‘Fashioning the Viking Age’ is an ongoing project that aims to increase knowledge about Viking Age textiles and clothing in Denmark. Based at the National Museum of Denmark, in collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen and Land of Legends in Lejre, and funded by the VELUX FOUNDATIONS Museum Programme, the project is made up of three parts.
The first part is focused on the production of Viking Age textiles, through analysis of fibres, tools, textiles, skins, and other materials from the archaeological record, followed by the use of experimental archaeology to recreate textiles that share characteristics with Viking Age materials.
The reconstructions are based on textile finds from Hedeby Harbour, an important Viking Age trading site on the east coast of the Jutland Peninsula, which has produced a wide range of textiles. Specialists used a selection of Viking Age tools and techniques to create textile and fibre samples that closely resemble the original examples from Hedeby Harbour.
These samples will be displayed alongside reproductions of tools used in their creation, including wool combs, a distaff, a yarn reel, scissors, needles, smoothing stones, and more, in a ‘Textile and Tool Box’, which is itself a replica of a Viking Age wooden chest from Mästermyr, Sweden. This box will be used for exhibition, outreach, and teaching at universities and museums, and it is hoped that it will provide visitors with a more tangible understanding of Viking Age textiles.
The second part of the project involves the reconstruction of a full male and a full female Viking Age outfit. The designs of these outfits are based on two high-status graves, which contained some of the best-preserved Viking Age textiles in Denmark: a male burial from Bjerringhøj, dated to AD 970-971, and a female grave from Hvilehøj, dated to the late AD 900s. The rediscovery of the bones from Bjerringhøj, which were unearthed during the original excavations in 1868, but then lost among the museum’s collections for over a century, is the subject of a recent paper in Antiquity.
Before the replica outfits could be created, detailed study of the original textiles from these two sites was carried out, including technical analysis such as measurements of fibre type, thread diameter and density, and twist directions, as well as specialist analysis of skin and fur tanning methods, dyes used, and other materials like beads, iron objects, shoes, and feathers also found in the graves. The results of this analysis formed the basis for many of the decisions made during reconstruction, although the quantity of textiles required to recreate two entire outfits did mean that some compromises had to be made. For example, some of the original dyes used were either too expensive to use for a whole garment, or were of a type that would fade quickly in light so would not survive on display. In these cases, alternative dyes were used that matched the colours produced by the original dyes.
The male outfit consists of a linen shirt, an embroidered kirtle of 2/1 twill, a belt with pendant, tabby trousers, a beaver- fur caftan decorated with silk samite strips, woven silk bracelets, and leather boots, while the female outfit includes a linen dress, a wool tabby dress with in-woven cross decorations, goatskin shoes, a fur cape decorated with tablet-woven samite and 3/1 twill bands, and a bead necklace. The two outfits have now been completed and will be on display from June 2021 in National Museum of Denmark.
The third part of the project, which is to take place in 2022, involves the creation of a catalogue of sources about Viking Age clothing and design to aid future research and demonstrate the variation present in Viking Age clothing, in order to avoid stereotypes.
Images: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark TEXT: Amy Brunskill