10 Viking Artifacts You Didn’t Know Existed

Most of the artifacts we encounter online and in history books focus on war: swords, shields, helmets, and other artifacts of warfare. Less focus is placed on everyday items, such as, interestingly enough, tweezers. Yet, everyday items offer us a far better glimpse into life in Viking Age Scandinavia than their weapons. The breadth of tools and items the Vikings used that mirror today is astounding. As far as we think we have progressed in 1,000 years, many things, such as telling our children not to run with scissors, have not changed. Here are 10 Viking artifacts you never knew existed.

Bronze Buddha 

Trade was an essential part of Scandinavian civilization during the Viking Age. Objects from all over the world made their way back to Scandinavia, including this bronze statue of Buddha discovered in Sweden. Archeologists have dated the figure to the 6th century and believe it came from northern India.

Viking Age artifact found in Sweden of a Buddha statue from India. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Glass Pearl Necklaces

Viking glass pearl neckless

Personal style took a central role among Viking Age Scandinavians. Particularly in regards to jewelry, Viking Age finds have revealed a myriad of valuable objects, including this glass pearl necklace found in Gotland, Sweden. Glass was not readily made in Scandinavia at the time, and so the beads to make the necklace were likely imported. 

Glass pearl necklace found in Gotland, Sweden. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Keys

viking keys

With so many valuable objects, Viking Age Scandinavians devised many ways to protect their wealth. Locks and keys were common, and often resembled this key, found in Sweden. The key is made of bronze, a sturdy metal that does not rust like iron or steel.

Viking Age Bronze key displayed at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne exhibit. Photo credit: C.J. Adrien.

Keychains

Viking keychain

With so many keys and no locksmiths a phone call away, Viking Age Scandinavians made keychains to organize and store their keys. Pictured here is a keychain attached to a brooch, which would have been worn by the head of the household. Women ran the home, and so they held all the keys.

Bronze keychain attacked to brooch. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Jewelry Boxes

Viking Jewelry Box

Keys must open something. Pictured here is a jewelry box found in Gotland, Sweden. What makes this jewelry box so interesting is that it combines several motifs, including a combination of pre-Christian and Christian iconography. The box dates to the latter part of the Viking Age.

Viking Age jewelry box with Christian and pre-Christian motifs. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Iron Neck Collars

viking iron neck collar for slaves

Slavery was central to Viking Age Scandinavian society. Proof of the use of slaves abounds, including this iron neck collar thought to have been used to keep a slave. Slaves were captured from all over the world and sold at markets across Scandinavia to allow farmstead owners to boost their labor supply. 

Viking Age Iron Neck Collar as displayed at the exhibit at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes, France. Photo credit: C.J. Adrien.

Urns

viking urn

Funeral practices in Viking Age Scandinavia crucially differed from their Christian neighbors: where Christians buried their dead, Scandinavians cremated them. Except for the super-wealthy elite who could afford a ship burial, most of the dead were cremated and their remains stored in urns. Pictured below is an urn found in Sweden in which the ashes have (partially) remained preserved. 

Viking Age Urn and Ashes. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Bronze Weathervane

viking bronze weathervane

Ships harnessed the wind to sail the seas, and no tool has helped sailors more over the centuries than weathervanes. Weathervanes help sailors determine the direction of the wind to help them set the sail correctly. Pictured is a bronze weathervane that would have been placed atop the mast of a longship. The weathervane shows Viking Age Scandinavian motifs and was likely made somewhere in Sweden.

Viking Age Bronze Weather Vane found in Sweden. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Scale

viking scale

A crucial part of the Viking Age was trading, and part of the trade was currency. Most people are familiar with the more popular artifacts of Viking Age trade, such as Arabic coins, hack silver, and buried hordes. Wealth, however, had to be measured, and like other civilizations of the time, precious metals held their value by their weight. Pictured is a scale (without its plates) used to weight silver and gold.

A Viking Age scale (without its plates) used to weight silver and gold. Photo credit: The Swedish History Museum.

Scissors

viking scissors

Making clothes meant utilizing the various tools of the textile industry. Scissors were essential to cut fabric and to work over a variety of materials. Pictured are scissors found in Sweden and displayed at the recent exhibit at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes.

Viking Age Scissors as displayed at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France. Photo Credit: C.J. Adrien.

Bonus item: Grooming Kit

viking grooming kit

Grooming was paramount to Viking Age Scandinavians, and among all the things they used for personal care – combs, brushes, scissors, etc. – they also had tweezers for plucking unwanted hair and ear scoops to clean their ears. Pictured is a personal care display featuring many items from the Viking Age, including a pair of tweezers that are similar to those we use today (lower left), an ear scoop (lower right), and a few other items you might expect, such as a bronze bowl, combs, a brooch, and a makeup container.

