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«Viking Age Queens The example of Oseberg Master’s thesis MPhil Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture 2009-2011 University of Oslo 2 Acknowledgements I ...»

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Kirsten Ruffoni

Viking Age Queens

The example of Oseberg

Master’s thesis

MPhil Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture

2009-2011

University of Oslo

2

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank my supervisor Professor Jan Bill for the suggestions, comments and feedback which

have helped me achieve the task of writing this Master’s thesis. I would also like to thank Professor

Terje Spurkland for his time and help in dealing with runic inscriptions and liteary sources. Finally,

I wish to thank Professor Christian Keller for his guidance in the initial phases of the project.

3 4 Index Introduction Introduction

Problemstilling

Sources

Theory

A note on death and the afterlife

Method

Research questions…………………………………………………………………….….…14 Chapter I - The Oseberg burial: archaeological finds and related theories The Oseberg burial

Discovery and historiography

The mound: positioning and building

The ship……………………………………………………………………………...21 The human remains………………………………………………………………….23 The grave goods……………………………………………………………………..24 The wagon and sledges……………………………………………………………...26 The tapestries………………………………………………………………………..27 The animal sacrifices………………………………………………………………..28 Evaluation of the richness of the Oseberg burial…………………………………...29 The cultic significance of Oseberg: various theories……………………………………….30 Anne Stine Ingstad: the cult of Freya……………………………………………….30 Brit Solli: the völva………………………………………………………………….33 Gunnhild Røthe: the cult of giantesses

Further considerations: the Oseberg mound breaking

A critical analysis of the Oseberg theories………………………………………….36 Chapter II – Comparative analysis between Oseberg and other burials The role of women in the Viking Age………………………………………………………40 Scandinavian Iron Age and Viking Age female high status burials………………………...44 Four burials from Tuna cemetery in Badelunda, Sweden

Hedeby chamber grave

A selection of Viking Age sorceress burials………………………………………….…….47 5 Three possible sorceress burials from Birka………………………………………..47 A grave from Fyrkat, Jylland

Other ship burials of the Viking Age and Iron Age, from Scandinavia and elsewhere.........50 Gokstad and Tune

Sutton Hoo

Ladby and Hedeby

Some Continental Germanic Iron Age female high status burials

Teodolinda Queen of the Lombards: ca. AD 570-627

Gundiperga Queen of the Lombards: ca. AD 591-post 652

Aregund Queen of the Franks: AD unknown-565/70

Considerations on the comparative analysis of Oseberg

Chapter III – Literary sources: portraits of Germanic queens and their connection to high status Scandinavian women in the Viking Age The role of women in the Germanic Iron Age, according to the surviving law codes...........63 Portraits of important Iron Age Germanic women from literary sources

Germania

Historia Francorum………

Historia Langobardorum……………

Poetic Edda

Beowulf

Considerations on the literary sources and their connection to the Viking Age and the Oseberg burial

Conclusion

Bibliography

6 List of figures Figure 1: Cover photo- the Oseberg excavation

Figure 2: The Oseberg ship………………………………………………………………….22 Figure 3: The Oseberg wagon…………………………………………………………….....26 Figures 4 and 5: The Oseberg tapestries- drawings and fragments…………………….......28 Figure 6: The Hillersjö runestone……………………………………………………….......42 Figure 7: The Sutton Hoo gold buckle……………………………………………………....52 Figure 8: The Ring of Aregund………………………………………………………….......55 Figure 9: The “corona ferrea”………………………………………………………...........57 Figure 10: The hen and chicks of Teodolinda…………………………………………........61 List of tables Table 1: Oseberg and other Scandinavian female high status burials……………………...58 Table 2: Oseberg and sorceress burials…………………………………………………….59 Table 3: Oseberg and other ship burials……………………………………………………60 Table 4: Oseberg and Germanic Iron Age burials

Table 5: literary sources and the factors that influence their reliability……………….…...81 Table 6: the role of high status women in the literary sources……………………………...81

78 Introduction

The Oseberg ship burial is a Viking Age burial mound containing a double female inhumation, which is located in the Oslofjord area in Norway. Through dendrochronological analysis 1 it has been possible to determine the year in which the timbers of the grave chamber were felled, and the burial has consequently been dated to AD834. The burial was formed by pulling a ship ashore, placing it in a trench, and building a grave chamber on its deck. The aft and fore of the ship, together with the grave chamber, were then filled with a large amount of grave goods; the fore of the ship was also occupied by many sacrificed animals which, because of their position, are thought to have been killed outside the ship and then placed on it. 2 The Oseberg mound was first excavated in 1903 and 1904, and since then it has been studied extensively. Many aspects of the burial have been considered by scholars, who have tried to reconstruct the events of the early 9th century in order to explain its grandness and significance. 3 The mound has provided much interesting and unique archaeological material, thanks to the excellent preservation conditions which enabled wooden objects to survive underground for almost 1200 years. Probably the most important part of this burial is the wonderfully carved ship, which is





21.5 meters long and 5.1 meters wide. 4 This ship, an early Viking Age construction, was useful in increasing our knowledge of Viking age ship building and sailing. Although it is thought by some that it was not suitable for ocean voyages, it is nonetheless very well built and highly decorated. 5 Other important finds from the burial include decorated wagons and sledges, a wide variety of everyday objects and some woven tapestries.

