Über Christopher

I have been doing viking-age reenactment since 2011. I have seen many places and battlefields in Europe, and am constantly working on my Birka kit (soft kit: Eastern-influenced high-ranking officer, hard kit: the same, only with sword and shield). I do my own research and write much of the content on this page.

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.

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.


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.

The pouch from Birka Bj716

The grave 716 in Birka is famous especially for its richly-decorated Magyar belt, which was one of my first projects in Viking reenactment (see here: Der Gürtel vom orientalischen Typ aus Birka Grab 716). However, this grave also contained the metal, leather and linen remains of what was most certainly a belt pouch. [Interestingly enough, Inga Hägg seems to have mis-interpreted the remains as a leather caftan with metal loops in a paper from 2001.]

The find

The pouch was a lot simpler than most tarsoly finds from Scandinavia and other tarsoly-bearing countries (especially the Rus dominion as well as the Magyar and Bulgar Khanates). Instead of the usual center mount with floral/palmette designs, cast from copper alloy, this pouch had a simple metal sheet with line decorations as a center mount.

Metallic remains of the pouch from Björkö Bj716, from Birka I: Die Tafeln (plate 136).

The interesting part, though, is not the center mount, but the little piece of metal bent to it. It’s a metal hook or clasp, and was used to close the bag instead of the more common „pull the strap through the slider“ principle which is well-documented for many other extant finds.

This means that in addition to the two well-known principles of closing a tarsoly,

  1. with the center strap pulled through a slider and the center mount, like the Rösta bag or the bag from Bj93
  2. With a little buckle that slid into the center strap, like the Panovo pouch,

there is a third option being realized in Bj716. The hook was riveted with one rivet to the leather underneath, and held the bag closed when it was clasped into the center mount. I will elaborate at the end of this article what I think this means.

Leather and linen

The remains of the pouch leather have some „textile“ attached to it, as per the find description in the SHM database.

Screenshot of the leather remains, showing „textile“ in addition to the leather part. From:  http://www.historiska.se/data/?foremal=145064

Now, is that textile wool or linen? An interesting question and neither the Birka books nor the SHM database offers an answer.

There is a paper by Inga Hägg from 2001 named „Methodische Probleme der Erforschung ur- und frühgeschichtlicher Gesellschaftsstrukturen am Beispiel Birka“ (transl. „methodical problems of researching antique society structures at the example of Birka“) (to be found via Google Books: Festschrift für Helmut Ziegert) in which she writes, in my opinion incorrectly, about the grave Bj716:

"Der Tote in Grab Bj716 hatte ein leinengefüttertes
Gewand (Kaftan?) aus Leder mit Lederösen und Bronzeknöpfen in der
Öffnung vorn und einen Ledergürtel mit orientalischen
Bronzebeschlägen. Darunter trug er eine Tunika mit Seidenapplikationen
und silbernen Brettchenbändern, eventuell auch einigen aus Gold."

Interpreting the leather remains as a caftan with linen lining is a rather bold speculation, which, to my knowledge, has not gained any traction in the scientific community. However, Hägg confirms in this paragraph that the textile remains are, indeed, linen.

A reconstruction attempt

There are awesome reconstructions of the Bj716 pouch by very talented leatherworkers, and their craftsmanship is uncomparable – I’m a dilettante and I know it. 🙂 However, I wanted to create a reconstruction that has the correct materials, is constructed in the correct way and feels like the original may have felt.

Therefore, I chose goat leather (from the grain in the find pictures, I believe the original may have been cow, but I’m not sure), linen and copper alloy (a.k.a. „bronze“) for my reconstruction. I used a slightly widened version of the pattern I employed for an earlier reconstruction, but tried not to go overboard with the tarsoly’s size.

The pens I used to mark the leather and linen parts are also the only modern tools employed in making the pouch – no power tools or other modern utilities were used (apart from some drops of glue to hold the lining in plan). After cutting the leather, I quickly assembled and turned it to find out the correct measurements for the copper-alloy parts.

A rivet plate in the making.

I used some leftover bronze for the center mount, punched four holes in it and chiseled the line decorations into it. I have far too little practice with chiseling and metalcraft, but the general design is easy enough. After that, I cut the hook, punched a hole into it and made five rivet plates to counter the rivets on the inside of the leather.

But wait, isn’t this upside down?

Test fitting the central mount in the archaeologically correct position.

Then, I could try fitting the center mount to the leather to see how it looks. In stark contrast to most tarsoly reproductions out there, this is the correct way to fit the Bj716 center mount – the short sides are the horizontal sides and the long sides are vertical. This is very evident if one looks at the pictures of the find with the center plate and the hook still attached to each other (before they were separately archived at SHM).

