Sheathed in iron and leather, Viking reenactors wear their grim game faces.

An intact Viking ship burial held riches—and a surprising mystery

When a massive longship was unearthed in Norway more than 100 years ago, its occupants were expected to be powerful men. Instead, the richest grave site of Viking Age belonged to two women, whose identities remain unknown.

Sheathed in iron and leather, Viking reenactors wear their grim game faces.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder/National Geographic Creative

Vikings are often depicted as warmongering seafarers from Scandinavia, men who set out on expeditions to plunder distant lands. The lives of women of the Viking age factor less into the fantasy; many imagine them at home, tending to their lands, children, and elderly while the powerful men in their family were away. But evidence shows Viking women also held positions of power. 

In fact, the grandest single Viking grave ever found belonged not to a man, but to two women—one about 75 years of age, the other around 50—who were buried in a funerary longship on the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg, Norway. Their burial was one of history's most exciting Viking-era discoveries.

(After pillaging France and Spain, Viking raiders set their sights on Rome.)

Who were they?

It is not clear who the two Oseberg women were in life. What is known is that they died in A.D. 834 and were sent to the afterlife with a magnificent burial. Experts believe the older one probably died of cancer, while the cause of death for the younger one could not be determined.

Given the riches that accompanied them, they must have been important figures in Viking society. Perhaps they were political or religious leaders. Some archaeologists think the older woman was a Viking queen who ruled in her own right and was buried with a servant or attendant. She might even be Queen Åsa, the grandmother of Harald I (A.D. 860–940), the first king of united Norway. Others suggest she was a powerful sorceress. 

Some scholars believe one of the woman was sacrificed to accompany the higher-ranking on her journey into the afterlife. They're just not certain who was the women of higher rank. 

(Scientists raid DNA to explore Vikings’ genetic roots.)

Why a burial boat?

Whoever these women were, the treasures they left behind are stunning.While most Vikings were buried in graves with favorite belongings (sometimes including their dogs), the wealthiest were taken to the next world in ships, crammed with clothes, weapons, even furniture. These ships could take many different forms. Some Viking mourners burned funerary boats, others commemorated the departed by raising stone monuments in the shape of ships. And in the upper classes, some families buried their dead in rowboats, coastal vessels, or seagoing longships like the two women in the Oseberg ship.

(This mass grave may belong to the 'Great Viking Army'.)

Among the items scattered within the burial site was an intricately carved cart by an ancient woodworker, the only such discovery thus far from the Viking age. It would have been suitable for ceremonial processions. One carved scene may portray the saga hero Gunnar in a snake pit.

Archaeologists have found boat burials across the Viking world, from the Shetland Islands north of Scotland to Viking settlements in Russia. Often mourners seem to have conducted elaborate ritual performances during funerals—feasting and drinking for days, hurling weapons into the boats, and slaughtering horses and even humans to accompany the dead. When the rituals were finally over, both the boat and its human cargo were consigned to the earth, buried beneath a mound.

(Ancient solar storm pinpoints Viking settlement in Americas exactly 1,000 years ago.)

In the case of the Oseberg women, a farmer discovered their ship, made almost entirely of oak, in 1903 in a large burial mound at his farm near Tønsberg, Norway.

Faded and tattered with time, this rare tapestry was found in the burial ship of the Oseberg women. It may depict a procession of horse-drawn carts and people.
Faded and tattered with time, this rare tapestry was found in the burial ship of the Oseberg women. It may depict a procession of horse-drawn carts and people.
Photograph by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Portions of this work have previously appeared in The Vikings: Lords of Sea and Sword by Heather Pringle. Text Copyright © 2018 Heather Pringle Compilation Copyright © 2018 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
To learn more, check out The Vikings: Lords of Sea and Sword. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.

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