Monday, December 12, 2011

Useful Knowledge From Nørre Sandegård Vest

In my last post on the problems of researching Vendel costume, I mentioned a book about certain grave finds at a place called Nørre Sandegård Vest. Here is the citation (courtesy of pearl's LiveJournal):
Jørgensen, L. & Nørgård Jørgensen, A. 1997. Nørre Sandegård Vest: a cemetery from the 6th-8th centuries on Bornholm. Det Kongelige Nordiska Oldskriftselskab. Köpenhamn.
Equally piqued by the possibility of  obtaining more information, but possessing access to university libraries that is far superior to mine, the plucky pearl located a copy of this book and, like the good friend she is, sent me copies of the sections on jewelry and textile finds.  In that 25-page excerpt, there was a gold mine's worth of facts that have completely changed my way of thinking about the subject of women's costume in Scandinavia during the Vendel period.  

The disc-on-bow brooches of which I was previously aware were 5th or 6th century finds, mostly from Gotland (an island off the coast of Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon England of the same period. Nørre Sandegård Vest is located on Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Sea that is considered part of Denmark but located quite close to southern Sweden (though still west of Gotland).  What makes Nørre Sandegård Vest ("NSV", for the rest of this post) fascinating, and useful, from a costume history perspective is that it contains a number of different women's graves, from different time periods, and the graves contained enough jewelry to preserve a number of textile fragments--approximately 300 of them. In fact, if Ulla Mannering, the author of the section on textiles in the Jørgensen book cited above is correct (and I have no reason to believe that she is not), the lion's share of known textile finds from the Vendel period came from the graves at NSV.

There are a number of conclusions Ms. Mannering and the author of the jewelry section drew from the NSV grave finds, particularly from Ms. Mannering's study of the NSV textiles.  Some of these conclusions have stunning implications, not just for Vendel period women's costume, but for Viking era women's costume as well. Let me summarize some of them briefly (not necessarily in order in importance):

1. Apron dresses mostly *were* dark blue or brown. Ms. Mannering found a number of wool diamond twill fragments in the graves, which have characteristics substantially like the wool diamond twill fragments found at Birka--in fact, she refers to them as the "Birka type". Some graves had a different of fine diamond twill  than the Birka type, while a third type had a fine wool tabby in the apron dress layer.  Ms. Mannering had these diamond twill fragments tested for indigotin and other substances indicative of period dyes, and discovered that virtually all of them contained indigotin--indicating that they once had been dyed blue. Moreover, the tests confirmed that a number of them had been overdyed with brown dyes, which likely was a way of making them a much darker blue--navy, or close to black. One interesting specimen had been overdyed in orange, which Ms. Mannering believes would have made it look purple.  The few specimens that were not blue apparently had been dyed brown. This suggests, at least to me, that blue or brown apron dresses were traditional and had been traditional for hundreds of years before the Viking era.   A few of the tested textile samples showed traces of other dye colors, but none of the diamond twills did so.

2. Underdresses were of undyed or brown linen, with keyhole necklines. As Erika Svensson reported in her thesis, Ms. Mannering concludes that the diamond twill apron dresses at NSV were worn over linen underdresses. However, this hypothesis is not based solely on brooch-pin size, as I had assumed from the  comment in Ms. Svensson's thesis. Ms. Mannering found quite a number of linen textile fragments in the graves also, and they turned out to be either undyed or, if dyed, had been dyed with a brown pigment.

 Jørgensen et al., Fig. 46 (beginning of chronology)
 Jørgensen  et al., p. 59, Fig. 46 (end of chronology)
3. Disc-on-bow brooches were in use only during part of the Vendel Period. Most of the NSV graves are from the Vendel period, but few of them contain disc-on-bow brooches. Many of the graves contain pairs of stickpins, and there are a variety of other brooch combinations and types. When considered together with some of the other Vendel period Danish finds, it is possible to group the brooch collections by approximate time period--suggesting that different assortments were fashionable during different parts of the Vendel and late Roman periods. Granted, a relatively small number of graves have been involved in the authors' assembly of this chronology (about 20 or so I believe), but it at least represents a hypothetical chronology against with future finds can be compared.