It might be argued that the hook is indeed part of the metal loop/slider that is used for many modern reconstructions. However, I fail to understand how only half of that slider could be preserved (and so well, too), and how it should have been bent around the center mount in the fashion in which it was found. Also, there are actually no finds of these metal center sliders, as far as I know – maybe leather sliders/loops were used instead.

Everything seemed to fit well, so I riveted the center mount to the leather as the next step. Why is it that out of four rivets, one turns out really great, two are so-so and one rivet is really crappy, bending and flattening in an uneven fashion? I keep having this problem.

I decided to give this belt a very short loop as I plan to attach it permanently to my Bj716 belt with a metal ring.

Lining, lining, hemming

Hemming the flap
Sewing the pouch from Bj716

Next step: lining the thing. I cut the lining from some grey linen that was left over from an underdress (I think), and I cut it a little wider to provide for some hemming, as I wanted to forgo the usual leather hems on the flap and inner pocket this time. This proved to be time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding work. I used waxed linen yarn to sew the hems (and the leather). Like the original finds, I sewed the pouch „inside out“.

The hemming proved a little challening, as the yarn is rather thick and it was a little fiddly to hem the pouch, but ultimately I was done.

The completed pouch

I watered the pouch, turned it and carefully pushed the seams outwards to give the pouch its final shape. When I took the pictures below, it was still a little wet, so the colour will likely change after treating it with beeswax/leather fat.

A reconstruction of the pouch from Bj716 with the flap opened
Finished reconstruction of the pouch from Bj716

The peculiarities of Bj716

The grave 716, as I said earlier, was famous mainly for its belt with rich bronze decorations. This belt has been discussed at length in academia, especially in the body of work by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonsson and her colleagues. Much speculation has arisen if the person in the grave was indeed a native Scandinavian or rather a magyar mercenary who died as a member of the garrison and was laid to grave in Birka’s cemetary. The grave contains caftan buttons, so there was clearly a tendency to wear Eastern fashion by the guy in the grave.

The way the tarsoly was constructed, however, makes me think that it might have been a Scandinavian in that grave, after all. Its crudeness (compared to the elaborate copper-alloy mounts in other tarsoly in Birka) screams „cheap local imitation“ to me. This is purely speculation though, as no osteological/genetical analysis of the bones from the grave is known to me.


In this article, I present a reconstruction of the pouch in Birka Bj716 which is correct according to the archaeological record. The center mount is placed with the long sides vertically, and a simple hook from copper-alloy metal is used to close the pouch, instead of the strap-and-loop system that is usally applied.
The pouch has been reconstructed with only the materials found in the grave, namely copper alloy for the central mount, leather for the pouch and linen for the lining. Thanks for reading!

Termine 2016

Nach langer, langer Abstinenz möchten wir hier wieder ein bißchen aktiver werden. Jaja, diese hehren Wünsche. Auf jeden Fall erst einmal etwas Einfaches – die Terminliste. Einige Termine (eigentlich nur einer) sind noch nicht bestätigt, aber zumindest die meisten Termine für 2016 stehen eigentlich schon.

  • 8.4.-10.4. – Wikingermarkt in Schlotzau (Hessen)
  • 26.-29.5. – Anno 1280 in Gütersloh (NRW) Mehr Infos auf der Anno-1280 Website
  • 3.-5.6. – Burgfest Neustadt-Glewe (McPomm) Mehr Infos auf der Website des Burgfests
  • 25.-26.6. – Hábrók-Markt in Ibbenbüren (NRW) Mehr Infos bei den Stevenmännern
  • 29.-31.7. – Festiwal Słowian i Wikingów in Wolin (Polen), Mehr Infos auf der Museums-Website
  • 17.-18.9. – „Die Wikinger kommen!“ im Archäologischen Freilichtmuseum Oerlinghausen (NRW) – mehr Infos auf der Website des AFM
  • Evtl.: 7.-9.10. – HIKG – Die Große Schlacht in Osterburken (BaWü) – Infos bei der HIKG

In diesem Jahr sind wir leider im Hochsommer weder in Haithabu noch auf den dänischen Märkten unterwegs. Thore kommt nämlich im August in den Kindergarten und wir wissen leider noch nicht, ob wir unseren Urlaub da „verbraten“ müssen (Eingewöhnung und so). Daher spielen wir lieber „Nummer Sicher“ und fahren im Juli und August nicht weg. Nur der Arnulf, der darf nach Wolin und sich dort mit Polen kloppen. 🙂

Wir hoffen, viele von Euch dieses Jahr wiederzusehen und freuen uns auf eine entspannte Marktsaison!