THE OSEBERG CART
  by HL Alfric Rolfson
(Note: Please know that every attempt has been made to contact the previous authors of cited works, and I apologize if omissions are present.  If you would like to discuss authorship, please email me here.)

The pictures are being tweaked for size, and will be available shortly, including measured production drawings.

I have studied Viking lifestyle and culture for many years. From this interest the idea of making a replica of the cart found in the Oseberg Ship burial site grew. The results of that idea are before you in the completed cart, and this paper contains the documentation and rational for it's construction.

The artifact that is commonly referred to as the "Oseberg cart" was discovered in the Oseberg Ship and is the"only complete Viking Age wagon found as yetí. The ship was found in a burial mound in Oseberg near the Oslo Fjord in Norway in 1903. "The Oseberg ship is the most sumptuous relic of a Viking burial. The bones of two women were found inside. They had been buried in the mid 9th century. Judging by the rich furnishings, one was probably a queen. The other may have been her slave or servant... Inside as well were a richly carved wooden wagon, three beautiful sleighs, a work sleigh, and many pieces of furniture, tapestries, and kitchenware such as an iron cooking cauldron."
 
 

While researching for this project I began to ponder the actual purpose of the Oseberg cart. A clue about it's purpose is revealed in where it was discovered. The fact that the cart was part of a burial ship led me to believe that it was built for the burial and conceivably carried the body to the burial site. The Oseberg tapestry shows a scene of many carts and people traveling in one direction, I believe that this is a depiction of the funeral procession. I was pleased to find that other researchers reached the same conclusion "It is not very likely that this cart was ever intended for practical use, probably it was a sacred vehicle for religious ceremonies." Laslo Tarr in "The History of the Carriage" states "Regarding the famous ninth_century Oseberg carriage, scholars like Sigurd Grieg and Schetelig are of the opinion that it was a ritual carriage... The unusual structural features of the vehicle indicated that it was not used for practical purposes."

The intended use of my version of the Oseberg cart is for my dog or myself to pull it, as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry. This is a concept that governed several design choices. I first looked at photos and illustrations of the actual cart and I noticed that the front axle does not pivot, in fact it is rigidly attached to the frame in three places. The term pivot describes the lateral movement of the front axle which allows turning within a small radius (envision the traditional little red wagon).

The Oseberg cart has handles on the side which I believe were used to help turn the vehicle by providing a handhold by which the users lifted the vehicle to assist it around corners, which makes sense for a vehicle with axels that do not pivot. Further research revealed that the pivoting axle on carts and wagons and when it developed was a topic debated by historians and archaeologists. "The essential technology for an effective four_wheeled vehicle in practical everyday use is provision for the front axle_and_wheels unit to turn laterally and independently of the rear wheels and body. We know from surviving vehicles and infer from models that fixed_axle ox wagons were in fact in use in ancient Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, South Russia and Central Europe from about 3000 to 1500 BC and survived until the fifth century BC at Pazyryk in Central Asia. Such a fixed_axle type cannot therefore be dismissed as a practical vehicle on the farm, for instance, or for limited occasions of parade and ceremony."

However, archeological evidence shows that the pivital front axel carts were in wide use throughout the Roman times and it seems that stearing technology became lost after the fall of the Roman empire;

ëwith what is known about the wagons of the Middle Ages we cannot help but notice a decline in the technology from the Roman time through the Dark Ages, and early Middle Ages.í

ëBasically the Middle Ages were not one of technological innovation when it came to wagon construction -- that would only happen well after the Middle Ages. Indeed much of the period

was doubtlessly spent in re-learning Roman technologyí

ëIt also appears that throughout much of the Medieval period the front wheels did not pivot. John Langdon wrote that the pivoting front axle was not introduced to Europe possibly until as late as the 14th Century,í5

"Summing up the evidence, iconographical and textual, in 1960 Dr Boyer could find no clear evidence for pivoted front axles until the second half of the fourteenth century in medieval Europe." It was clear to me that pivoting front axles evolved to make hauling people and goods easier. It is also easier on the draft animal, in my case a dog. "The traction mechanism is of some importance as it is linked with a crucial point in the technological history of all four_wheeled wagons or carriages, their ability to turn with a pivoted front axle. Now a two_wheeled cart or chariot can tilt with impunity, whereas a wagon or chariot must maintain the rear and fore pairs of wheels firmly horizontal on the traveling surface, and so provision for some vertical play of the draught_pole is essential."

By now I had a good idea of why the cart looked as it does, and how it functioned. It was now time was time to start translating the design to paper. The dimensions of the actual cart are as follows; " it's total length, including the shafts, is about 5.5 meters, the maximum width is about 1.5 meters and the height 1.20 meters"

I decided that my version would be approximately ½ scale. To do this I measured photographs of the original cart and applied the formula ( Photo image size in millimeters x 1000 divided in half) to meet the approximate ½ scale size of the parts of the original cart. I based my measurements on one meter because the wheels on the original cart are approximately one meter in diameter.

Much of the construction was done by hand using simple hand tools, a hammer, chisel, coping saw, bow saw and rasp. I also created measuring tools to help ensure the hubs and wheels were uniform in size. I did utilize some power tools in the construction a drill press, circular saw, power drill and palm sander.
 
