Saving Oseberg initiative results

Nanotechnology may be key to rescuing Viking ship artifacts damaged by earlier preservation attempts

Oseberg

Photo courtesy of KHM / UiO
Conservator Paul Johannessen during original alum-treatment of Oseberg find artifacts.


M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The Oseberg find is the world’s most comprehensive collection of Viking Age wooden artifacts. It now is endangered by the events of its own history. So an extensive effort has now been initiated to preserve it for posterity.

Oseberg ship

Photo: Erik Irgens Johnsen /
Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
Oseberg ship on display in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo.

Its story starts around the year 800, when a Viking longship was built somewhere in southwest Norway. There’s no record of where it sailed, but in the year 834 it was interred in a burial mound on the Oseberg farm near the city of Tønsberg, together with numerous other wooden artifacts, including an ornate carriage. It lay there until it was discovered in 1903 and then excavated in 1904 and transported to Oslo for restoration.

In Oslo, restoration work was divided according to wood type. The longship, made of oak, was in relatively good condition and needed only drying before being rebuilt. Other artifacts, made of softwoods more susceptible to deterioration, were treated before drying. The preferred treatment of the time was with alum [aluminum potassium sulfate—12 hydrate KAI(SO4)2 12H2O]. In 1926, the collection was transferred for display to a purpose-built Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdøy Peninsula on the west side of the city.

By the 1990s, the artifacts treated with alum were found to be in alarming condition due to acidification that caused deterioration of their constituent woods. That triggered an alum research project, which in turn led to the launch in 2014 of the Saving Oseberg initiative. The aim of Saving Oseberg is to contrive new ways of preserving the Oseberg find artifacts for posterity. To date, the most viable approach involves nanotechnology, in which nanoparticle dispersions deacidify the affected woods. The preliminary results that came forth in 2016 were promising, and general media mention followed. On the archaeological time scale, that’s quick.

Further reading

• “Viking ship cannabis conundrum,” The Norwegian American, Jan. 29, 2016: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/viking-ship-cannabis-conundrum.

• “Saving Oseberg,” University of Oslo, Museum of Cultural History, Sep. 30, 2015: www.khm.uio.no/english/research/projects/saving-oseberg.

• “Scope and History of Archaeological Wood” by M.L.E. Florian, first chapter of Archaeological Wood by R.M. Rowell and R.J. Barbour (Eds.), American Chemical Society Publications.

• “Alum treated finds from the Oseberg Collection,” by Susan Braovac, University of Oslo, Museum of Cultural History, 2015: www.statsbygg.no/Files/samfunnsansvar/fou/nanokatedral/susanBraovac.pdf.

• “Nanotechnologies for the restoration of alum-treated archaeological wood” by F. Andriulo et.al., Applied Physics A (2016).

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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