Viking Vlog 14: Who Was Olaf Trygvasson? And Interview with Eric Schumacher

In this video, I sit down with bestselling author Eric Schumacher to discuss the life and significance of the historical figure Olaf Trygvasson. How do we know about Olaf? Where does he fit in the larger context of the Viking Age? What was is impact and legacy? We discuss these questions and more.

As promised, here is a link to Eric Schumacher’s latest novel on the life of Olaf Trygvasson: http://mybook.to/forgedbyiron

As discussed in my videos, if you have burning questions about Viking history, ask away in the comments below, and I may use your question for a future Viking Vlog.

If you’re interested in checking out my novels, click here: https://geni.us/LordsofWind

Love my work? Consider supporting me on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/cjadrien

How the longship came to be

In 1880, two young men Sandefjord, Norway set out on an expedition on the family farm armed with a couple of shovels and an old family legend. They had heard a king had been buried with his ship under a mound near the farm, and they wanted to know if the legend was true. Though historians had theorized the existence of the mythical longship, and some picture stones in Sweden depicted them, no one in Norway, or the world for that matter, had ever seen one. 

It did not take much digging for the two men to strike proverbial gold. They uncovered the mast of a mysterious ship and soon alerted the authorities. The President of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments, Nicolay Nicolaysen, caught wind of the find and demanded the amateurs cease digging lest they destroy the ancient artifact. Nicolaysen organized a team and an official excavation started the following month. 

What Nicolaysen and his team uncovered confirmed what historians and archeologists had suspected for decades: longships had been real, and not an invention of contemporary chroniclers. The vessel in question, a warship measuring 75 feet in length with a keelson capable of carrying a mast close to 45 feet in height and a sail close to 800 square feet, was named the Gokstad Ship after the farm on which it was found. 

The find sparked over 100 years of study of the development and use of the longship in the Viking Age, and more finds along the way have helped to piece together how Viking Age Scandinavians came to build the most advanced naval technology of their day. How did the longship come to be? Here I explore some of the evidence that tells the ages-long story of the longship. 

The Hjortspring Boat and Early Boat Building (400-300 B.C.)

The longship was the culmination of centuries of seafaring innovation that is thought to have started as early as the third century B.C. A chance find on the island of Als, in Denmark, called the Hjortspring Boat (after the bog in which it was found) has helped to inform the beginnings of the longship’s evolution. Dating to 400-300 B.C., the Hjortspring Boat was long and thin and resembles the later Scandinavian ships in shape. It does not appear to have ever had a sail, and based on associated petroglyphs, archeologists believe the vessel was propelled by paddles.

The Hjortspring Boat appears to have been a variation on the Celtic shipbuilding tradition attested by the Romans, with an original spin. Where the Celtic skin boats were built by constructing the ribs off of a central hull and covering them in skins, the Hjortspring Boat also had fastening planks that appear to be an early iteration of the later lapstrake style. It also features a pronounced bow and aft, and its length indicates it may have specialized in carrying people, not cargo, across the fjords and islands of Scandinavia. Given a variety of Celtic artifacts discovered with the vessel, the Celtic influence in shipbuilding in the early days is clear, as is the original adaptation to the local geography.

The Nydam Ship and Roman Influence (300-400 A.D.)

The next step in shipbuilding appears to have occurred as a result of Roman influence. Provincial merchants of Celtic and Germanic origins visited the Scandinavian world in the later Roman period, and their ships may have inspired the next leap in Scandinavian shipbuilding. The Nydam ship, dated to the mid-4th century, shows signs of a variety of shipbuilding techniques similar to the Hjortspring Boat but would have been propelled with oars rather than paddles. While the Nydam ship, in particular, does not show evidence of having had a sail, many historians argue sails were developed to a certain extent during this period, but most place the development of the sail mere decades before the Viking Age alongside the development of the keel. 

I argue sails were developed early on, but not by Scandinavians. At the outset of the Migration Period, the Romans who withdrew from the British Isles settled in the Roman province of Armorica, and there they built what historian Jean-Christophe Cassard coined as the First Atlantic Wall. The coast of France was plagued by raids from a vicious seafaring people called the Franks, and they sailed fast ships propelled by sails. If we stick to the stricter definition of the word, these were perhaps the first Vikings.

