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5-minute craft: Rawhide lids for storage vessels

When we went to Hedeby Summer market last weekend, we bought two small pots from Helmut Studer, who makes excellent ceramics. The pots are mainly intended for cooking near an open fire, but it occured to us that with about 1l and 1.5l volume, they’re excellent for storing food during a camp.

However, they came without a lid and I had seen an ingenious way of making a lid: Using rawhide.

When we were back home, I found a small piece of thin rawhide which I had left from back when we used (historically inaccurate) rawhide lamps to illuminate our tent. I cut it roughly to shape, watered it for about one hour and then wrapped it around the pots with a thick rubber band – the kind of rubber band that we use for „Weck jars“ in Germany.

I let the rawhide dry for a day and when I came to see the result, it held onto the pots so strongly that I had to exert some force to get it off them. It’s even almost watertight and prevents about 99% of spillage, should a pot fall over. All of this without any additional method of tightening.

This way, we can use the pots for storage and transport of loose food (think peas, or grain, or soft cheese) when we don’t need them to cook.

This use of rawhide skin is conjectural, as far as I know – meaning that there are no actual finds to support it. Therefore, it should be treated with a little caution in a highly accurate reenactorial environment.

Zoomorphic round fibulae from Birka

A fibula from Birka. Copper alloy, gilded, by craftsman Vasily „Gudred“ Mayisky

Vasily „Gudred“, our craftsman of choice for anything that glitters, has made a new replica of a round fibula found in Birka.

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What is the future of viking reenactment?

I have been asked a couple of times by fellow reenactors online, but also at one of the very few training events that I went to this year, what I think will happen next year: Will event XY take place? Will we have a Wolin, will we have a season?

I thought long about this, and I think we as viking reenactors will have to come to terms with the fact that

we will not have a season next season, or in 2022.

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A viking-age weather vane pendant

This night, I was alerted by my friend Gudred to a posting made by Sergey Kainov, senior researcher at Moscow’s State Historical Museum[1]Sergey Kainov profile page, available online: https://shm.academia.edu/SergeiKainov, about an interesting piece in an online auction site.

The piece of jewelry is a viking-age „weather vane“ of which many examples exist. Tomas Vlasaty has taken great pains at cataloguing them here: Scandinavian weather vane jewelry (CZ) [2]Tomas Vlasaty, Skandinávské spony s korouhvičkou, available online: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/skandinavske-spony-s-korouhvickou/

A viking-age weather vane (image: hermann historica)

The weather vane is gilded silver and rather typical for this kind of item. Its usage is atypical though – the evidence usually pointed towards these items being used as dress pins, much alike to the „Birka Dragon“ pin, as shown in these two reconstructions made by Gudred.

The silver chain and rings look like something which could have been made in the viking age. The chain is classified as „Type 6“ by Arwidsson in Birka II:3[3]G. Arwidsson, „Ketten“, Birka II:3, pp73-78, here: p74. Kugl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 1989. ISBN 91-7402-204-0, and it is the third most frequent type of chain in Birka (with 12 finds from the graves).

The chain terminals could be from the viking age, too. However, they look a bit „off“ to me. A silver pendant like this, which was also gilded, was certainly an expensive piece, and re-using it as a pendant underlined that value.

Detail of the chain terminals, showing decoration and rivet work.

The craftsmanship of the terminals, which are essentially cylindrical pieces of metal sheet, is not too impressive, and although it has some typical decoration (punched triangles with a dot in the center), I would say that it was maybe added at a later date, possibly in the medieval age. In any case, it’s my opinion that the chain and pendant is a secondary usage for the weather vane.

Provenance

The piece is from „Lithuanian art dealership“, which is a quite shaky provenance. We have numerous examples of illegal looting in the Baltics and viking-age graves are especially affected by this. A piece in excellent condition like this one, with very peculiar properties, like this one, and an unclear provenance, like this one, looks „too good to be true“. I am unsure if the auction site offers more detailed documentation for prospective buyers, but I would be wary of this item.

I’m deliberately not linking the auction itself – if you want to find out about it, I am sure you can google it. 🙂

What do you think?

Is this an original? Is it a fake? Do you know of other finds like this (especially with these chain terminals)? Write me in the comments!

References

References
1 Sergey Kainov profile page, available online: https://shm.academia.edu/SergeiKainov
2 Tomas Vlasaty, Skandinávské spony s korouhvičkou, available online: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/skandinavske-spony-s-korouhvickou/
3 G. Arwidsson, „Ketten“, Birka II:3, pp73-78, here: p74. Kugl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 1989. ISBN 91-7402-204-0

Viking tattoos – found in translation?

Disclaimer: I am not judging whether viking-age northern Europeans („Vikings“) had tattoos or not. I am merely analyzing the main source for this claim on a linguistic and source-critical basis.

