Monday, December 08, 2003

New Meaning to 'Going Down With the Ship'

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 feet 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 archeological sensations of the 20th century two decades before the discovery of the tomb of Egyptian 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.

Archeologists almost a century ago 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 834 AD if they show the two were relatives.

"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.

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 30-50 warriors.

Christensen said the elder Oseberg woman was probably 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.
Isotopic carbon analysis to determine socioeconomic status - who would have thought.


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