One of the most extensive sources of information about the Vikings comes from archeology. The earliest archeological discoveries were spectacular ship burials filled with impressive relics which captured the imagination of people in the late 19th century. But what do these burials tell us about the Vikings? Firstly they confirm that the Vikings' Old Norse religion was similar to that of ancient Egyptians: one carried one's property into an afterlife that was similar to this life. Such burials also contain information about Viking material culture, art and social structure.
Around the Oslo Fjord in Norway, three enormous earthen mounds were excavated,
and inside were found whole ships, called the Tune, Gokstad and Oseberg.
The three ships are different in size and design, but all three were constructed
using the same technique. Modern ships are constructed with a skeleton-like
wooden frame to which the strakes are nailed. Before the Viking ship burials
were uncovered, it was assumed that the "dragon ships" described in Viking
poetry were constructed in the same way. Fortunately, the wet clay soil
of the mounds created a sealed environment that kept the wood from disintegrating.
When the nearly intact Gokstad ship was excavated in 1880, she showed that Vikings ships had been built by nailing one strake (plank) on to another without ribs, with the ship builder using his practiced eye alone as the guide to the shape and size.
Such simple construction techniques were easily adapted to suit the needs
of individual boat owners. Besides being very adaptable, Viking ships were also extremely flexible, light, and maneuverable, as demonstrated by the many replica ships that have been sailed in the last 100 years. The Oseberg ship's low sides and steep prow carried its royal passengers elegantly through calm waters.
Besides ship construction and information about religious beliefs, the ship burials also reveal information about women in the Viking Age. Inside the Oseberg ship, an extremely ornate vessel with an elegant serpentine carving at bow and stern, excavators found a dazzling array of objects- beds, four sleds, an elaborately carved cart with twelve sacrificed horses, buckets filled with food, barrels and chests, intricate wooden carvings, and embroidered tapestries (some of the only textiles that have survived from the Viking Age). Who was worthy of such an impressive burial? There were two skeletons inside the ship, both of them female, one older than the other. Archeologists believe the older woman must have been an important leader, likely with religious powers as well, Interestingly, a story found in Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla (Orb of the World) talked about a Queen named Aasa, so many early scholars reasoned that this was the burial of Queen Aasa. Regardless of the woman's identity, Oseberg proves that women in the Viking Age could garner great authority and respect.
Although impressive, the archeology of elaborate burials and beautiful objects has certain disadvantages. Like the Egyptians, only high-status people were buried with rich burial goods, so the findings of early archeology were skewed towards the lives of the rich and powerful. More recent excavations of towns and villages have begun to fill in other aspects of Viking culture. We'll look at excavations of this type at other stops on our Viking Voyage.