The Partly-Completed Tablet Weaving from the Oseberg Ship Burial

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Copyright © 2003 Shelagh Lewins.

The Viking Ship Museum

The Oseberg Ship and many of the finds from it are on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. This superb museum also houses the Gokstad, Tune and Borre ships. For more information take a look at the museum's website Viking Ship Museum.

The Textile Equipment

The Oseberg ship contained the bodies of two women, one older and one younger; because she was buried in a higher-status red dress, the younger woman is thought to have been the noble whom the burial honoured. The grave goods included a considerable amount of equipment for textile production. This equipment was stacked on the ship, big rocks were thrown on it and then the whole lot was buried. Was this a ritual breaking of the grave goods so they couldn't be used again? Or did the drinking start a bit early?

In addition to various larger wooden items, there was a locked wooden box full of textile equipment. Click on the thumbnails below to see photos of the box and some of the smaller items from the ship, including some of the wooden weaving tablets.

Box Equipment Tablets

The burial also contained a great many textiles, including tapestries, woven fabric, embroideries and bands. They were in a very good state of preservation when dug up. Sadly they have since decayed, but some watercolours were made at the time. One book on the finds has been published but it is in Norwegian [1]. Sophie Krafft published a short book of her watercolours [2]. The full archeological report on the textiles was published in 2005, in Norwegian with an English summary.

The Oseberg ship burial suggests that women could at least occasionally achieve a very high status in Norse society. The presence of so much equipment suggests that at least one of the women buried in the ship was a renowned textile producer, so I'm inclined to think that not only were the textiles themselves valued, but also that skilled craftswomen were respected.

The Band

To students of tablet weaving, the most interesting find in the ship is a partly-completed tablet woven band, found still attached to 52 wooden tablets, probably maple [3]. It seems almost certain that the band was locally woven, presumably by one of the women buried in the ship, although I don't know whether any of the thread might have been imported. The band has been detached from the tablets, and is on display in the museum. Here are two photos of the band fragments: click on the thumbnails to see high resolution versions.

Photo 1 Photo 2

The band is perhaps 1 1/2 inches wide, and was woven in fine woollen thread. I couldn't identify any warp-woven pattern. However, you can still see areas of what look like soumak, that is additional threads wrapped around the warp threads to create patterns. Although the colours are very faded, I thought that the soumak was wool, in two shades, one lighter and one darker than the warp threads. The soumak thread looked similar in thickness to the four-strand warp cords (and hence thicker than the individual warp threads). From the way that the warp threads tend to separate except where the soumak holds them together, I'd say that the weft was probably a vegetable fibre which has perished. Although the colours vary across the fragments, the borders looked to be darker than the pattern area of the band.

Detail of Soumak Wrapping

Detail of Soumak Wrapping

It seemed to me that the same motifs appeared regularly on the various fragments of the band, and that they were likely to have originally been a repeating geometric pattern. Below is a possible reconstruction of the soumak pattern.

Reconstructed Soumak Pattern

Reconstructed Soumak Pattern

The Tablets

The tablets are approximately 2 inches on a side. They are quite uneven and vary in both shape and the exact placement of the holes. As someone who is accustomed to using very regular tablets with perfectly evenly placed holes, I boggle at the skill of the weaver who could use these tablets to create such perfect bands. Additionally, many of the tablets have "extra" holes whose purpose is not known (they don't seem to have carried threads for this band). These seemed to be scattered randomly through the deck. [4]

Although many of the tablets are recorded as only being threaded with one thread when found (perhaps some had broken?), the threading direction of the 52 tablets was recorded, and suggests a border of between 7 and 11 tablets on each side. Tablets number 3, 7, 46 and 50 are recorded as carrying 4 threads each, making me wonder whether those threads were slightly thicker and stronger, and may have formed part of a symmetrical border.

Some of the Weaving Tablets

Some of the Weaving Tablets

The threading direction of tablets in the pattern area was highly irregular. This apparent randomness suggests to me that there was originally a warp-twined pattern which cannot now be seen - otherwise a regular threading would have been more likely, as it would create a more even and attractive ground weave. One might expect this pattern to have complemented the soumak wrapping.

The Ends of the Band

The woven end of the band was attached to a short piece of wood with rounded ends - a bit like a rolling pin. The unwoven warp was attached to a long post which was broken in a number of places, but looks to have been originally more than a yard in length. One end of this post was attached to a crosspiece. There seems to have been another long post (also broken in at least one place) near to the "rolling pin". This might be interpreted as a frame comprising two vertical posts connected by a slender horizontal base or top (it's not known which way up this frame would be used), with the weaving stretched between the two posts (the unwoven end attached directly to one post, and the woven end attached to the "rolling pin" which itself might then be attached to the other post). Mind you for all I know the posts might have been horizontal. The "Oseberg Loom" described in a previously-published volume of the Oseberg Finds is a separate item which was found nearby: the posts associated with the tablet weaving appear to have been less sturdily constructed and hence to have been more damaged by the burial method.[4]

Other Tablet Weaving

At least some of the tapestries found on the Oseberg Ship had tablet woven borders, some of which were sewn on, and some of which were woven integrally with the tapestries. There were also loose bands found in the grave, some of which were tablet woven.[5]


  1. ed. Arne Emil Christensen, Anne Stine Ingstad, and Bjørn Myhre, Oseberg-Dronningens Grav: Vår arkeologiske nasjonalskatt i nytt lys (Oslo: Schibsted, 1992)[back]
  2. Sophie Krafft, Pictorial Weavings from the Viking Age (Dreyers Forlag: Oslo, 1956) [back]
  3. Arne Emil Christensen, verbal comments [back]
  4. Unpublished archeological sketch from excavation [back]
  5. Unpublished archeological report [back]
Shelagh Lewins

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