 
 
 
 
 

BODY

The body of the original cart:

"The sides and bottom are composed of boards which are mortised into the ends and riveted together with iron rivets" "Each end consists of a single piece completely covered with

decorations" 8

I constructed the body using eleven panels instead of nine as on the original so a more symmetrical shape could be obtained. My intention is to use the cart, therefor I opted to use thicker 3/4 inch panels instead of using thinner scaled down panels, and the panels are morticed and nailed to the end pieces. The original cart has iron rings inserted in the side of the body to enable it to be lashed to the frame. I have included this feature to my version as well.

The Body Support Trestles:

The body of the original cart is supported by two trestle assemblies each of two part construction. The Upper Trestles actually support the body and provide hooks carved into the shapes of heads functioning as hold fasts to tie the body to.

The "M" shaped lower sections of the trestle assembly actually supports the trestle and attaches the combined assemblies to the frame.

The body support trestles of my representation are about 8 ½ inches tall, 21 3/8 inches wide and are cut from a single piece of 1 ½ inch thick stock. The "M" shaped pieces are about 2 inches tall and about 15 inches wide and have handles at either end and support the wagon body.

WHEELS

The construction of the wheels presented quite a challenge. On the original cart "The wheel hubs are carved from a single piece of wood . They are .25 meters in diameter and .35 meters wide."9 Basically the hubs are solid wood ovoid shaped pieces with holes around it for the spokes and a hole through it for the axle.

I cut a 5.5 x 5.5 piece of wood into 5.5 x 5.5 x 7.5 size pieces, I then used a bow saw to rough shape the hub. A hand rasp was then to shape it. The tricky part about the hub is that there has to be a near perfect radius in the center of the hub and on the tapered ends. If this dimension is not precise then the wheel will not roll smoothly. The spokes and the axle must be at right angles to prevent wheel wobble. I constructed special measuring tools to insure this alignment.

The remaining parts of the wheel were challenging as well. On the Oseberg cart "The wheels are of beech wood and are segmented into six sections, each having two spokes driven in from the outside and into the central hub. The segments are pegged together internally with wooden pegs. The wheels are just over a meter in diameter (.25 meters wide radially) and about 6 cm. wide. They are set 1 meter apart."My research in wheel construction (and photos of the actual cart) makes me disagree that the spokes were "driven in from the outside and into the central hub...". Wheels are constructed by inserting the spokes into the hub first and then drawing them together and driving the felloes home. The tension of the spokes being drawn together helps keep the wheel intact. I used 1/ 2 inch dowels for the spokes because they best approximate one half of the original size.

FRAME AND AXLES

The original cart:

Frame; The frame is a "Y" shaped piece of wood cut to be tall and thin resembling a 2 x 6 plank. This feature most likely made the frame more flexible preventing it from cracking while traveling on the rougher roads of the period.. The fork of the "Y" is pinned to prevent it from splitting up the middle. The back ends are carved into handles similar to the ones on the sides of the body supports. " The front extends .8 meters forward of the front axle."

Axles, "The axle is carved from a single piece of wood cut square in the center, and rounded on the ends. The axles are attached to the frame, body supports and steering pieces and rods by long wooden pins."

For ease of construction of the frame, instead of carving from a single piece of wood I elected to use 2 x 4 stock cut into three pieces. I joined them at the Y with complex joinery and bolted the pieces securely together instead of pinning through as on the original I did this to add strength to the chassis. The front extends only 4 millimeters from the front axle instead of the .8 meters of the original this was done to prevent the steering mechanism of the pivoting axle from hitting the frame. The frame is attached to the front support and axle by a single bolt with a cotter pin holding the nut from spinning free, not three pins as in the original allowing the front axle to pivot around it's axis.

My axles are made from 2" x 2" stock but instead of having the wheels rotate on an all wooden axle which would have been too week for every day use, I instead opted to have metal shafts inserted into the ends of the square axle shafts. These are secured by pins through the shaft fixing them into the axles. These shafts are threaded on the wheel ends so the wheels can be bolted to the shafts. Pins are used through the axle and nut to prevent the nut from spinning free. The rear axles are attached to the frame and body support much like the original, only using bolts counter sunk into the axle instead of pins and morticed into the frame to prevent lateral movement of the axle and frame.

To prevent wear within the pivot assembly I added a length of pipe trimmed to fit flush within the square portion of the front axle as well as two washers between the frame and axle, and between th pinned nut and axle to act as bearing surfaces. These areas as well as each of the four wheels are lightly greased.
 
 
 
 

STEERING MECHANISM AND DRAFT POLES

The original steering mechanism and draft poles:

"These ornate pieces attach the rods to the axle and allow them to rotate vertically around the pins. These also seem to have "handles" on the rear facing sides but are much smaller than the ones on the frame. The rods are connected on the forward end by a chain. The forks are ornately carved with knotwork and human faces. They are 2 meters long." I believe the ornate pieces pivoted laterally to allow some semblance of steering, allowing the wagon to follow the drought animal around slight curves, much like a car being towed.

On my version I have elected to not carve these pieces and have attached the Steering Pieces to the axle on either side of the frame using bolts instead of pins. The front support is not attached to the steering pieces as in the original. In my version the top of the steering pieces acts as bearing surfaces for the body support to ride on adding stability when turning. Just as with the original cart the draft poles are attached to it using wooden pins

Although I did not use entirely period methods in constructing this replica, modern elements were added only to enhance and strengthen it for practical use. The original cart was ornately carved and that is my next project.
 

Copyright by HL Alfric Rolfson (mka Ralph Mason) November, 2001. Email Alfric here. This article can be used for newsletters or other publications, as long as you give credit to the author. Thanks!