The Franks later abandoned their seafaring tradition in favor of continental conquest, but their innovations, which allowed them to sail from the Baltic to the coasts of England and France, would have helped to shape later developments in Scandinavia. Chiefly, I argue, they developed the first sails the Scandinavians would later use to propel their longships, albeit smaller, less effective versions. It also explains how finds similar to the Nydam ship, such as the Sutton Hoo ship in England and the Kvalsund ship in Norway, have been found so far from one another. We should not, however, rule out that determined humans could have rowed that far.

The Keel and the Mast (~700 A.D.)

The innovation of the keel revolutionized shipbuilding in Scandinavia. It appears to have been an original invention, and not one taken from elsewhere. Laying a keel allowed ships to support a larger mast, allowing for a larger sail, and by extension, sailors could harness more wind. Although little of the Kvalsund ship has been found, it is thought to be one of the early iterations of a keeled ship. Unfortunately, not enough of it survived to today, and so most conclusions about it remain dubious at best. Still, it offers us a glimpse into the accelerating pace of innovation in shipbuilding in 8th century Scandinavia. 

With a keel rather than a hull as the backbone of the ship, the development of the clinker style, where the hull is made from overlapping strakes (also called lapstrakes), completely replaced the Celtic and Roman building influences. Not long after, the sail took on a whole new form. With more support from a keel, sails grew in size exponentially. Estimates for the sail of the Gokstad ship, a warship found in Norway, put the sail at almost 800 square feet!

Types of Longships and their Uses

The invention of the keel and the mast did not translate solely to warships. Several styles of Viking Age ships have been found over the years, and nowhere have more been found than in the Sjaelland region of Denmark. Beginning in 1962, five ships were discovered near the town

of Skuldelev. These ships are thought to have been sunk in the 11th century to block the bay and prevent warships from attacking the Danish capital of Roskilde. Today, Roskilde is home to the Viking Ship Museum where both originals and reconstructions are on display. The styles include an ocean-going trader, called a Knarr, a coastal trader of the Knarr type, two classic longships, and a small fishing vessel. You can learn more about each at the Viking Ship Museum’s website: https://www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/the-five-viking-ships

More on the Longship

Below you will find two books that are useful in exploring the topic further. You may also find my article on the speed of the longship interesting: Learn more about the speed of longships.


 

How Often did the Vikings Drink from Drinking Horns?

Modern portrayals of the Vikings seem to be obsessed with horns, particularly in regards to those worn on the head (as part of the helmet) and those used for drinking. While the former has been proven false time and again – the Vikings did not wear horns – the second use, drinking from a horn, is a different story. A quick search on the internet might lead someone to believe the Vikings had a pseudo-monopoly on horns as drinkware, and that it was their preferred way to drink. While the use of drinking horns is not in question, the prevalence of such use is. Fictional portrayals seem to put drinking horns in the hands of every Scandinavian of the day. How Often did the Vikings Drink from Drinking Horns? I explore this question below.

What did the Vikings use to drink?

Drinking horns have been found scattered across the Viking Age archaeological record, from grave finds to pictorial evidence. No evidence is more compelling than the depiction of a drinking party, painted on a stone in Gotland in the 8th century, and which depicts every attendee of the party holding a drinking horn.

A drinking scene on an image stone from Gotland, Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm.
A drinking scene on an image stone from Gotland, Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm.

Does this mean all Vikings drank exclusively from drinking horns? No. We must remember that the artist was likely paid by a chieftain who was much concerned about his enduring reputation, and therefore he would have asked the artist to make it look like the best party ever.

The reality is that the Vikings would have used whatever was available to them to drink their ale. The most primitive vessels may have been small cones made of rolled birch or rowan bark. Bowls and goblets would have been the most commonly used vessels to drink, made from whatever material the owner of it could afford. Some wealthy chieftains could afford silver chalices from England and France, or even more expensive glass beakers (pictured below), though these would have been extremely expensive and rare.

Glass beaker from the Carolingian Empire
Glass beaker from the Carolingian Empire found in Sweden.

What place did drinking horns have in Viking Age Scandinavian society?

Drinking horns, historians believe, may have been a luxury item used almost exclusively for special occasions and rituals. Horns were difficult to procure, mainly since animals were expensive to raise in Viking Age Scandinavia. Hence, they likely held tremendous value, and only a wealthy chieftain or his family could have afforded one.

This does not mean less wealthy folk did not also enjoy the occasional drink from a horn. Viking Age Scandinavian culture demanded largesse from chieftains and kings. Leaders recruited and retained the loyalty of their warriors by showering them with gifts. A polished, decorated drinking horn would have made any warrior of the day extremely happy, and more importantly, loyal.

Were drinking horns invented by the Vikings?

