Dendrochronological Dating of the Viking Age Ship Burials at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, Norway

Article excerpt

Dendrochronology now provides a date, exact nearly to the year, for three Viking Age

burial mounds of special importance for chronology in Scandinavia and across early medieval northern Europe. Their dating used to depend on the style of the carved wooden artefacts in the grave goods; now the grave-goods are exactly and independently dated by

the tree-rings, those same links will provide dating bridges across the Viking world.

The Norwegian ship-burials and their dating

The dating of the important finds in the burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune in southeast Norway (FIGURE 1), now on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, is central to our understanding of Viking Age chronology and stylistic development. In particular the Oseberg find, with its content of unique carved wooden items, surpasses all other single finds from the Viking period.


The Gokstad and Oseberg sites are situated in the county of Vestfold on the western side of the Fiord of Oslo. The two sites were excavated in 1880 and 1904 respectively. The Tune site is situated on the eastern side of the same fiord in the county of Ostfold and was excavated as early as 1867. It was a sensation at the time, and although the ships in the Gokstad and Oseberg mounds clearly surpass it, it was the first substantial archaeological evidence of a ship used by the Vikings.

In all three cases we are dealing with burials where the dead lay in a grave chamber constructed of wood and placed in a ship along with the grave goods, the whole covered by a mound.

Until now the dating of the three Norwegian ship burials has been largely based on evaluations of the decorated wooden artefacts recovered during the excavations.

Viking Age art can be divided up into several stylistic periods, which replace and overlap each other throughout the three centuries of the Viking Age. They are all based on the Nordic animal style which was inspired by western European, in particular Irish, ornamentation. The result was an independent and original Nordic style. The traditionally accepted sequence of Viking Age styles begins with the 'Oseberg Style' around AD 800, continuing with the 'Borre Style', named after another important mound find in the county of Vestfold. This was followed by the 'Jellinge Style', named after a silver cup found in a Danish mound in Jutland, dated to the second half of the 10th century. The style of what is regarded as late Viking art has been given the name 'Ringerike Style', after a group of decorated stones in Norway, and ends with the 'Urnes Style' from the late 11th and early 12th centuries, which is named after an early wooden church in western Norway. This is only an extremely brief summary of the chronological sequence of Viking art styles. The definition of the different periods, often with sub-divisions, and their dating are under constant debate, and differ according to the background and nationality of the contributor (Schetelig 1920; Wilson & Klint-Jensen 1966; Karlsson 1983; Roesdahl & Wilson 1992).

The stylistic analyses of items from these finds have been carried out first and foremost by the Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig. As a young man he took part in the excavation of Oseberg and later played an important role in the publication of the find, as well as contributing extensively to the international discussion about the chronology of Viking art.

In publishing the wooden artefacts from Oseberg, Shetelig also dealt with the Gokstad find as well as the metal artefacts from both Gokstad and Borre. He concluded that what he called the Early Oseberg Style began around AD 800, whilst his Later Oseberg Style was fixed at around the middle of the 9th century. He dated the Borre Style in the Gokstad and Borre finds to after AD 900 (Schetelig 1920). The leader of the excavation of the Gokstad mound, Nicolay Nicolaysen, had earlier dated the burial to c. …