In AD 921, the Arab traveler and Islamic theologian Ahmad ibn Fadlan was sent by the Abbasid caliph, al-Muqtadir to the court of the king of the Volga Bulghars as part of a diplomatic party. During his journey of roughly 4000 kilometers, Ibn Fadlan described the various peoples he encountered. About a fifth of Ibn Fadlan’s work was devoted to a people known as the Rūsiyyah, who were traders living on the river banks near to the camps of the Volga Bulghars.
Today the Rūsiyyah are identified by modern scholars as either Vikings or Russians. Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of Rūsiyyah life that Ibn Fadlan recorded was his eyewitness account of a ship burial. Through the vivid recounts of this Arab traveler, we may be able to gain some insight into the Viking ship burials found in Europe, including the Oseberg ship burial.
The Oseberg burial was discovered in August 1903 when a farmer, Knut Rom, dug into a large mound (approximately 40 meters long by 6.5 meters high) on his property at the Lille Oseberg farm in Slagen, Norway, and came across what seemed to be a ship. Rom decided to seek the help of Professor Gabriel Gustafson in Oslo, who visited the farm two days later. Based on initial investigation, Gustafson was certain that the mound contained a ship burial from the Viking era, (it has been subsequently dated to the early ninth century A.D). As it was autumn, however, Gustafson decided to wait until the following summer before commencing with an excavation.
The excavation of the Oseberg ship took less than three months to complete, and by the end of it the archaeologists had unearthed a 21.40 meter long by 5.10 meter wide ship. The ship was constructed mainly out of oak planks, and its bow and stern were covered in elaborate carvings. There were also 15 pairs of oar holes, meaning that up to 30 men could row the ship.
Due to the particularly damp conditions within the mound, the ship and its contents were well preserved over the ages. Nevertheless, other factors had damaged the ship. For instance, at some point of time, perhaps during the early Middle Ages, the mound was broken into by robbers, as evidenced in the hole in the bow of the ship, who then made their way to the burial chamber. It is likely that any precious metal items left in the burial chamber were taken out by the grave robbers.
Furthermore, at the time of the burial the ship was filled with stones. Combined with the weight of the mound itself and other stones placed around the ship, there was considerable sinking of the ground. Consequently, the ship was broken up into thousands of smaller fragments, and restoration work took 21 years to complete.
The Oseberg ship burial contained two human skeletons, both female. One of the skeletons belonged to a woman who was about 70 or 80 years old when she died. Investigations suggest that the woman probably died of cancer. It is unclear who this woman actually was, and some have speculated that she may have been Queen Åsa, the grandmother of the first Norwegian king.
The second skeleton belonged to a woman in her 50s, though it is not known how she died. In Ibn Fadlan’s account, dead chieftains were accompanied in their graves by some of their slaves. It seems that the slaves are not forced, however, as they were first asked by the family of the deceased whether any of them would accompany their master in the afterlife. Perhaps this offer was accepted by some slaves, as the alternate treatment when they died, as Ibn Fadlan reports, was to be left “as food for the dogs and the birds.” It is plausible that the two women were mistress and slave, though their relationship is still not entirely known. Perhaps future research will be able to solve this mystery.
In addition to the human skeletons, the Oseberg ship burial also contained the remains of 13 horses, four dogs and two oxen, probably sacrificed to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The sacrifice of animals was also observed by Ibn Fadlan, who recorded that a dog, horses, cows and chickens were slaughtered, cut up, and thrown onto the ship. Other grave goods included the enigmatic Oseberg cart, four elaborately decorated sleighs, three beds, a number of wooden chests, as well as agricultural and household tools.
Even though the ship was found in an excellent state of preservation within the mound, the wooden artifacts and the ship itself are under constant threat of deterioration today, with curators striving to conserve the ancient vessel and its trove.
Although the Oseberg ship burial was discovered more than a century ago, there are many questions still left unanswered regarding the people who were involved with its burial, and the significance of many of its treasures. It remains one of the finest finds of the Viking Age.
Top image: Reconstruction of Oseberg Ship, Kulturhistorisk museum (Viking Ship Museum), Oslo, Norway. Public Domain