Archaeologists exhumed the body of a Viking queen on Monday, hoping to solve a riddle about whether a woman buried with her 1,200 years ago was a servant killed to be a companion into the afterlife.
As a less gruesome alternative, the two women in the grass-covered Oseberg mound in south Norway might be a royal mother and daughter who died of the same disease and were buried together in 834.
“We will do DNA tests to try to find out. I don’t know of any Viking skeletons that have been analyzed as we plan to do,” Egil Mikkelsen, director of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, told Reuters at the graveside.
As rain pelted down, four men lifted an aluminum coffin containing the bones of two women after digging a 5-foot-deep (1.5-meter-deep) hole in the mound where the women were originally buried in a spectacular Viking longboat.
The women and the 70-foot (22-meter) longboat, with its curling oak prow still intact, were unearthed in 1904 in the 16-foot-high (5-meter-high) mound, surrounded by cornfields, in one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century.
The longboat, known as the Oseberg ship, is in a museum in Oslo, but the bones were reburied in 1948 and have since lain undisturbed. About 200 people, including schoolchildren, watched the exhumation.
“We don’t know who the women were,” Mikkelsen said, adding that DNA tests could tell if they were related. “DNA analysis could prove if they were mother and daughter, but I have always thought of them as the queen and her maid.”
If the two women had widely differing DNA, it could be a sign that the second woman was a servant.
A servant might have been the victim of a ritual killing, and perhaps her throat was slit so she could accompany her queen to an afterlife in Valhalla. In one Danish Viking grave, for instance, an old man lying by a younger man had been decapitated.
In addition to the DNA study, new chemical analysis of bones can tell what people ate. In Viking times meat, such as elk, was prized, while poorer people ate fish.
“If they were mother and daughter they would probably have had the same food. If one woman was a maid they would have had different diets,” Mikkelsen said.
The aluminum coffin will be driven to Oslo and opened for analyses, likely to last a year.
The archaeologists placed a Norwegian 20-crown coin — dated 2007 and with a picture of the prow of the Oseberg ship on one side — in the sarcophagus to show any future generations when the grave had been disturbed.
Among those at the graveside was a man dressed as a Viking with a sword hanging from his belt. “This is an experience you get once in a lifetime,” said Leszek Gardela, 23, a Polish student of archaeology.
Mikkelsen said he saw no ethical objections to opening the grave, partly because the two were buried so long ago and no one even knew their names.