The Plundering of the Ship Graves from Oseberg and Gokstad. an Example of Power Politics?

By Bill, Jan; Daly, Aoife | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Plundering of the Ship Graves from Oseberg and Gokstad. an Example of Power Politics?


Bill, Jan, Daly, Aoife, Antiquity


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Introduction

Monumental burial mounds have been constructed throughout large parts of the world, at many different times, by many different societies and probably for a range of different reasons. They vary in size, shape and construction, but they share the characteristic that they could only be constructed through the coordinated effort of a group of people much larger than a single household. As such they may be seen as signs of stratified societies, and it may be assumed that monumental mound building, among other things, served to maintain this stratification. In medieval transalpine Europe monumental burial mounds are known predominantly from Norway and Sweden, but also more sparsely from Denmark (including Hedeby), south-eastern England and the Czech Republic, and they seem to date mainly from the Migration and early medieval periods (Muller-Wille 1992). They are commonly understood as means to communicate the elite's legitimate claim to power through heritage from their ancestors (Hedeager 1992: 253; Carver 1998: 262; Capelle 2000: 180), and the creation of monumental burials is thus seen as a social practice aimed at consolidating a new or endangered political power through making the rulers' version of history manifest. Following this line of thinking, it has been suggested that the plundering of such graves could represent the conscious destruction of this message--a denigration of the deceased's social standing, and thus also that of their offspring (Brendalsmo & Rothe 1992: 107; Myhre 1994: 78-80; Randsborg 1998:115).

This explanation does not, however, stand uncontested. It has been suggested that monumental burials have been opened and partly destroyed in order to prevent the deceased from interfering with the living, to retrieve special objects with magical or symbolic significance, or to strengthen the position of the perpetrator through negotiation with the dead (Brogger 1945; Capelle 1978: 209; Geary 1994: 61-67). It has also been suggested that the opening of monumental burials may have formed part of an extended burial rite or have served as an initiation rite for new kings (Myhre 1994; Gansum 1996: 65; Steinsland 2002: 94-96; Lia 2004: 312; Lund 2009: 247-49). Translatio, a transfer of the deceased to a new and more appropriate resting place, has also been suggested (Krogh 1982, 1993) and criticised (Myhre 1994; Andersen 1995).

The discussion about grave manipulations has not only focused on monumental burials but also on burials without monumental character, especially those of Merovingian times (Brather 2008: 164-65; Kummel 2009; van Haperen 2010), and an analytical procedure has been suggested by Kummel (2009:128) to investigate the social context of such actions. The investigation focuses on three different aspects of the grave manipulation: 1) its distance in time and ethnic affiliation to the burial; 2) its attitude towards the deceased: friendly, hostile or indifferent; and 3) its legitimacy or illegitimacy. Depending on the answers to these questions Kummel suggests different interpretations of the grave manipulations: as integrated elements in the funerary rite, as legal or illegal treasure hunting or as intentional destruction for political reasons. In the present article the break-ins at two of the best preserved monumental burials in Scandinavia, the ship graves at Oseberg and Gokstad, will be studied according to this procedure, in order to illuminate the early medieval use of monumental burials and the particular history of these two monuments. The Oseberg and Gokstad burials were earlier ascribed to different, named members of the Norwegian Ynglinga dynasty known from historical sources, but the dendrochronological dating of the burials in the early 1990s made these theories improbable (Myhre 1992: 274-76). Recent investigations of the burials' skeletons have produced new terminal age estimates (Holck 2009), that have further disfavoured any identification of the deceased with any historically known figures. …

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