No. Drinking horns were nothing new by the time the first Vikings set sail for Lindisfarne. In fact, drinking horns have a long history dating back to antiquity. The Greek historian Xenophon described drinking horns as central to Thracian culture, as an example. Julius Caesar, famed emperor of Rome, observed the use of drinking horns by the Gauls, a confederacy of Celtic tribes that lived in roughly the area of modern France (the term Gaul is somewhat controversial to those specialized on the subject, but I’ll avoid that can of worms here). He described their use in his book, De Bello Gallico:

“The Gaulish horns in size, shape, and kind are very different from those of our cattle. They are much sought-after, their rim fitted with silver, and they are used at great feasts as drinking vessels.”

In no uncertain terms, the use of drinking horns far predates the Viking Age, but Viking Age Scandinavians, and by extension those who roved abroad, did drink from horns. It may not, however, have been a cultural norm to drink from them outside of special occasions.

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Viking Armor: What did the Vikings Wear Into Battle?

If modern movies and TV shows were any guides, they would have us believe the Vikings were some kind of leather-clad biker gang. Costume designers, thankfully, are not authoritative on the subject of medieval arms and armor. Their goal is flair, and to draw the eye. This begs the question: what did the Vikings really wear?

The Three Phases of Viking Expansion

When considering the real Vikings, i.e. those who roved across Europe over 1,000 years ago, it is first important to understand that the Viking Age lasted over three centuries, during which styles and clothing changed. Early raids in the 8th century were carried out by small war-bands, or drott, whose purpose was to pillage and acquire wealth. One hundred years later, the war-bands evolved into bonafide armies to suit the ambitions of increasingly powerful warlords. Repurposing their warriors for invasion required a refitting of their arms and armor to adapt to the conditions of larger confrontations.

It is clear from the evidence that once the Viking Age had started, raiding efforts ratcheted up with each passing year. The historian Lucien Musset, known for his work on the Norse incursions in France, identified three distinct phases in the Scandinavians’ westerly expansion into Christian Europe. In the first phase, ships appeared spontaneously and sought purely to raid; they progressively worked their way from coastlines to rivers, and eventually pillaged hundreds of kilometers inland, away from the sea. The second phase began when the Vikings struck at the heart of organized states. They leveraged their violent reputation not to raid but to persuade local populations and their governments to pay them off to keep the peace. The payments received the name Danegeld, or money paid to the Danes. Lastly, the third and most devastating phase involved the establishment of direct control over ravaged regions whose governments had grown too defunct to pay a Danegeld. The Vikings installed indigenous puppet autocrats who helped to legitimize their seizure of land and the wealth it produced.

Looking more closely at specific regions, Musset’s three phases took varying forms depending on the societies the Vikings encountered. In Ireland, Scandinavians attempted invasions and colonization attempts almost immediately after the first raids. England, in contrast, was raided for several decades before more organized armies landed ashore. Further south, in France, Norse raiders struggled to mirror their successes in the British Isles until fractures within the Carolingian empire opened the door for them to launch bolder incursions upriver. The region of Bretagne, in particular, experienced the full breadth of each phase perhaps more than any other region in Western Europe outside of England. Sporadic raids plagued its coastlines for three decades before transitioning to four decades more of paying Danegeld. By the end of the 9th century, the Vikings had established direct control over nearly the entire region and they had occupied its largest city, Nantes, which they had seized from the Carolingians and called Nambørg.

Did the Vikings wear helmets? Vikings in Guerande
A Viking fleet approaches Guérende with the aim to invade, from the Vita of St. Aubin. Note that all the “Vikings” (on the right) are wearing maille and helmets.

Each phase of expansion required a different set of tools. Sporadic raids needed to be quick, and so heavy armor would have made little sense to wear. By the second phase, a war-band’s leader, or drottin, might have accumulated enough wealth to buy his men better arms and armor, in case the locals decided to fight back during a demand for Danegeld. Once they had made the transition to the third phase, the Vikings took on the look of a more organized army, funded by a stronger, wealthier, and more established monarch. 

They wore what they could afford

A passage from the Heimskringla relates to us the attire of Olaf Haraldsson’s warriors on the eve of the battle of Nesjar, which took place in the early 11th century: “King Olaf had in his ship 100 men armed in coats of ring-mail, and in foreign helmets. 

Arbo's
Arbo’s “Olav den Helliges død” a representation of St. Olaf’s last battle, ostensibly wearing foreign ring-mail and helmet.

