A few thoughts on the iron box from Bj539 and its lock

I wanted to do some little projects during my free time between jobs, and metal-fitted chests/boxes are nice projects to do. They allow me to work on my woodcrafting and metalworking skills at the same time, while also giving a value to my camp setup (you can never have enough storage).

I have the swedish book „Begravd pa Birka“ (the english version, „Buried at Birka“, is out now, and can be bought directly from the author here: Buy at myhoney.se), and it has a very nice reconstruction of a little chest/box from Birka grave 539. It looks like the right size to store the miscellanea that you always keep looking for: Sewing kit, whetstone, „rust eraser“, etc. etc.

So I took a look at the replica and the finds, and decided to take up the opportunity to revive this ailing blog a little.

Reconstruction of the box by F.Hellman & T.Cederroth, from the book „Buried at Birka“

The grave

Grave 539 is relatively sparse, with two single-shell tortoise brooches (making it a female grave from the 9th century, as single-shell tortoise brooches fell out of fashion after that), some more jewelry, knife, scissors and a green glass that is now known as the „pineapple“ in the reenactment scene. It’s not a spectacular grave, were it not for the box and bucket.

Plan of Bj539. Arbman, Birka 1, p166

Description of the box

As usual for Birka, not a lot of organic material could be recovered of the wooden box from grave 539. However, the metal bands and remains of lock and grips were found, leading Arbman to the following description:

An dem 0. Ende der Grube eine 5 cm tiefe Senkung des Bodens (auf dem Plan punktiert). In dieser eiserne Kästchenbeschläge (116:7) und Holzeimerbeschläge (116: 8). Das Kästchen war nach Stolpes Skizzen, Abb. ’17, etwa 19 cm lang, 12 cm breit und 7,5 cm hoch, hatte auf der Vorderseite ein Schlossblech, Abb. 117, mit viereckiger Mittelpartie mit runden Löchern und ausgezogenen, als Nägel gebrauchten Enden, Länge 10,9 cm, Breite 2,6 cm, auf der Rückseite zwei einfache Scharniere, vgl. Taf. 269:1 rechts, die Spitze umgebogen, Länge 9 cm, Breite o,8-1,2 cm, und auf der einen Schmalseite einen Henkelgriff, alle diese Stücke stark verrostet, der zweite Henkelgriff und der Haspen fehlten schon bei der Ausgrabung, siehe Abb. 11

Arbman, Birka I: Text, p.166

This translates to:

At the eastern end of the pit, a 5cm deep lowering of the ground (dotted on the grave plan). In there, chest fittings (116:7) and bucket fittings (116:8) from iron. The box/chest was after Stolpe’s drawings (fig.17), about 19cm long, 12cm wide and 7.5cm high, had a locking plate on the front (fig.117), with a four-sided middle portion with round holes and drawn ends, used as nails, length 10.9cm, width 2.6cm, on the back side two simple hinges, cf. pt 269:1 on the right, the point bent, length 9cm, width 0.8-1.2cm, and on one of the narrow sides a handle, all these items strongly corroded, the second handle and the hasps were missing during excavation, see fig.11

Arbman, translated by the blog author

Let’s try and sort this a little into a more convenient list:

  • Wooden box with iron fittings and bands
  • Measurements of the box: Length 19cm, width 12cm, height 7.5cm. That’s tiny!
  • Lock on the front
  • Two simple hinges on the back
  • Handles on the narrow sides of the chest
Drawing of the box Bj539, from Arbman, Birka I, after Stolpe’s original drawing

The box is really, really small.

The wooden remains

Unfortunately, there is no information about the type of wood, the thickness or other constructive details of the wooden box itself.

The metal remains

The hinges

The hinges are supposedly from a similar type to the ones in pt. 269:1, pictured below. If you look closely,

Simple hinges from Bj980; Arbman, Birka I, pt 269:1

The handles

The handles aren’t visible in any of the photographic documentation at my disposal (they’ren neither in the SHM database nor in Birka I: Tafeln), but I assume they might have looked similar to the handles from grave 367, a pretty generic type of handle which is easy to make.