TL;DR

We don’t know and Ibn Fadlan is not a good primary or secondary source for vikings with tattoos.

Introduction

The question whether or not vikings wore tattoos is as ambivalent as controversial. As tattoos have entered the mainstream, many reenactors and viking enthusiasts (myself included) sport some viking-themed ink. And from the ubiquitous (and not viking-age) „Vegvisir“ symbol over runic inscriptions to copies of ornamental artefacts on human skin, the repertoire of tattoos with a viking theme is abundant.

However, this article does not aim to answer that particular question. I would like to shed some light on the most-quoted „source“ for vikings with tattoos.

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A kindle holder from Bj139

I accidentally found this item in the „varia“ section in Birka I: Die Tafeln and got curious.

An „item“ (Föremal) from Bj139. Copyright SHM.

I posted a screenshot on facebook and got some very interesting replies by various great reenactors. I’d like to save these comments here so they don’t drown in Facebook’s „great“ threading system.

Very soon, Viktor Lipták stated correctly that it is a tinder holder. There are many such in finds from Hungary, which can be seen in this paper on Academia (thanks, Viktor, for providing the link!): Újabb adatok a honfoglalás kori tarsolyok és tűzkészségek klasszifikációjához Volga-Káma-vidéki analógiáik fényében / The classifcation of Hungarian Conquest period purses and tinder sets in the light of analogies from the Volga-Kama region

On top of that, Sándor Bőrműves Tar posted a really interesting video that shows the correct usage of a tinder holder.

Thank you, everyone, for this comment thread, it was really interesting.

The punchline: After the discussion, I went to look at Birka I: Die Gräber and found out that Arbman had already placed the item as a „probable kindle holder“, it just wasn’t posted as such on the SHM database. 😉

The „Birka belt pouch“

The first of the „frequent fails“ that we have actually been guilty of ourselves is the so-called „Birka pouch“. This is a pouch with a specific set of bronze mounts, please refer to this illustration in Birka II:1.

There are three things often wrong with this pouch:

  1. It is not actually from Birka. The mounts were found in Rösta, Jämtland, as the caption clearly states. It’s mentioned in the Birka books because similar mounts, namely the center mount, the star-formed mounts and some of the mounts on the strap, have been found in Birka. These mounts were, however, found in more than one graves so that not even under ideal circumstances this specific pouch could be replicated solely with Birka finds.
  2. The form is incorrect and does not conform to the mounts. The mounts are clearly Tarsoly mounts (see here, here, here for Tarsoly examples), and the form of a tarsoly is clearly evidenced by archaeological finds, iconography and even traditional dress in Hungary up to the 19th century. Tarsoly, for those who are unaware, are the pouches used by the Magyars since the early medieval age, and there are literally dozens of finds from all over Eastern, Central, and North Europe (Denmark and Sweden).
    This is an error made by the author of the paper in Birka II, and is probably due to the fact that this form of pouch was popular in the Vendel age (?) and in the late medieval. However, the author seems to not have had contextual information about the fashionable tarsoly which undoubtedly entered Sweden as an exotic accessoire, or even as a symbol of rank and status.
    The reconstruction attempt in the drawing above was first challenged in Fornvännen 2006 (Link), when Inger Zachrisson presented a reconstruction which shaped the pouch more like a tarsoly.
  3. The size is often exaggerated: Tarsoly shouldn’t be larger than maybe 12 by 12 centimeters, while many reproductions are easily large enough to fit a CD in. Rule of thumb: If your smartphone fits, the tarsoly is quite likely too large. 😉

It should also be noted that tarsoly are not „viking pouches“. They are part of the orientally influenced attire of a Scandinavian who was in direct contact with, or under heavy influence of Eastern peoples. If you want to do a „norse viking“ kit, you should probably steer clear of these, as well as of belts like the one from Birka Bj 716.

What do you think should be covered next in this category? Feel free to comment here or on Facebook!

Possible Viking-age helmet found in Belarus

A new and rather spectacular find was announced recently on social networks and the belarussian media. This helmet may be a modern fake, deposited in order to create resale value, but it might well be authentic.

The findplace

The helmet was found on the shore of the river Березины (Berezina River) in the town of Бобруйске (Babruysk) in Belarus. A local worker for the waterways company found it washed ashore after the winter ice cleared off. In 2018, said the local man, work was undertaken to widen and deepen the river, and maybe the helmet was accidentally uncovered during the work.

The findplace of Babruysk has history spanning back to the Stone Age, and during the times of Vladimir the Great, a village was on the river bank of Berezina River.

The helmet

These are some pictures posted by Аляксей Бацюкоў, a historian at the Historical Museum in Mogilev, Belarus, who shared an enthusiastic account of the find on social media.

The helmet is of the Chernigov type, and in fact so similar to the original Black Grave helmet that at first glance, I thought a reenactor had left it outside for a few months. The condition of the find is amazing.

