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16.06.2021

Tapestry of the ship Oseberg, 834 AD.

On August 6th 1903, a farmer named Oskar Rom dug into a mound on his property at the Lille Oseberg farm in Slagen, in the county of Vestfold, Norway and discovered what appeared to be pieces of a ship, and thus contacted Professor Gabriel Gustafson in Oslo, who visited the farm two days later. Based on his initial investigation, Gustafson determined that the mound contained a ship burial from the Viking era, but decided to wait until the following summer to excavate. Ultimately, the dig revealed the remains of two women buried in a ship no later than autumn of 834 AD, interred with a ceremonial wagon, four ornate sleds, an array of household goods, and a number of domestic animals. Remarkably, the burial was furnished with a lavish array of textiles, constituting a key feature of the Oseberg find.

The grave chamber contained the largest collection of textiles and textile tools ever been found in a single grave. The collection consists of a number of narrow tapestries thought to have lined the chamber, as well as bedlinens, woven woolen blankets, tablet bands and a large collection of cloth fragments from clothing, sails, tents, rugs and curtains, in addition to remains of silk fabrics and silk thread embroideries imported from Central Asia. The textiles themselves vary greatly in quality, weaving techniques and materials.  Researcher Anne Stine Ingstad has divided them into 19 different groups according to quality and purpose. Coarse wool fabrics woven with geometric patterns, predominantly diamonds and crosses, were found in abundance throughout the grave, perhaps representing the remains of draperies used in the furnishing. The ornamental tapestries are woven from wool with a weft made of plant material, possibly flax, which has since disintegrated. They portray a variety of people in procession and at war, some clearly in costume, along with animals, wagons, and buildings, possibly representing ritual scenes, suggesting the older woman was of great importance. Altogether fifteen different silk materials are represented, mostly cut into narrow ribbons, which may have been used as adornments. Multi-colored silk embroideries in patterns of tendrils, spirals, animals and geometric designs may also have trimmed the women’s garments. The textile tools include: 5 different weaving looms, 1 tablet weaving loom, 1 manual spindle and distaff,  1 weaving reed, 5 balls of wool, 1 device for winding wool, 2 yarn reels, 2 linen smoothers, 1 smoothing iron, 3 wooden needles, 1 pair of iron scissors, and various small implements for spinning and textile work.  

Although difficult to interpret, the scene appears to represent a religious procession of three horse-drawn wagons accompanied by people on foot. The two figures riding in the wagon (lower middle left of the conjoined imnage above) may represent an idol and his or her priest(ess). A ceremonial wagon ornately carved with figures (pictured at the top of the page), was found with the tapestry. The front panel of the wagon is decorated with interwined animals, including cats, suggesting to some that the older woman of the Oseberg burial may have been a priestess of Freyja. The remaining two covered wagons, which appear to follow the lead wagon, may plausibly contain religious objects of some kind.

 A horned figure (at the top far left) leads the procession, accompanied by a man either accompanied by or carrying a four-leafed symbol, which may be mounted on a staff.  The same symbol appears between the wheels of the lead wagon. The comparatively larger size of the  horned man  may indicate his status as a deity, possibly Odin. The male figure behind him bearing the symbol is followed by eight women in procession.   A similar procession of one man with up-raised arms and eight women can be seen on stones of the Kivik King's Grave, along with a wheeled chariot, drawn by two four-footed animals, apparently representing horses, demonstrating the great age of this processional ritual. A similar procession of women in hooded robes is found on the Garde Bote Picture Stone from Götland.  The building in the direct center of the conjoined image above (or on the left side of the right panel) is thought to represent a temple or hall used for ritual activity. Another fragment of the tapesty (see below) depicts a tree in which human bodies are hung, reminiscent of sacrificial trees described outside the heathen temples at Uppsala and Lejre in later written accounts. This leaves little doubt that the procession depicted in this scene is religious in nature.

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