Handle from Bj 367, from Birka I: Tafeln, pt. 269

The iron strips

Unfortunately, there is also no documentation about the iron strips or bands that were nailed to the box. From the replica made at SHM, I’m deducing that they must have been as wide as the hinge (Arbman says: 0.8 – 1.2cm width), and bent around the corners of the box to protect them. Nothing is said about the nails that attached the bands to the wood, and there is also no information if these nails were bent over or riveted on the inside (or short enough to not protrude from the inside of the box).

The locking mechanism and its parallels

The locking plate from Bj539 is described as „with bent ends, used as nails“. I don’t honestly understand how Arbman came to this conclusion, because the find doesn’t seem to support it. At least from the drawing in Birka I and a picture by Linda Wahlander in „Begravd pa Birka“, it doesn’t look like Arbman’s assumption is correct.

The lock plate from Birka Bj539, Arbman, Birka I

On the contrary: I personally think that this is the remainder of the actual locking mechanism, with a slider (that was usable from the outside) on the left, bent 90 degrees, and the locking plate in the middle. The rectangular hole in the middle was used to push the key from the outside to the inside, then turn it and pull, pressuring through the hole (and its now lost counterpart on the top of the lock plate) and releasing a spring that blocked the sliding mechanism.
The pointy part on the right was the actual lock, and it reached through the hasps to lock them.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? I looked at some comparative material in my own garage. Pictured below is a small chest from cherry or plum wood, made by Tobias Molz, and it has a lock with one hasp and a lever on the side to slide it.

A modern replica of the lock on a chest made by Tobias Molz / schildwerkstatt.de

I thought that this type of lock is a stylized version, not according to any find, but I was wrong – there are many parallels and it is indeed based on finds (although still stylized by the modern maker).

The lock from Bj963, Arbman, Birka I: Tafeln, pt. 266

The picture above shows exactly this type of lock in a find from Birka, grave 963. The key is inserted on the left in the vertical slot (directly next to the hasp), pushes into the springs visible in the bottom image, and allows the slider to move and unlock the hasp.

The mechanism in the lock from Bj539 was probably a little different, and more comparable to what is shown in the schematic below.

Lock from Lejre, in von Ackermann, Early medieval locks and keys in England and Scandinavia vol.2

This also explains the clearly visible round hole, which obviously did not contain a nail (or else it would have been corroded with said nail), and I would assume that a second hole was in the now lost part of the lock plate.

Another nice example of a single-hasp lock with a sliding bolt and an external slider is from Fyrkat grave 4 – again, this uses a C-shaped key to unlock the lock.

The lock from Fyrkat grave 4, Roesdahl 1977, p.98

Here is a schematic of the lock from Fyrkat grave 4 – the slider is visible in the right hand part of the schematic (dark grey).

Schematic of the lock from Fyrkat grave 4, Roesdahl 1977

In my opinion, the lock plate was an internal part of the lock and not – as in the replica – an external part. The lock itself corresponds to other finds from Birka.

To do: My own replica

Now, I’m making an „inspired“ version which is substantially upscaled, just to practice my woodworking skills, and to be more practical. Maybe I’ll post details about it later, and maaaaaybee I’ll finally try making the lock, too. It is about time that I try my hand on one. It could be my new firemaking (tinder, fatwood, flintstone) box, or contain my sewing and repair kit, who knows…

…and we’re back!

So I wanted to quickly blog about something and noticed that this blog was down for a while. This is unintended and should be fixed now. I changed hosters and DNS providers (after quitting my job at a hoster, ironically), and I simply forgot to re-add the „www.“ DNS entry.

Anyway, all is fixed now and I have some articles lined up.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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


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.


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.