The chart to the left, taken from the Jørgensen book, summarizes the authors' conclusions as to this chronological analysis. I have rearranged the chart as it appears in the book so that the brooch phases fall into chronological order, starting at the far left and proceeding forward in time as one reads rightwards. (All dates given on the chart, are years C.E.). The chart indicates that the disc-on-bow brooch fashion is found in an approximately 200-year time span and was proceeded and followed by different combinations of brooches.The type of brooch in favor after the disc-on-bow brooches recede from the archaeological record is a kind of rectangular plate brooch, which comes in small and large sizes. Some finds have three of them, a large one, positioned at the neck, that held a multi-strand loop of beads as well as fastening a neckline, and two smaller ones holding up the overdress--the job that would eventually be relegated to tortoise brooches. The chronologically last finds, like the grave Ms. Svensson mentions in her thesis, features three tortoise brooches--one at the neck, and two holding up the overdress. The chart (as well as a second chart showing the graves of NSV and what jewelry was found in each) suggests that most of the evolutionary phases of the brooch set included at least one pair of stickpins.

So a new possibility for my costume may be to select a slightly later time period and create a three-rectangular-plate brooch costume instead of a disc-on-bow brooch costume. Although I don't know what any of the rectangular plate brooches look like, there is a largish brooch sold by Raymond's Quiet Press and small ones sold by a seller on Etsy that might do until I find out more about the actual brooches found. I'm still thinking about what kind of Vendel costume I want to construct, and whether I want to learn more about the design of the rectangular plate brooches found at NSV before I go ahead and buy even more brooches than I have now. 

4. More support for pearl's theory of how shawls really were worn. As I mentioned above, quite a few of the NSV graves contained long stickpins. Like Erika Svensson, Ms. Mannering believes that these stickpins were used to fasten shawls to the woman's other clothing. As they above chart indicates, they appear in graves together with the disc-on-bow brooches, as well as part of ensembles involving different brooch types.

This supports, after a fashion, pearl's theory as to how triangular shawls could match, when worn, the perfectly triangular appearance shown in pendants, guldgubbar figures and other forms of Vendel and Viking era art. pearl's suggestion was that the long points of the triangle were folded over and perhaps sewn down in wear. However, if shawls were pinned to the shoulders with stickpins, instead of being held entirely by a disc-on-bow brooch, it would be simple to fold the corners under and pin the shawl through the folds and onto the rest of the costume, without needing to permanently sew anything.
Fig. 106, Viking Age Ringed Pins from Dublin

One may wonder just how well skinny stickpins would hold a substantial shawl. Ms. Mannering has a suggested answer to this question. She notes that small iron rings also appear in the graves. Accordingly, she suggests that each stickpin may have had one of these loops tied to it with a thong or cord.  The pin would be stuck through the cloth, and then the ring would be looped over the end of the pin, securing it. This would work a bit like the ring-headed pins that turn up in male Viking graves, mostly in Dublin near the end of the Viking age--the sketch to the right, from Thomas Fanning's book on Viking ring-headed pins (Fanning, Thomas. Viking Age Ringed Pins From Dublin p. 125 (Royal Irish Academy 1984), illustrates the principle nicely.

If stickpins-plus-rings were stable enough to hold a shawl, that fact addresses my main problem with the idea that shawls were pinned on solely with a large disc-on-bow brooch, namely, how did women avoid being strangled by their own brooches? Folding the shawl into the correct shape and then pinning the fold in place, even if the disc-on-bow brooch also partly supported the shawl, may answer this question; the re-contouring of the shawl with the stick pins into a shape that would make it look more triangular in wear may also have made it possible to support the shawl on the body more comfortably at the neck with the disc-on-bow or other neckline brooch. (I thought that Ms. Mannering said the stickpins fastened the shawl to the rest of the costume, but the jewelry section expressly says otherwise; see quote below.) I think I will obtain a suitable pair of stickpins and experiment.

5. No tablet weaving. This was a surprise to me, and possibly was to Ms. Mannering as well. What does appear in the graves is cord, and it appears in quantities great enough to indicate that it was used as fringe on some of the garments worn by the women in the graves--perhaps on shawls, for example.  So much for my idea of using my Norwegian Snartnemo band to decorate a Vendel find based on the graves at NSV!  The absence of evidence of tablet-woven bands at NSV, however, is interesting in its own right, even if it throws a monkey-wrench into my planned costume design. :-)

