The famous Viking ships of Oseberg and Gokstad may stay at Bygdøy
The University of Oslo owns the Viking ships from Oseberg and Gokstad, which are currently exhibited at the small island of Bygdøy in the Fjord of Oslo. Since 1999 the University together with developers and politicians has adamantly wished to build a new state-of the-art museum at Bjørvika next to the new opera in the harbour of Oslo. Today the ships are presented in a cathedral-like building from the 1920es next to the museum, which houses the Kon-Tiki fleet, as well as next to the old Folk-Museum, which includes one of the oldest open-air museums of the world. Both of these museums have fought vigorously to keep the ships at Bygdøy, thus securing their own survival as more than just a place for a nice summer excursion for the locals.
The ships, however, are extremely fragile. So far nobody has wanted to take the responsibility for moving them from their present location. Currently an international group of experts are considering the pros and especially the cons. It is expected to come up with a report in 2012. A few days ago the chancellor of the University suddenly expressed a more nuanced position in the matter. It appears that the University is currently considering a development of the Museum at Bygdøy in order to keep the priceless ships safe. To the obvious annoyance of the politicians, who want to develop the ships as a tourist magnet in order to compete with future projects in Denmark and in Sweden, where for instance a Viking-experience centre is being developed near Stockholm.
This softened position of the University arrives at a time, where scientific research fosters fascinating new knowledge about the remarkable ship-burials, which unfortunately cannot be communicated in the present exhibition at Bygdøy. Some of this results from DNA-research, which was undertaken a couple of years back, some from a modern rethinking of the finds, which stem from archaeological excavations more than a hundred years old.
In 1904, after the excavation of the Oseberg ship at Tønsberg, the remains of the two females from the boat-grave were laid in an aluminium casket and reburied in a stone sarcophagus. A few bones were however deposited at the University of Oslo. Later a DNA profile from the remains of the younger woman was obtained, which surprisingly showed that, her sample fell into the haplogroup U7, nearly absent in modern Europeans, but common amongst Iranians. This implied that her forefathers might have lived in the Black Sea region, maybe explaining the presence of the so-called Buddha-bucket in the grave and the luxurious silk textiles. The sample from the elder woman’s remains was unfortunately too contaminated to provide a clear profile.
In 2007 it was accordingly decided to exhume the bodies in order to examine them again. Results proved startling. It was discovered that the collarbone of the younger woman had been healing for several weeks before she died, which seemed to exclude the ritual killing idea. Moreover, her age was about 50 rather than 25, as was believed earlier. The remains of the older woman showed that she had terminal cancer and a hormonal disorder called Morgagni’s syndrome, which gave her a masculine appearance. Both women ate high-grade food (meat rather than fish). The younger one used a metal toothpick, which was a luxury during the Viking Age. There was unfortunately not enough DNA to tell if the two were relatives.
These studies have amongst other things resulted in a major rethink of the usual way of framing the excavations at Borre in Vestfold. At the recent conference of the European Association of Archaeologists, which took place in Oslo in September, the participants were taken on a guided tour of Borre. Here the leading archaeologist, Terje Gansum, pointed out that in general the finds at Borre are much more linked to the East – Sweden, Russia, Latvia and Lithuania than to the West. A perspective, he thinks, is missing from the general understanding of the Vikings.
Another perspective has been a rethinking of the gender issue. Earlier on the women in the Oseberg grave were defined through their presumed kinship with the royal mythological chieftains of the 9the century. The older woman in the grave was thus originally elevated to royal status and identified as Åsa, the grandmother of Harold Fairhair; how else to understand the fact, that she was given a “masculine” or at least mixed burial in a ship? Looking at other burials from the same area and time. Marianne Moen has however shown that burial goods and mortuary landscapes might very well be more equivocal in their character. Recently she was given a prestigious price for her research, which was published as a British Archaeological Report in April.
The Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy
Interview with Terje Gansum (In Norwegian)
Marianne Moen: The Gendered Landscape: A Discussion on Gender, Status and Power in the Norwegian Viking Age Landscape. Archaeopress: British Archaeological Reports International Series 2011.