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Can genes unravel a Viking mystery?

Scientists say DNA tests could shed new light on a 1,200-year-old puzzle surrounding the deaths of a queen and another woman.
A1904 image shows the Oseberg Viking ship after its recovery in southern Norway. Scientists say DNA tests could yield new information about a queen and another woman whose remains were found in the ship.Scanpix / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

The grave of a mysterious Viking queen may hold the key to a 1,200-year-old case of suspected ritual killing, and scientists are planning to unearth her bones to find out.

She is one of two women whose fate has been a riddle ever since their bones were found in 1904 in a 72-foot (22-meter) longboat buried at Oseberg in south Norway, its oaken form preserved miraculously, with even its menacing, curling prow intact.

No one even knows the name of the queen, but the Oseberg boat stirred one of the archaeological sensations of the 20th century two decades before the discovery of the tomb of Egypt’s Pharaoh Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings.

Scientists now hope to exhume the women, reburied in the mound in 1947 and largely forgotten, reckoning that modern genetic tests could give clues to resolve whether one was the victim of a ritual sacrifice.

Companion in Valhalla
Almost a century ago, archaeologists concluded that the body of a woman in her 50s was the queen, and the second woman, probably in her 20s, was a slave or lady-in-waiting killed to accompany her mistress to an afterlife in Valhalla.

But DNA tests of genetic material might acquit the Vikings of sacrifice in A.D. 834 if they show the two were relatives.

“You never know if there’s enough DNA left in old bones for analysis, but it would be fascinating to try,” said Professor Arne Emil Christensen, the head of Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, where the Oseberg boat is on display.

“A DNA test would only tell us if the women were related,” Christensen told Reuters. “They might be mother and daughter. If that’s the case, it’s more reasonable to believe that they simply died of the same disease.

“That would be new information, with implications for Viking burials,” he said. Ritual sacrifice was sometimes practiced in Viking times.

A contemporary account by an Arab traveler of the burial of a Viking chieftain in Sweden, for instance, includes an execution of a female slave. And in one Danish Viking grave, an old man lying next to a younger man had been decapitated.

The Oseberg grave could be reopened next year if Oslo University, which oversees Norway’s longboats, gives permission.

Forensic evidence
Nothing is known of the Oseberg queen apart from the spectacular grave, which contained equipment ranging from carved wooden sledges to buckets made of yew wood that were probably plundered in a raid on Ireland or Britain.

Down the centuries, grave robbers may have taken gold and valuables from the ship, which had space for 30 to 50 warriors.

Christensen said the elder Oseberg woman was probably a queen, because the grave contained two pairs of shoes that would fit her feet, which were swollen by arthritis. A slave would hardly get a change of footwear for the afterlife.

Christensen said a forensic test of carbon-13 isotopes could also be used to indicate if the women had a fish-rich diet.

He said that Viking rulers might have favored meat — like elk — over commonplace fish. So if only one of the women had a meat-rich diet, she was most likely the queen.

Looking into the longboats
The Viking longboats were the most feared craft of the time. Their design let Norse warriors land, pillage and plunder and sail off knowing that no other vessels could catch up.

The Oseberg ship, built from oak hewn in about 820, is the most spectacular of three big Viking-era ships found in burial mounds in Norway, preserved by the air-tight seal of the blue clay found in the area.

More than 250 Viking-era ship burial mounds have been found from Russia to Iceland. The Oseberg boat was dragged out of the sea and buried.

Norway is planning to examine another burial site in the south of the country, but Christensen said another find like Oseberg was highly unlikely.

“The best chance of finding Viking ships now would be in old harbors rather than in graves. But then of course you’d find a wreck instead of a well-furnished ship,” he said.