style’. Its principle features are swirling patterns of serpent-like creatures that interlace around their own and adjacent bodies in low relief. Their upper surfaces are frequently flat with very fine cross-hatching to provide texture. Most of the patterns include a notable feature called the ‘gripping beast’, which is typical of much Viking decoration. The serpent-like ‘gripping beasts’ clasp on to their bodies and tails, either with their mouths or with little human-like hands.

Magnificent Viking carving in the complex ‘gripping beast’ style is preserved on the prow of the Oseberg ship

The grave goods found in the ship are displayed in the museum and contain some striking carved woodwork, such as a very ornately decorated cart believed to be much older than the ship itself. Probably the most striking and best-known pieces of all are five animal (possibly dragon) heads believed to be parts of a ceremonial piece of furniture, such as a chair.


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