Who were these women, and what did they do in life to deserve such an impressive and elaborate burial? 

An era of Norwegian nationalism 

The social impact of the discovery of the Oseberg ship in a burial mound on a farm near Tonsberg, Norway, at the turn of the 20th century, can hardly be overstated. 

In 1904, when the archeological excavations started, Norway was not an independent country. 

Instead, it was under a personal union with the Swedish crown, meaning that while Norway had its own government, the monarch was shared with Sweden. 

Since the early modern period, Norway has been tossed between its neighbors, Denmark and Sweden, like a piece of brunost (Norway's world-famous "brown cheese"), a political plaything for these Scandinavian powers. 

By the discovery of the Oseberg ship though, Norway was fed up with this sad state of affairs. 

The latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century was an era of romantic nationalism across Europe, and Norwegians embraced this. 

Norwegians from all social classes looked back for examples of their glorious past to remember that they were once an independent and proud nation. 

Increasing demands for a referendum on Norwegian independence arose as they sought to free themselves from what they perceived as a "foreign yoke," even if that yoke was their benign neighbor. 

The Oseberg ship, a symbol of immense Norwegian cultural and historical pride, is here pictured while its location was changed in 1926 in Oslo. Photo: Narve Skarpmoen (1868–1930) / National Library of Norway (Public domain)

A symbol of a proud history and culture 

The discovery of the Oseberg ship could not have come at a more prudent time. 

Even though the archeological team was overseen by Norwegians and Swedes working together, this ship was seen as very much a strictly Norwegian national symbol. 

Here was a Viking ship from an era when no Norwegian bowed their knee to a foreign ruler. Quite the opposite: it was Norwegians who ventured abroad, carving out vast territories across Eurasia for rule, settlement, and trade. 

Their reach extended from the British Isles to Baghdad, from modern-day Canada to Constantinople, seemingly spanning everywhere in between. 

The ship became an overnight national sensation and a symbol of immense cultural and historical pride. 

However, among all the fanfare and symbolism, it represented an important archeological and historical discovery due to what else was buried with the ship. 

In addition to the animal remains, grave goods, and votive offerings buried with the ship, there were also the skeletal remains of two women. 

Who were these mysterious women deserving of such a rich and important burial? What was the role of the women aboard the Oseberg ship? 

Among the most intriguing artifacts from the burial, a cart was unearthed, measuring one meter wide and two meters long, possibly used ceremonially in reverence to the Norse fertility goddess Freya. Photo: Bochum1805 (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Two women, two mysteries 

It has been more than a century since the Oseberg ship was uncovered, but frustratingly, its discovery has raised more questions than it has answered. 

The skeletal remains of two women caused a sensation during the excavation in 1904 and 1905. 

Given the era steeped in misogyny and sexism, particularly when analyzing the past, many in academia had assumed that the ship must have been constructed for a mighty male ruler, a Viking elite. 

The discovery of two female bodies shattered this ancient notion. 

Whilst female rulers were not uncommon in the Viking era, they remained the exception rather than the rule. 

In Viking societies throughout the early medieval period, there existed a rigid patriarchal structure, with women largely marginalized and discriminated against. 

The discovery of these two female skeletons then caused a stir in archeological circles. 

Initially, the two skeletons were believed to belong to a woman in her 70s and one between 25 and 30. However, recent scientific advancements, specifically in analyzing tooth decay, have updated the age of the second female to be around 50. 

So, we have two older ladies buried in an elaborately constructed ship, considered the finest ever uncovered, with a horde of grave goods, including clothes, farming tools, fine silks and tapestries, farm animals, a sleigh, and even a mysterious Buddha bucket

Archeologists and historians, upon discovery, rightly concluded that these women were no ordinary individuals. 

The elaborate burial and the immense wealth of the grave goods all seemed to suggest that one or both women were extremely powerful, part of the political and social elite. 

Perhaps more clues are hidden within the bones themselves? 

This unique object, unearthed from the Oseberg burial mound, is referred to as the Buddha bucket, consisting of a vessel adorned with a decorative brass ornament featuring two figures on each side. Photo: Eirik Irgens Johnsen / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Broken bones and buried secrets 

Scientists can now conclusively date the ship's burial to between 800 and 834. It featured a burial chamber within, where the female remains were uncovered. 

A recent analysis of the older woman, believed to have been between 70 and 80 years old when she died, has revealed that she was not only overweight but also died of terminal cancer. 

The younger woman, aged in her 50s, had a broken collarbone that had been healing for several weeks before her death. 

The original hypothesis was that the broken collarbone of the younger woman was a sign of ritualistic killing. 

Perhaps she was a servant or a slave to the older woman and, as often happened, was killed to serve her mistress in the next life as well. 

Whilst this indeed occurred, one of the most famous accounts of an enslaved girl being killed to accompany her master in the afterlife was documented by the 10th-century Arab scholar, diplomat, and traveler Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed this among the Volga Vikings

However, the contemporary view suggests that the lack of other broken or fractured bones seems to disprove this "ritualistic killing" theory. 

Since their discovery more than a century ago, there has been a wealth of speculation and theories about the identity of the two women. 

Some theories suggest that the older woman may be Queen Asa, the grandmother of Harald Fairhair, and the younger woman her servant maid. 

Alternatively, it's proposed that the older woman was a wealthy merchant, indicating that people from Viking societies were adept at trading as well as raiding, or that she held the position of a high priestess. 

Sadly, despite all the scientific and technological advancements since the ship was first discovered in 1903, we are no closer to knowing who the women are. 

What we do know, however, is that one (or possibly both) of the women was so powerful and commanded such respect that they were buried in one of the finest Viking ships constructed with a treasure trove of elaborate goods for their use in the next life. 

Whilst the identities of the two ladies remain unknown, this only adds to the mysterious appeal of the Oseberg Ship, which has fascinated and intrigued people since its discovery on a farm over a century ago. 

To demonstrate the ship's popularity as a national symbol, a new multimillion-dollar Museum of the Viking Age is currently under construction in the nation's capital, Oslo, and is set to open in 2025

Taking pride of place in this new museum will be, of course, the Oseberg ship. 

For more information on the science behind the Oseberg Ship burial, visit Science Norway here.

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