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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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,
with the center strap pulled through a slider and the center mount, like the Rösta bag or the bag from Bj93
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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!
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.
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!
Heute Abend war Putz- und Flickstunde für dieses Blog.Ich habe ein paar kleinere Änderungen gemacht, damit die erwartete Besucherflut für usnere neuen Artikel kommen kann. 😉
Leider hatten wir vor einigen Wochen einen ungebetenen Besucher, der auf jeder einzelnen Seite diverse Links zu Viagra- und anderen Pillenshops versteckt hat. Diese Links habe ich nun von Hand entfernt; ich hoffe, daß ich alles erwischt habe.
Außerdem habe ich einen neuen Cache installiert und hoffe, daß die Seiten jetzt etwas schneller ausgeliefert werden.
Ein weiteres Sommer-Herbst-Projekt ist in den vergangenen Wochen trotz Babystreß tatsächlich fertig geworden: Ein blechbeschlagenes Gürteltäschchen aus Birka.
Klappenblech der Tasche aus Birka Bj819 (Foto: SHM)
Bei diesem Exemplar handelt es sich um eine Interpretation der in Grab 819 gefundenen Gürteltasche bzw. des Rests. Gefunden wurde das Taschenblech nebst den Beschlägen, die auf das Blech genietet waren, sowie Reste von Leinen, das in der Tasche wohl Fächer gebildet hat. Die Tasche ist in Birka II, Band 1 sehr gut beschrieben, auf S. 151f. findet sich eine Analyse ihres Aufbaus und ihrer Funktion. Es handelte sich wohl um eine Art Schütt-Tasche, um Hacksilber und Kleingeld aufzubewahren, und ich habe mich mangels anderer Einsatzmöglichkeiten auch bei meinem Versuch einer Reproduktion an diese Funktion gehalten. Weiterlesen →
Der eine oder andere Leser wird schon mitbekommen haben, daß wir im Oktober – rechtzeitig zur HIKG – Nachwuchs erwarten. Und der wird bereits fröhlich eingekleidet… Von Neustadt-Glewe habe ich wendegenähte Babyschuhe von Snorri mitgebracht und auf dem Hábrok-Markt habe ich eine Gürtelgarnitur magyarischer Machart bei Vlad von den Silverwolf erstanden.
Dazu wurde heute Babykleidung von Othala Craft geliefert – allerdings in verschiedenen Größen. Die Tunika wird der Junior bereits abgelegt haben, wenn er in die Pluderhosen reingewachsen ist.
Heute flog das Buch „Kochen wie die Wikinger“ hier ein und zwei Rezepte haben es uns beim ersten Durchblättern direkt angetan: Pökelfleisch und Fladenbrot. Das wollten wir direkt mal ausprobieren – sowohl Frenja als auch ich haben noch nie gepökelt. Während sie sich also an den Fladen-Teig machte (dazu mehr später), habe ich losgepökelt.