Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thoughts About Birka Grave 735

There's a textile find in Birka Grave 735 that includes several pieces of silver-brocaded tablet weaving with enough of the fabric to which they were attached that it's clear that the original garment was decorated with multiple, horizontal pieces of the tablet-woven trim.  Below is a picture of this part of the actual find, taken from Inga Hägg's article, "Viking Women's Dress at Birka," in Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe.

As Professor Hägg's caption indicates, she believes that this piece is evidence that the fabric with the tablet woven strips on it were part of a fitted garment. Thor Ewing and Hilde Thunem think that might have been the case too; both speculate as to whether the textile pieces with multiple strips of metal-brocaded tablet weaving were part of a shorter apron dress, worn over a plain one for decorative effect. 

The fabric fragments with these decorative strips certainly could have been part of a fitted overgarment (whether an apron dress, tunic, or something else), but I wonder whether the garment to which they belonged necessarily was fitted.  It seems likely that it was pieced, with the plain strips of tablet weaving hiding vertical seams before the metal-brocaded strips were applied.  But the fact that there was a seam along the side (about halfway between the side of the body and the centerline, if Hägg's belief about where the decorated portions rested on the body is correct), though perfectly consistent with a garment fitted in the torso, doesn't rule out other possibilities.  The fragment could even belong to a coat-like garment, if the front panels were sufficiently pieced, though it appears that the caftans of the east that this Viking fashion presumably was based upon do not appear to have a seam in the correct location. Examples of caftans that illustrate the point may be found here and here. However, these examples are of limited value because we don't know to what extent these caftan designs (the earliest of which are medieval) were contemporary with the Viking era.

In an article she wrote for Fornvännen in 1971, Hägg presented a different theory about the grave 735 find. She suggested variable length pieces of tablet weaving might have been used purely for decorative reasons on a caftan that was not a fitted garment. That is another possible explanation for the grave 735 finds, and it's one that I find attractive. I've applied it to a caftan I made for myself (picture forthcoming) to good effect. 

In short, I find the grave 735 fragments frustrating because they do not provide enough information to rule out some of these possibilities.  That's good reason to continue to speculate, but it's important not to become too attached to a particular theory about the garments involved without more definite evidence.


  1. Is this THE piece of evidence everyone cites for the existence of the "fitted" overdress?

  2. I don't think so. I think the "fitted" apron dress meme you see in the SCA is based on the Hedeby find. See this post and others about my recreation of the Hedeby garment using Peter Beatson's suggested pattern.

  3. Two interesting websites:

  4. These *are* interesting websites (about Stone Age finds and what they teach us about early human cultural attainment). Thank you, Bernard, for supplying them.

    The sites Bernard provides URLs for above contain interesting information about putative reconstructions of clothing and adornment from that period, which is why I have not removed Bernard's comment above, even though I have removed the other comments he placed on other posts today as irrelevant to the subject matter of this blog.