Jonas Lau Markussen

Oseberg Style

The Anatomy of Viking Art




The Anatomy of the Oseberg Style


c. 800 – 875






Equal sized squat animals:
1. Frond-like terminals.
2. Round eyes.
3. Feet gripping surroundings.

An interplay of geometric and zoomorphic patterns:
4. Limbs segmented into ornamental elements.

Three main animal types:
5. Birds:

– Head in profile.

– Beaked.

6. Mask A:
– Head facing forward.
– Protruding fronds from either side of the head.
7. Mask B:
– Head facing forward.
– Top of head terminates into fronds.





Curvy outlines with occasional kinks.





A medley of looping and waving curves.


A. Pear-shaped loops.
B. Multi-loops.
C. Pretzel-knots.
D. S-shapes.





  • Tight interlace with almost no visible background.
  • Double contour.
  • Single-stranded ribbons.
  • Double-stranded ribbons.
  • Triple-stranded ribbons.
  • A mix of high and low relief.






  • An absence of compositional main lines (A, D).
  • Carpet-like distribution of motifs of equal size and equal compositional value.
  • Geometric and zoomorphic framework of oval or rhomb-shape (B, C).
  • Apparent symmetry in the composition. However, different in detail (A, B, C).






  • An eclectic medley of animal bodies rendered into segments melting together.
  • Zoomorphic framework (C).
  • Geometric framework (B).







Exchange and Early Expansion



Trade and Raids


The spirit of the Norse expeditions and exchange with the communities of the surrounding European regions was mostly opportunistic. Whether it be for trade, raid or settlement depended on the circumstances and the situation of the individual.


Several trading towns were now well established in Scandinavia along the popular trading routes. They were the centre of fluctuating cosmopolitan influences and material goods and the manifestation of all the connections with the various tribes and societies of Europe through the far-reaching trading routes overseas and along the continental rivers.


They soon became an obvious opportunity for the influence of power on several levels: economic, military, socially, religious and artistic. This was, therefore, a crucial place to have control over by the local rule who collected taxes and controlled who and what entered and left the territory.



The Eastern Routes


The trading town of Birka, Sweden was the gate to Eastern Europe. From here all the Slavic regions could be reached by the rivers from the Baltic sea like Volga and Dnieper, eventually reaching Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.


The Norse, or the Rus’ as they were known in Eastern Europe, came from what is today Roslagen of modern-day Sweden and settled along the Northern parts of these routes, to make the journeys more convenient and to better be able to trade and raid among the local Slavic tribes.


The Rus’ chieftain Rurik soon gained control of the trading post Ladoga and later established a settlement further south at Novgorod.



The Western Routes


Hedeby situated at the southern border of Scandinavia was the gate to Western and Central Continental Europe.


Bordering the mighty Catholic Frankish Empire to the south and connected with the British Isles to the west through the Baltic and the rest of Scandinavia to the east through the North Sea, Hedeby was a crossing point of religious, monetary and cultural influences. There was continual traffic of material goods flowing through the town.


Both the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe Islands were settled by Norse emigrants who saw an opportunity in moving their household to the vacant and fertile isles and making a life of their own. The isles soon became a bridgehead to the further expeditions and raids of Scotland and the rest of the British Isles.


The Bishop Ansgar was appointed missionary of the northern lands by the Frankish emperor Louis the Pius, and he was, in turn, able and allowed by the Norse rulers to build churches in some of the most important trading towns.


But as the Frankish Empire crumbled, the power, need or incentive to force the Christian faith upon the barbarians of the north lacked the support it needed to be successful, and as most of the Norse people didn’t see any reason to convert by their own free will, the first attempts at Christening the Norse were in large futile.




A Remix of Conventions





It is difficult to encircle and document what the style between the Broa and Borre style may have looked like, and various theories have been proposed. What is presented in this guide is a type of style first and foremost represented in the Oseberg ship-grave, which has been dated by dendrochronology to a period between the Broa and Borre style.


The burial mount of Oseberg features some magnificent woodwork composed by sledges, wagons, a ship, tent poles and more. Among the artefacts are some artworks done in an unmistakably Broa style. In conjunction, there are also many works which don’t seem to fit in with the Broa style proper. Although they seem to carry many of the same characteristics, they seem to also consistently and radically differ in many ways. It would seem like these works might represent a development of the Broa style in a new direction that in some ways points towards the Borre style.


The ribbon-like-animals are for instance a clear reference back to the elegant and abstract ribbon animals of the Broa style, while the emphasis on the more squat shape of the animals and the way they now consistently grip each other and the surrounding frames point towards the application of the gripping beast in the Borre style. Even the mix of heads in profile typical for the Broa style, and forward facing typical for the Borre style points at this style as a possible transitory period between the two styles.


The Oseberg style is a clear development of the Norse traditions in its own right and without any further traceable influences from outside of Scandinavia.


The style is generally composed of a more relaxed and unconventional take on the animal ornament. Traditionally the individual animal of the ornament interlace would always be depicted as a clear but extremely abstracted representation of a single somewhat anatomically correct animal with typically one head, one body, two or four legs and a tail. In the Oseberg style though, there is often no distinction between the individual animals in the ornament. Animal limbs and bodies are all thrown together in an eclectic mix to create the most lively multilevel intertwining ornaments possible.


Even the convention in the Broa style of a clear distinction between, and separation of the ribbon animals and the gripping beasts seem completely disregarded, as the features of each is typically merged together.



The Sledge Poles


The two sledge poles display geometric framework similar to the Broa style, but the animals depart in execution. They are mostly single and whole animals, but they melt together occasionally to fit the structure of the ornament lines and framework.



The Baroque Animal Head-posts


On the two Baroque animal head posts, the seemingly geometric framework is actually created entirely from animal limbs disregarding the individual animals completely and separating their body parts into mere ornamental segments to produce an abundant composition as a whole.



The Fourth Sledge and Gustafson’s Sledge


On Gustafson’s sledge and the fourth sledge, we even see the mixed and melted animal ornament in a more free-flowing form on its own terms.





The Oseberg style, like the Broa style, is not known outside of Scandinavia, which indicates that the style had developed into the following Borre style before the expansions of the Norse world into more permanent settlements in regions outside of Scandinavia.












c. 834

Animal head posts

— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo O 1904:345, O 1904:344


c. 820

The ship

— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C550001


c. 834

The Baroque animal head post
— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C55000 123


c. 834

The Baroque sledge poles

— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C55000 196, C55000 17


c. 834

The Carolingian animal head post
— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C55000 173


c. 834

The fourth sledge
— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C55000 208


c. 834

Shetelig’s sledge
— the Oseberg grave

Oseberg, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C55000 195


c. 850

Gilt silver pendants

— the Hon hoard

Hon, Buskerud, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsakssamling, Oslo C747 (The hoard: C719-51)





Sword sheath ferrule

Korosten, obl. Žitomir, Ukraine.
Gosudarstvennyj Istoričeskij Muzej, Moscow 105009,inv. 2575/1






Graham-Campbell, James, 2013. Viking Art.


Fuglesang, Signe Horn, 1982. ‘Early Viking Art.’ Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia (Series altera in 8°) 125–173.

















The Anatomy of Viking Art

The Anatomy of Viking Art

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