The passage is telling insofar as it demonstrates Olaf’s largesse, or generosity of wealth. To afford maille and helmets for 100 men would have cost a fortune. It also tells us foreign arms and armor had the reputation of better quality, else Olaf would have purchased Norse equipment. We know from the earliest sources on the Viking Age that a massive black market for Carolingian arms and armor existed in Scandinavia, and the rulers of the Carolingian empire made numerous attempts to stem the flow of equipment north. Nothing irked Charlemagne more than having to fight a battle against his own weapons and armor. 

For most of the Viking Age, it seems, foreign arms and armor were the coveted jewels of the Vikings. Carolingian equipment seems to have been particularly in fashion. The brunia and Carolingian sword were explicitly banned from trade in the capitulary of Boulogne, which states:

“It has been decreed that no bishop or abbot or abbess or any rector or custodian of a church is to presume to give or to sell a brunia or a sword to any outsider without our permission; he may bestow these only on his own vassals. And should it happen that there are more bruniae in a particular church or holy place than are needed for the people of the said church’s rector, then let the said rector of the church inquire of the prince what ought to be done with them.”

Charlemagne made numerous attempts to stem the flow of arms and armor into Scandinavia for fear his soldiers might have to face equally well-equipped enemies. That such explicit attempts to prevent brunia and swords from falling into Viking hands tells us the demand for such goods in Scandinavia may have been quite high.

If imported arms and armor were the norm, then wealth played a crucial role in what a Viking would have worn. Olaf may have bought expensive arms and armor for his closest lendirrmen, but the rest of his army would have been expected to furnish their own. Particularly in the early Viking Age, most Vikings likely left home with little more than a hand-made shield and a spear or wood-cutting ax, and he would have worn thick wool clothing. Thick wool can soften the blow of a weapon, protect against slashing (to a certain extent), and it served the double purpose of keeping the wearer warm at sea. Wool insulates even when wet. Perhaps the leader of the war-band wore a helmet or brunia (a maille shirt made in the Carolingian Empire) he bought at a market, but he would have been the only one so well-equipped.

European Maille Hauberk
European Maille Hauberk (brunia)

Later in the Viking Age, as warlords increased their wealth, worthy warriors would have received gifts in the form of expensive arms and armor, in addition to their share of the spoils of raids and conquest. With the men who proved themselves the most to their leader improving the quality of their armor, we might expect there to have been a sort of meritocracy of arms and armor, where the most lethal, most loyal men wore the best equipment. 

They adapted to the lands they roved

Arms and armor are generally adapted to the conditions of warfare in a given region. Since the Vikings roved all across Europe, it is no surprise their arms and armor differed in style and utility based on where they preferred to conduct business. The ship burial on the island of Groix, off the coast of France, gives us some indication of the lengths to which the Vikings went to adapt their equipment to the fighting styles of their enemy. 

The Bretagne region of France had remained culturally and ethnically Celtic since the withdrawal of the Romans and fought with a semi-Roman style they had inherited from their Roman-Briton ancestors. They used javelins with soft tips that, when penetrating an enemy shield, bent with the weight of the shaft to render the defender’s shield useless. The ship burial at Groix revealed an array of shield bosses unlike any other in the Viking world. Side by side with shield bosses more typical of the ones found in Scandinavia, archeologists found unique designs, which they believe were attempts to adapt their arms and armor to the fighting conditions in Brittany. 

Shield Boss designs from the Groix Ship Burial
Shield Boss designs from the Groix Ship Burial

Far in the East, we see a similar pattern in the evidence. As more warriors from Sweden, called the Rus, joined the Varangian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers who answered directly to the Byzantine Emperor, their arms and armor adapted to the fighting conditions of the Middle East. An illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle shows the Varangian Guardsmen as wearing what appears to be Lamellar armor, a type of interlaced scale armor not woven to the undergarment.  Nine pieces of lamellar, or scales, were found in a grave in Sweden, likely an import from someone who either purchased or received the armor as a gift in Constantinople. That so few lamellar pieces have ever been found in Scandinavia is also telling—it seems the Rus did not see value in bringing that style of armor home, perhaps preferring the brunia when fighting their kin.

Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle
Varangian Guardsmen, an illumination from the Skylitzis Chronicle

What did arms and armor did the Vikings wear?

When approaching the question of what arms and armor the Vikings wore, we must look at four main factors: who, in particular, are we talking about; where did they rove; what was their business in the places they roved (i.e. what phase of expansion are we talking about); and when are we talking about. Only when we consider all four of these factors can we say anything about what a Viking or group of Vikings may have worn. All we can say more broadly is that the evidence tells us the Vikings wore what they needed to wear, or what they or their patron chieftain could afford. 

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