6.  Were Vendel and Viking era costume so different?  So what do the authors of the Jørgensen book think Vendel women's costume looked like? This quotation from the jewelry section suggests that it did not look that different from Viking era costume, except for the jewelry:
Nørre Sandegård Vest shows that through the course of the Late Germanic Iron Age [i.e., I think this term is equivalent to "Vendel"  or perhaps "Migration Period"] "there is a continuous replacement of the female brooch-types. It is clear, however, that the basic set of a neck brooch and 2 breast brooches emerges in this period that that this is manifestly linked to Viking period costume. Only the widespread use of dress pins in the Late Germanic Iron Age distinguishes the combinations of dress accessories of the two periods. .... There is much that indicates that the forerunner of the Viking-period pinafore dress was introduced at this date, as Mannering's textiles studies also imply. (pp. 58-59)
The text proceeds to describe a costume with three basic elements that is very like the elements proposed to be represented by the finds at Birka, though the possibility of additional items being present in the richer graves is expressly emphasized:
Colour analyses show that an often blue twill pinafore dress was fastened below the arms with the aid of the two brooches that sat upon the chest straps of the dress. ...The underdress was of linen and had a slit at the neck to which a de luxe brooch was fastened. The third element of costume was a woollen shawl or cape. The large number of dress pins in the graves, which were not fastened to the pinafore dress or the underdress, were probably used to fasten this shawl. ... This three-part costume is the basic model at Nørre Sandegård Vest. Several of the rich graves, however, contain more types of textile; grave 9, for instance, had no less than 7 different types. ... It is clear that the costumes could consist of more than the three basic elements just described, although the small size of the textile fragments unfortunately prevents any closer identification of these and their function.(p. 59)
This summary ignores Ms. Mannering's suggestion that, in at least some of the graves, the third garment might be an open-fronted robe or caftan. Although the fragments of textiles found in graves throughout Scandinavia for both the Vendel and Viking periods are very small and there is no definitive evidence of such caftans, there is better evidence that they were worn by high-born Frankish women--and the Franks were the dominant power of northern Europe at the time. Moreover, the caftan was also adopted during the Migration Period in the Kentish section of England. Perhaps Inga Hägg was correct in concluding that some of the Birka women wore caftans.  Maybe those caftans were the last manifestations of a very old European fashion. As more information about northern European burials between 500 and 1000 C.E. becomes available, it may become possible to confirm this theory.  I hope so. 

Finally, none of this precludes the possibility that some women wore shawls *over* caftans (the way some wealthy older women wear big shawls or ruanas over winter coats even today). The Frankish Queen Bathilde wore both a caftan AND a shawl to her grave--and the shawl still bears the remains of fringe--reminiscent of the NSV graves.

EDIT: Please note the following correction to my remarks about what garments Queen Bathilde was buried in, courtesy of pearl: "The Frankish finds aren't all from the same person (only that particular source says so)- the coat belonged to Bathilde, but the cloak is associated with Abbess Bertille." e.g.,


  1. Have you seen:

    Callmer, J. 2008. “The Meaning of Women's Ornaments and Ornamentation” Acta Archaeologica 79; 185-207. ?

    It doesn't get into clothing or textiles, but it does cover changes in jewellery and fastenings over time in Eastern Middle-Sweden from the 8th - 9th centuries. It seems there the disc-on--bow brooch stuck around for longer, although Callmer considers it to be a shawl fastener, not for closing a keyhole neckline.

    And I can't take the credit for the finding and scanning of the articles, I'm not *that* good. Thank Eithni!

  2. No, I haven't seen the Callmer article, thanks!

    If you say Eithni found the articles, I say thank you Eithni! Thank you both, actually.

  3. The Frankish finds aren't all from the same person (only that particular source says so)- the coat belonged to Bathilde, but the cloak is associated with Abbess Bertille.

    Also, Gotlandic women seemed to have continued the tradition of wearing paired dress pins, along with a box brooch and paired animal head brooches.
    (The high-resolution image the page links to at the end of the text is annotated.)

  4. pearl: Thanks for the information. Thanks particularly for the correction of my statement about Bathilde's costume. The web article I saw about the shawl appeared to indicate that the shawl also appeared in Bathilde's grave, but it may have been wrong or I may have misread it. I have not seen a lot about Bathilde to date, and most of what I've seen has been web articles that I read way too quickly in the course of doing something else.

    I'm not surprised about the Gotlandic information, but it's nonetheless useful and relevant.

    And have a Happy New Year!

  5. Oh!
    If the drawings from NSV look familiar, there are slightly different ones on the website of the National Museum of Denmark:

  6. Thanks for the URL! I've been on the National Museum's website before and didn't find that page. I'm going to run it through Google Translate right now.

  7. Dear Cathy!
    May I ask You to scan the page (pages) where the discussion of the colours (and the way of detecting them) is going on and send them to my e-mail address pigozne @ ? I am doing my PhD on the colours of Latvian ancient dress right now and am struggling with getting more info on colours in the "neighbourhood". I could in turn scan the English summary of Irita Zeiere's book on the textiles of the 13th-18th century in Latvia and send to You. Looking forward to co-coperation. :) Greetings from Riga, Latvia. Ieva

  8. I am doing a Vendel era costume myself and going for something more Swedish. If you are intereseted- you could write to me- santa@

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.