Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Vikings and Silk

One of Sofie Krafft's watercolors, depicting a silk fragment
from the Oseberg grave along with reconstruction of the full
 pattern. Photo:   Kulturhistorisk museum/Museum of Cultural History, Norway
Recently, I obtained and read Marianne Vedeler's latest book, Silk for the Vikings(Ancient Textiles Series Vol. 15, Oxbow Books, 2014).  Silk for the Vikings is a well-written piece of research that will be the most useful to historical costumers who have made themselves familiar with a goodly proportion of the published archaeological finds, and the existing scholarship about Viking era costume.  

Professor Vedeler focuses primarily upon the availability of silk fabrics to the Vikings and the social and cultural signals given through its use. Nonetheless, the book also contains some lovely full-color photographs of silk finds, as well as some useful information to fuel the deductions of  archaeologists, reenactors, and costumers interested in Viking age clothing.  Some of the details that form the basis of Vedeler's deductions about how silk fabrics ended up in Scandinavia are more interesting than the deductions themselves. Here are some of the details that surprised or intrigued me:
  • Of the Viking age Scandinavian graves where silk has been found and a determination of gender has been made, the overwhelming majority were female graves.   Vedeler notes, "Silk has been found in 94 graves in total.  Of these, 52 are interpreted as female graves while 19 are male.  Nine graves contained both a man and a woman, and in 14 cases the silk were [sic] found in graves where the gender of the deceased is unknown, or in another context."  (Page 33, fn. 147).  
  • There is clear evidence that some women, at least, used strips of samite silk to trim the tops of their apron dresses.  Vedeler says:  "In some cases, samite silk has been found on the back side of oval brooches, indicating that the silk was part of the suspended dress in the chest area."  She cites examples from Veka in Voss (Norway) and in Tuna in Badelunda (Sweden).  (Page 37).  However, silk strips have also been found in graves without tortoise brooches, indicating that silk was used to trim other kinds of clothing also.  (Page 38).
  • Most of the silk found in Viking age graves is from Central Asia, Byzantium, or other regions close to those areas.  However, a few that appear to be Chinese have been found at Birka.  (Page 38).
  • There is evidence that Vikings who served in the Varangian Guard in Byzantium were sometime rewarded with silk collars and strips taken from skaramaggia.  A skaramagion is a overtunic with long sleeves associated with the Emperor of Byzantium and other Byzantine men of high rank.  This suggests that some of the silk strips found in Viking graves may have come to Scandinavia in that condition, and not as larger pieces.  (Page 106).
After reading the book, I started searching for real silk fabrics with a design similar to the Sogdian samite silks of the period, since they are a known Central Asian type, though Vedeler notes that most samites found in Viking graves are too faded to be identified readily by pattern.  (Page 35)  Unfortunately, judging by Google, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for reproductions of the stylized patterns characteristic of Sogdian silks.  I will just have to keep looking out for plausible patterned silks to cut into suitably-sized strips to decorate my Viking clothing.


  1. Hej Cathy,

    I'm really happy that I found your very informative blog. A few weeks ago I found an old book at the library which might be of interest to you. It is written by Margrethe Hald, the title is Ancient Danish textiles from bogs and burials, (a comparative study of costume and Iron Age Textiles) Published by the National museum of Denmark in 1980

    I thought it was an interesting book and I hope that by this I can give you a little bit back for all the effort you have made.

    Kind regards,

  2. Hi, Elizabeth! Welcome to my blog!

    I have my own copy of Ancient Danish Textiles, which I bought when 1) I had more money to spend on books and 2) it was easier to find used copies. You're right; it's a very interesting book, and a great resource to have for someone, like me, who's interested in early Scandinavian costume. But thanks for thinking of me!