Ever since the publication of a scientific article in 1883, “everyone” has known that the skeleton found in the magnificent Gokstad ship in Eastern Norway belonged to Olaf Geirstad-Alf, the legendary Viking king of the House of Yngling. In recent years, however, research has shown that this must be wrong.
Dendrochronological datings show that the Gokstad ship was built about the year 890 AD, i.e. the height of Norwegian expansion in the British Isles, and in the year 901, it was buried in the so-called “King’s Mound” (Gokstad Mound) in Vestfold, Eastern Norway.
The vessel largely is constructed of oak and is 23.22 meters (76.18 ft) long and 5.18 meters (17 ft) wide. On each side, there are sixteen oar holes, and the ship was built to carry thirty-two oarsmen. With a steersman (the ship’s owner) and lookout, the crew consisted of thirty-four people but could carry a maximum of seventy men with some equipment.
The Gokstad ship was both flexible and fast with a top speed of more than 12 knots (14 mph) propelled by the sail of about 110 square meters (1,200 square feet). Recent tests have shown that the vessel worked very well with both sail and oars, and it may have been used for trade, Viking raids and explorations. There have not been found any thwarts, and the oarsmen probably have been sitting on chests that also contained their personal equipment.
When the Gokstad ship was excavated, sixty-four shields were discovered (thirty-two on each side) and every second was painted in yellow and black. In the front part of the ship, there were discovered fragments of white wool fabric with sewn red stripes that probably were parts of the sail. Behind the mast, a burial chamber was discovered with the remains of a beautifully woven carpet decorating the walls. Inside the burial chamber, there was found a made bed containing the buried person.
In addition to the Gokstad ship itself, there were among other objects found a gaming board with gaming pieces made of horn, fish hooks, harness fittings of iron, lead and gilded bronze, kitchenware, and six beds, one tent, one sled and three smaller boats. There were also discovered a large number of animal bones that had belonged to twelve horses, eight dogs, two northern goshawks and two peacocks.
When the excavation took place in 1880, it soon became clear that parts of the grave goods had been plundered in ancient times: there were no jewellery or any precious metals in the grave, nor any weapons that in the Viking Age were an important part of a warrior’s grave goods preparing him for his journey to the Afterlife. Just south of the Gokstad burial mound, a major trading centre has recently been discovered. The items excavated tell different stories and document the close connection between Vestfold and the rest of the world at the time. Weights found in the trading centre show that hectic trading activities took place at about the same time as the Gokstad ship burial.
In 2007, bones from a human skeleton found in the grave were thoroughly examined by Professor Per Holck at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo.
The examination proved that the bones had belonged to a man who died in his 40s. He was between 178 (5ft 10 in) and 184 centimetres tall (6ft), something that was significantly taller than the average height of the period (165 cm / 5ft 5in) and the Viking was exceptionally powerfully built. The man in the Gokstad ship grave has mainly eaten terrestrial food [food coming from land and not the sea, like meat and corn] showing that he has belonged to the Norse community’s social elite.
Professor Holck found clear marks of five or six different cuts from an axe, knife and sword: one on each of the thigh bones, two or three on the left and one on the right calf bone. It is likely that the Gokstad man did not survive these injuries, something proved by the fact that there are no signs that his wounds have healed.
Although none of the injuries has been fatal (perhaps with the exception of a cut on the inside of the right thigh bone, which may have damaged the femoral artery), it cannot be excluded that this particular Viking has had other cuts that did kill him, for example in the head (only parts of the skull was discovered).
Aiming for the enemy’s legs was a common fighting technique in the Middle Ages. The legs were not covered by chain mails and were vulnerable, a fact documented from many examples in Norse sagas.
Professor Holck concluded that there must have been at least two people, with three different weapons, who have killed the Gokstad man, and that the cuts indicate that he most likely was wearing armour and killed in battle.
Not King Olaf Geirstad-Alf
The theory is that the skeleton from the Gokstad mound has belonged to Olaf Geirstad-Alf (Old Norse: Ólaf Geirstaða Álfr, the elf of Geirstad) was already described in a scientific article by anatomy professor Jacob Heiberg back in 1883, and the man’s identity has since been widely accepted. In the first section of the Heimskringla King’s Sagas written down in 1225 by Snorri Sturloson, Olaf «Geirstad-Alf» Gudrødsson is mentioned with a couple of lines: Olaf was a petty king in Vestfold, and the half brother of Halfdan the Black (c. 810 – c. 869 AD). Olaf was allegedly Halfdan’s nineteen years older brother, and thus probably born around the year 800. Since the ship’s grave can be dated back to the year 901, about half a century after Olaf Geirstad-Alf’s death, researchers can safely say that this is not Olaf’s grave.
However, who was the exceptionally powerfully built Viking found in the Oseberg grave chamber?
If we take a close look at the large and versatile Oseberg ship and the rich discoveries, and how the person in the grave was killed – it is quite certain that this was a powerful and respected Viking warrior from Vestfold. The peacocks discovered show that this was a man with an international network and that he did belong to the Norse upper class. Perhaps the birds were a gift from an English king or trophies he brought back home from a Viking raid in Spain?
In Medieval Europe peacocks, a bird species originally brought back from Asia, were considered a symbol of power among kings and aristocrats. Maybe the Gokstad man was a powerful Viking petty king, earl or chieftain who had accumulated enormous wealth abroad?
However, he may also have been an elite warrior, a berserker, one of the king’s loyal elite soldiers who received the funeral he deserved when he was killed in battle. If he was killed in Dublin, London, York– or in Novgorod (Russia), and was brought home to be buried, we do not know. Either way – it is certain that the human bones buried in the Gokstad ship did not belong to King Olaf Geirstad-Alf.