Happy Thursday boys and girls. I thought it might be fun to share some Viking facts that a couple people asked about over the last few days. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how advanced the Vikings were. Yes, they traded for silk, held swimming competitions, bathed more regularly than most people of their era, possessed brightly colored clothing, and were indeed in contact with Muslims and Jews prior to the Crusades. Because they mastered the sea, Vikings were able to travel vast distances and establish trade agreements as far as Constantinople and northern Africa.
Viking hygiene (Who wants to kiss a dirty Viking?):
Vikings were considered some of the cleanest guys around…
One needs to remember that most of our accounts of the Vikings come from Christian writers. A Viking writer would not be likely to give an account of the general cleanliness of his people as a whole. The Christian writers were writing about a fearsome group of pagan people who were ravaging Europe. A Christian writer would have strong biased to present the evil pagans in the worst light. To this day it is the writings of these Christians which give us the impression that Vikings were dirty savages. The reality seems to be quite the opposite.
What we do know from the excavation of Viking burial mounds is that personal grooming tools are some of the most common items found. Items such as razors, tweezers and ear spoons have been found. In fact combs seem to be the most common artefact found from the Viking Age. We also know that the Vikings made a very strong soap which was used not only for bathing, but also for bleaching their hair. Vikings bleached their hair as blond hair was highly sought after in the Viking World.
We also know from the accounts of the Anglo-Saxons that the Vikings who settled in England were considered to be ‘clean-freaks’, because they would bath once a week. This was at a time when an Anglo-Saxon would only bath once or twice a year. In fact the original meaning of Scandinavian words for Saturday (laurdag / lørdag / lördag) was ‘Washing Day’.
There are also writings describing the cleanliness of the Vikings in the East. The Arab writer Ibn Rustah comments on their cleanliness.
Viking beauty treatments:
To conform to their culture’s beauty ideals, brunette Vikings—usually men—would use a strong soap with a high lye content to bleach their hair. In some regions, beards were lightened as well. It’s likely these treatments also helped Vikings with a problem far more prickly and rampant than mousy manes: head lice.
Viking dye for clothes:
A report on the analysis of 220 samples of Viking Age textiles mentions 90 samples which yielded evidence of dyes. The samples come from Dublin, Jorvík, and 19 sites in Norway and Denmark; the dyes mentioned are
red from madder or bedstraw; a purple derived from lichens; our mysterious yellow X [from an unidentified plant]; and a colorant identified as indigotin, almost certainly derived from woad. The insect dye kermes has also been found, and luteolin, presumably from weld, but only on imported silks. (Walton 1988b, 17)
Yellow X is still unknown. Chemical testing has eliminated 25 possible dyestuffs, including weld, broom, buckthorn, heather, chamomile, and saffron (see Walton 1988a for a complete list of dyestuffs tested).
Blended colors are also represented. Indigotin was used in conjunction with other dyes to produce several purples (with madder) and a green (with the unidentified yellow). Madder and lichen used in conjunction yielded a red-violet result (Walton 1988, 18, figure 9). Some evidence of brown from walnut shells has also been found, as well as one or two pieces that were intentionally dyed very dark brownish-black with walnut shells and iron (Hägg 1984, 289).
The chemical evidence of textiles from several different sites seems to point to a preponderance of particular colors appearing in particular areas: reds in the Danelaw, purples in Ireland, and blues and greens in Scandinavia proper (Walton 1988, 18). This seeming preference could of course be explained by any number of variables–availability of dyestuffs, the differing site climates, or the sheer vagaries of archaeological discovery. However, although it is carefully hedged, there is a hypothesis in the scientific world that this might possibly reflect regional color preferences rather than archaeochemical factors. It is pleasant to think that this sort of “Viking heraldry” might have been practiced.
Viking games (swimming):
Swimming in the Viking Age was very popular… Not to mention when longships were traveling in rivers, they often got stuck and the men were forced into the water to free them…
The Vikings often held competitions that pale in comparison to the Olympics, but it was great sport. The Viking Sagas talk about swimming competitions.
The swimming competitions might be more accurately called drowning competitions; the goal was to see who could hold his opponent underwater the longest. Chapter 40 of Laxdæla saga tells of a match between Kjartan Ólafsson and King Ólafur Tryggvason.