Some details and dating

The helmet consists of four overlapping, jagged iron plates, covered by almost identical copper-alloy plates. Decorative elements are attached to the left and right of the helmet, and to the front (three symmetrical lobes, the tallest one marking the center.

In the last picture, you can see a tiny protrusion just above the finder’s thumb, and some enthusiastic reenactors suggested this could have been a nasal that broke off.

Helmets of this type are usually dated to the 10th century AD, and since this find has, as of now, neither undergone conservation nor analysis, it’s too early to say if this tentative dating applies to it. Maybe it is dated to 2010, maybe not.

More information

Stay tuned

I will update this article when new information arises.

Making beef tallow for authentic lighting

Some things that now seem hopelessly anachronistic and are dead cheap weren’t that cheap in former times. Artificial light, for example, was far from a commodity. Candles were, at least as far as we know, too expensive for everyday lighting, so viking-age buildings were sparsely lit. The central fireplace gave off some light, and there are several finds of items that held a liquid or solid fuel for lights.

This is a find from Birka, Black Earth (various identical lamps were found in Birka).

The fuel for these lamps was quite certainly animal fat, as vegetable fats (such as olive oil, linseed oil or other vegetable oils) were, and are, too expensive to burn, and have a couple of disadvantages. One of them is the fact that animal fat, especially pig and goose lard, or beef tallow, have a higher melting point, making them easier to handle.

I have one of these lamps as a reproduction, and for the past seasons, I used it with pig lard. This type of fat is readily available in supermarkets (it’s used for cooking), and is not too expensive. However, it’s not one hundred percent authentic and – which is really annoying – it turns liquid at room temperature, making summer events a really greasy affair if the lamp falls over.

I wanted to use beef tallow for a while now, but I never found any in butcher’s shops or supermarkets. Eventually, I thought „why not make it myself?“. We are lucky to have a really awesome farmer around the corner, who raises their own cattle (organic, by the way), and is in control of the whole butchering process. To add to this, they have a son in the same kindergarden as our kids, so I went there and asked if they could help.

Alas, they had no tallow, but they were just about to bring one of their Galloways to the butcher, and promised to set aside the fat around the kidneys, which is traditionally used to make tallow.

A week ago, I picked up these lumps of fat (around 4.5kg, one of two lumps shown). They have an interesting consistency – they aren’t greasy like bacon, instead they feel like wax. I put them in the garage to wait for better weather.

Cowkidney fat before cutting

This saturday was a nice, sunny day, cold but great. I took lunch naptime as a welcome opportunity to light a fire in my outside fireplace and start making tallow.

First, I cut up the first lump into small cubes – and the cats loved the scraps that fell down in the process.

Cutting up the fat.
This cat can be a bipod if it is motivated enough.

The next step was adding a little water and putting the cubes into the kettle. The water, I found out on the second run, is optional, I’d read that it makes rendering a little easier.

Around two kgs of cow fat starting to cook.

Now I let it heat up, waited until the water dissipated and started siphoning the tallow. It would have been a lot easier if I could just pour everything into a vessel, but the pot is really unwieldy and I didn’t want boiling fat all over myself.

Getting there…

For siphoning, I used a sieve that the kids play with. Had I wanted to make tallow for eating or cosmetics, I would have used some linen, or other fabric, to get clearer results. In this case, a sieve was enough.

I kept doing this several times, and the pieces of fat became increasingly crisper. I threw them back into the pot to increase the yield…

Siphoning the tallow

Eventually they were so crisp that they could only serve one more purpose…

The remains of the tissue around the fat – crisp flakes of animal tissue.

…cat snacks! I am not usually a friend of high-fat diet for our cats, but there’s talk about a really rough couple of weeks (-20°C and so on…), and maybe a little extra fat will help them stay warm outside. Or they’ll have massive diarrhoea.

The yield of the day were 1.5 big glasses of tallow (I think one might have around two liters, but I’m not sure) and a plastic container (approx. 1 liter).

The still-hot tallow waiting to cool down.

After a while, the tallow had cooled down and became about as hard as candle wax. I left it outside for natural deep freezing, but couldn’t wait to try it out. So i re-heated some of it in a small frying pan and quickly sewed a wick for my Birka light. At this point, I have to thank Katarzyna Masia Konkol for her very, very useful idea of putting a tubular wick over the cone in the middle. It works like a charm.

The finished light, filled with tallow and a fresh wick.

I took the light outside and lit it – and it works great!

Working beef tallow light.

If you can get your hands on cow kidney fat, try making tallow, it’s rather easy. The smell is not as bad as you might think (still, the dripping tallow is really annoying to clean, so better make this outside), and the yield is quite good. I spent less than 10 Euro on the fat, and it gave me 3+kg of tallow.