Ship shape

The Oseberg ship. Photo credit: Daderot.

Last night’s post was kind of a downer. Let’s flee to the past then, and delight in the Viking Age, which is a matter of set facts that cannot change.

Or can they?

The fact is that the field of Viking studies is almost as dynamic and fluid as modern society. Just the other day I learned a fact that shivered my timbers, so to speak. Another of the precious facts I’ve been telling people in lectures all these years turns out to be false.

I’ve written about the Oseberg Viking ship before. Along with the Gokstad ship, also housed in the Viking Ships Museum in Oslo, it’s one of the two most famous Viking ships in the world. Miraculously preserved through being sealed in clay when they were buried during the 9th Century, they were discovered around the turn of the 20th Century, and completely altered everybody’s thinking about the sophistication of Viking culture.

The Gokstad ship. Photo credit: James Cridland.

Unlike the larger Gokstad ship, which served as a coffin for a tall man, the Oseberg ship held the bones of two women. We don’t know for sure who they were, and we’re not even entirely sure what their relationship was. It seems reasonable to assume that the older woman was a queen, and that the younger woman (who has been shown by DNA analysis to have had genetic roots around Iran) was a slave sacrificed to accompany her in the next world. But even that’s disputed.

For years even the ship’s origins were a mystery. There’s a scientific discipline called dendochronology, which allows archaeologists to compare patterns of tree rings to determine when any piece of wood was cut. But in order to make the comparison, you need to know where the original tree grew, and the Oseberg ship didn’t match any tree ring patterns in eastern Norway, where it was buried.

At last a comparison was made to fragments found in a couple much less well-preserved ship graves on Karmøy Island, in western Norway. If the Oseberg ship was not built on Karmøy, it was certainly built nearby. This pleases me because (as I’ve told you too many times) my great-grandfather Walker was born on Karmøy.

But the pleasure wasn’t perfect, because the Oseberg ship had its drawbacks in terms of romance. Everyone – and I mean every expert – was agreed that she wasn’t strictly what you’d call a Viking ship. Her prow and stern were too high and too narrow. She would have been unstable in a high sea (as one modern replica famously proved when it capsized and sank to the bottom after catching a cross-wind a few minutes away from the dock).

But lo and behold, it turns out that’s not true. I refer now to the book I’m currently reading, The Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson. I’ll review it when I’m done with it, but that will take a while. It’s looooong (which is not to say it’s dull). In discussing the Oseberg ship, Ferguson drops the following bombshell:

A recent electronic scan has revealed, however, that the horizontal ribs on either side of the reconstructed keel should have been curved and not straight. At the cost of elegance the broader bow would have made her quite capable of sailing on the open seas. (He cites an article on the April 2, 2006 edition of the Oslo paper, Aftenposten.)

I have trouble figuring out exactly what that means in terms of structure, but the point is that the Oseberg is a bona fide Viking ship, not a dark age Chris Craft.

They’ve known this for seven years, and nobody told me. The Wikipedia page on the Oseberg ship doesn’t even mention it, but continues to declare her a coastal yacht.

So this is me, spreading the word. Out of a massive sense of responsibility.

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