Physical Appearance

[ Viking helmet from Gjermunbu, Ringerike, Norway. C 950 ]

Viking helmet from Gjermunbu, Ringerike, Norway. C 950, Peter Harholdt for Smithsonian Institution, Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

When we try to imagine what the Vikings looked like and how they dressed, we draw on different kinds of sources: Viking Age and medieval text descriptions, small figurines and carvings, figures shown in tapestries, artifacts related to clothing, and burial finds. The burial finds are of special interest. In pre-Christian times, people were buried in their clothes, with their personal jewellery (if they had any) and tools and other household items they thought would help on the “other” side. Prominent men were always buried with their weapons. In the burials of the very rich a wide variety of equipment was provided. In the Oseberg burial in Norway there were fifteen horses (also four dogs and an oxen), four sleighs, a wagon, farm tools, dishes and buckets, kitchen tools, knives, axes, tethering pegs and dog chains, wheat, apples, walnuts and hazel nuts [all these were luxury foods], beds, quilts, pillows, blankets, 3 oak chests and clothes, a tapestry and weaving tools. Only fragments remained of the clothes, but from the scraps one could tell that some had been of fine woolen cloth, others of Byzantine silk. In burials of this kind, it also becomes evident how buckles and brooches were worn, where belts had been and how small tools such as needles, scissors, and knives had been attached to the clothing.

After they became Christian over the 10th and 11th centuries, the Vikings abandoned the practice of burial gifts, fashions changed so that jewellery was no longer part of the clothing. People were still buried in their clothes. In Greenland, where preservation conditions were excellent in some of the cemeteries, medieval clothes have been remarkably well preserved.

Traditionally, archaeologists have studied the skeletal material found in burials because the skeletons can reveal detailed information on height, age, gender, diseases, general health, and diet of individuals. Now it is also possible to recapture the actual face of a person via complex measurements of the skull.

The texts more or less contemporary with the Vikings give only flash views of them with just a few lines and here, so the overall picture has to be compiled from many little bits. One such text is the description of Swedish Vikings in Bulgar [near Kazan in eastern Russia] by Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat traveling from Baghdad in 921-922. The full account of Ibn Fadlan’s travel was not published until 1823.

Other sources are Icelandic sagas dealing with events which presumably took place in the Viking Age. Most of the sagas were written around the middle of the 13th century. Thus they are not contemporary with the Vikings, and scholars debate whether they describe 11th-century or 13th century conditions.

The poem Rigsthula, Rig’s Song, was probably composed in the 10th century. It describes the various classes of people, how they were dressed, what they ate, and how they lived.

Identify the evidence used to produce the drawings and photo of reconstructed man’s clothing above!

Weapons from Norway and Sweden on exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA, 1968-1971

Chapters in Books

Internet Source

Journal Articles