This, the Oseberg ship, has been called the most beautiful ship ever built.
Today, of course, it’s priceless. When it was built, it was, to say the least, ‘a high-status artefact.’ But it’s hard to form an idea of just how valuable it was when first made.
The Vikings were expert shipwrights, but the Oseberg isn't merely utilitarian. It's exquisite, almost an art object. Look at the lines of her. Look at that beautiful prow, like a piece of sculpture. Look at the carving, probably once painted and gilded. This ship was an expression of staggering wealth, status and power. They built her, at all this expense, and then they threw her away: – they buried her.
Oslo's other great ship, the Gokstad, was a working warship before she was used in a ship-burial, but the beautiful Oseberg doesn't seem to have been much used. (Though, as ever, interpretation changes. It used to be said that the Oseberg wasn't sea-worthy, because a 1980s replica sank when taken into open sea. It was argued that the ship was merely 'a pleasure yacht,' intended only to cruise up and down a sheltered fjord. However, the replica was based on the original reconstruction, done soon after the ship’s discovery in 1904. As with the first reconstructions from dinosaur bones, mistakes were made, and pieces discarded because they ‘didn’t fit.’ A modern replica is now being built, based on far greater knowledge of Viking ships learned from Roskilde. This new Oseberg is confidently expected to be as sea-worthy as any other Viking ship.)
What great king lay at the centre of this wealth? None. The ship sailed for the Other World carrying two women.
lozenge pattern, and a fine white linen headdress.
The other, complete, skeleton had been a woman between 70 and 80, about five feet tall, with a crooked spine. Her bones showed signs of arthritis. She was dressed in plain blue wool, with a headdress of wool. These differences in dress arguably show a difference in status.
The carts and sleighs on the ship had been assumed to be practical, working equipment, something needed by a great household. Researchers taking a new look at the grave goods pointed out what had always been plain: they were too small and shallow, and too highly decorated, to have ever been practical.
A grave chamber was originally built over the women, and the walls were hung with tapestries – another declaration of status and wealth. The tapestries show women driving carts. Another image showed nine men hanging from trees, with three female figures standing nearby.
Does the tapestry depict this scene? And if so, does it give us a hint about the women in the ship? It's hard to believe so much effort went into making a tapestry of men being hung simply because it was thought to be something pretty to hang on a wall.
My book, Overheard In A Graveyard includes a short story, 'Overheard In A Museum' inspired by a visit to Oslo's Viking Ship Museum. The ship in the story, however, is the Gokstad, not the Oseberg.