When first excavated, the burial was thought to be that of a Viking Age chieftain, but it soon became apparent that it was lacking the weapons and other artefacts common in male graves, whilst it abounded in everyday objects such as kitchen utensils, which are normally associated with females. The discovery of two human skeletons instead of one also came as a surprise. 6 Further studies proved that the burial was a double female inhumation and this led to it being labelled “unique”. There has been much speculation about who was buried in the mound and about which one of the two skeletons was the most important figure.

1 Bonde & Christensen 1993: 575-583 2 Brøgger 1917 3 Brøgger & Shetelig 1950; Ingstad 1982, 1992, 1995; Christensen & others 1992; Røthe 1994; Solli 2002.

4 Marstrander 1986: 164 5 Christensen & others 1992: 138-153 6 op.cit 40-41 9 A popular study of Oseberg has been that of focusing on the women buried in the mound in order to give them an identity. At first Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglingasaga was used and it was proposed that the burial was that of Queen Åsa or of Queen Alvhild, who are the only two queens mentioned in the saga. Recent osteological studies conducted by Per Holck 7 have indicated that none of these hypothesises can be considered valid as the dating and age of the skeletons doesn’t fit with the supposed time in which the queens mentioned in Ynglingasaga 8 would have lived. The burial occurred in AD834 and the two women were 70-80 and 40-50 years old respectively. If we consider what is said in Ynglingasaga Queen Åsa was about 30 years old in AD834, and she had moved back to Agder in AD821 after killing her husband King Gudrød. Queen Alvhild, first wife of Gudrød, is thought to have died in AD815, at about 25 years of age. 9 Therefore it is very unlikely that either of these women was buried in the Oseberg mound; the women buried in AD834 were probably born in ca. AD750 and AD780, whilst Alvhild was born in ca. AD790 and Åsa in ca.

AD800. Other scholars have focused on the uniqueness of the grave and claimed that only a very important woman would have received such a burial, and this woman was therefore probably a sorceress or priestess of high rank. 10 The scholar Anne Stine Ingstad went as far as claiming that the Oseberg woman was possibly a representative of the goddess Freya, either a very powerful sorceress or a sort of demigoddess herself. 11 Critics of these theories argue that the Oseberg woman was an heiress and that she had the same status as a male chieftain and therefore received the same burial, according to the customs of the time. Other views include that of Røthe who claims that the Oseberg women were connected to a cult of giantesses or ancestral mothers 12, and that of Solli who interprets the burial as that of a sorceress who could be called on for help by the living and return to her mound when the work was done. 13 There are many questions and mysteries about Oseberg that have not yet been answered. We still do not know for sure who was buried in the mound, what position this person held in society and why she was given such a large burial. It is also unclear whether one woman was the most important or whether the two were equally so, if they were related in some way or if they had similar functions in the community. I believe that Oseberg should be viewed within a wider context and compared to female high status burials from the Germanic Iron Age as well as to other burials from the Viking Age. Iron Age burials directly precede Viking Age ones, so that some of the particular characteristics of Oseberg might find an explanation in the earlier Germanic mortuary 7 Holck 2009 8 Heimskringla, Ynglingasaga 9 Christensen & others 1992: 267-270 10 Christensen & others 1992; Price 2002.

11 Ingstad 1982, 1992, 1995 12 Røthe 1994 13 Solli 2002: 229-230 10 practices. Through this comparison and by placing the Oseberg burial in a context wider than that of the Viking Age, I hope to come to a better understanding of its various characteristics and peculiarities, in order to come closer to a valid explanation of them.

Problemstilling The aim of my thesis is to analyse the Oseberg burial from a wider, Germanic, perspective, in order to obtain a well documented argument regarding the much debated questions of who the deceased women were and why they were given what is commonly known as a kingly ship burial.

The Germanic populations share a common origin with the Scandinavians and are therefore part of the same culture. It follows naturally that Germanic sources can be useful in the task of better understanding this early Viking Age burial.

My hypothesis is that the Oseberg burial was first and foremost secular. It is possible that one or both women also had an important religious function in their society, but I do not believe that this alone could justify the type of burial they received. Through comparative analysis with other tombs and with the help of primary documentary sources and secondary literature, I will attempt to determine the validity of this hypothesis.

Sources I intend to make use of various primary and secondary sources throughout my thesis, in order to combine different areas of study and therefore obtain an interdisciplinary work. The primary literary sources I will consider are mainly those that focus on Iron Age Germanic societies and on Viking Age society. I will also be referring often to archaeological sources and secondary literature. As well as focusing on literature and archaeology, I will use runestones and works on history of religion and history of art.

I will be using primary runic and literary sources in order to determine the role and status of women in Viking Age society and to compare it to that of Germanic Iron Age women, as it can be deduced from the various Germanic law codes. In this way I hope to obtain a clearer picture of high status women in the Viking Age. This in turn will be useful in the understanding of what the Oseberg women represented to society. Relevant material includes Viking Age runestones from Norway and Sweden, law codes, such as those of the Lombards, Franks and Burgundians, and literary works such as the Poetic Edda, Historia Langobardorum by Paul the Deacon, Historia Francorum by Gregory of Tours, Germania by Tacitus, and Beowulf. I have chosen these particular sources because they are the only ones which mention women, and especially queens, extensively.

11 Other sources such as Bede or Isidore of Seville only mention kings and men, but never noble women, and are therefore irrelevant for my study.



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