Viking silk trade:
Norwegian Vikings purchased silk from Persia
The Vikings did not only go West to pillage and plunder. Most of the silk found in the Oseberg ship may have been purchased by honest means from Persia.
PERSIAN PATTERNS: Silk textiles from the Persian region were found in the Oseberg ship. Among the motifs, we can see parts of special birds associated with Persian mythology, combined with clover-leaf axes, a Zoroastrian symbol taken from the Zodiac. The textiles have been cut into thin strips and used for adornment on clothing. Similar strips have also been found in other Viking Age burial sites. Photo: KHM- UiO
The Norwegian Vikings were more oriented towards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo in Norway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of the Viking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the Norwegian Vikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hitherto assumed.
The Norwegian Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from a variety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Her details are presented in the book “Silk for the Vikings”, to be published by Oxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of her key findings.
In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.
At the time when the Oseberg silk was discovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. It was generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland.
Lots of Viking silk
Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from the Viking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. The last finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordland county. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad in Vestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfold county.
The highest number of burial sites containing silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Uppland region, a few miles west of Stockholm.
– Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containing silk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has been found in a single burial site as in Oseberg, says Marianne Vedeler to the research magazine Apollon.
In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and wool bands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin strips and used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while the tablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.
Marianne Vedeler has collected information on silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscripts on silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantium and Persia.
– When seeing it all in its totality, it’s more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles.
Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age, silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and around Constantinople, or Miklagard which was the Vikings’ name for present-day Istanbul. The other large core area was Persia.
The silk may have been brought northwards along different routes.
– One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.
The Dnepr was the main route to Constantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river trade routes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes the laborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:
– A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they were attacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids and cataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat.
On the basis of the silk that has been found, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia than from Constantinople.
– Large amounts of the Oseberg silk have patterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique called samitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs can be linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.
Another pattern depicts a shahrokh, a bird that has a very specific meaning in Persian mythology; it represents a royal blessing. In the Persian myth, the shahrokh bird is the messenger that brings the blessing to a selected prince. In a dream, the bird visits the prince holding a tiara, a tall head adornment, in its beak. The prince then wakes up and knows that he is the chosen one. The image of the imperial bird was popular not only in silk weaving, but also in other art forms in Persia. The motif gained widespread popularity in Persian art.
– It’s an amusing paradox that silk textiles with such religious and mythological images were highly prized and used in heathen burial sites in the Nordic countries as well as in European churches.
In the Orient, silk was essential for symbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silk qualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty.
Even though silk was a prominent status symbol for the Vikings, they failed to get their hands on the best silk.
– Most likely, the bulk of the silk imported to Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.
In Byzantium, major restrictions were imposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. The punishment for illegal sale of silk was draconian. The Persian lands also imposed strict restrictions on the sale and production of silk.
In Byzantium, it was illegal to buy more silk than what could be bought for the price of a horse. A foreign trader was allowed to buy silk for ten numismata, while the price of a horse was twelve numismata.
– However, several trade agreements that have been preserved show that traders from the North nevertheless had special trade privileges in Byzantium.
Silk was not only a trade commodity. Certain types of silk were reserved for diplomatic gifts to foreign countries, as described in Byzantine as well as Persian sources. In Europe, silk became especially popular for wrapping sacred relics in churches.
– Some of the silk found in Norway may be gifts or spoils of war, but archaeological as well as written sources indicate that silk was traded in the Nordic countries.
– So the Vikings were more honest than has been assumed?
– We may safely assume that the Vikings engaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equal measure.
A possible example of loot found in the Oseberg ship is a piece of silk with an image of a cross.
– This was long before the introduction of Christianity. The silk piece may have been sewn locally, but it is also highly likely that it was purloined from an Irish church.
At Gokstad, thin strips of hammered gold wrapped around silk threads were among the findings.
– These threads are highly exclusive. We do not know their origin, but we suspect that they may have come from even further east, in the direction of China, says Vedeler, who will now travel to China to find out more.
As yet, Vedeler must draw conclusions regarding the origin of the silk by investigating weaving technologies and patterns. With time, she wishes to make use of a new method which is being developed at the University of Copenhagen and which will be able to reveal the geographic origin of artifacts.
I’ll present more history next week… Thanks for stopping by.