Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Reflections on "Birka" and "Hedeby" Bags

Antler purse handle from Sweden. 
Photo:  Historiska Museet database (Object No. 604,027)  
Recently, reenactment vendors, reenactors and costume enthusiasts interested in the Viking age have started to make their own versions of ... bags!  These bags are inspired by wooden and bone finds at Birka, Hedeby, and other places which, it is currently believed, were bag handles.  The photographs to the right show what some of those items look like today. They are roughly 20 cm (approximately 8 inches) to 30 cm (approximately 12 inches) long.

Most of the bag reconstructions seem to be about 12 inches (~ 30 cm) deep and have long strings attached to the wooden handles, like a handbag designed to be carried over the shoulder. The opening of most of these bags is a few millimeters narrower than the length of the wooden handles, and the pouch is made from a single piece of folded fabric with seams only on the sides, though there are exceptions.   The most common material used for them is a sturdy wool, sometimes with a linen lining, though a few are made from leather.  Some of the bags are attractively and ingeniously decorated, with a sewn-on strip of silk or tablet weaving, embroidery, or even fringe.

Because all we have of any of these bags (to the best of my knowledge) are the wooden handles, it's hard to say how close to the actual Viking originals these reconstructions actually are.  They are attractive, and probably useful to the Viking reenactors who use them.

A wooden purse frame and parts of other purse frames
found in the water outside Birka. Image: Christin Mason, SMM
I personally suspect that most of the current designs have been made to allow women reenactors to carry modern items (such as smartphones, keys, and wallets) in a convenient, period-plausible way at events. But I wish there was even more experimentation in their design!  Instead of just making lovely items that may not reflect the way the Vikings actually used such bags, we should think about considerations that would affect the construction of these bags.  For example:
  • Who used them?  There seems to be a common assumption that these bags were used by Viking women. This may be a reasonable assumption, since bags found in male Viking graves tend to be more securely closeable (e.g., nomad-style pouches made to be worn on a belt).  The answer to this question in turn makes it possible to make at least limited responses to two other questions, namely:
  • For what purposes were such bags used?  Consider a few examples.  A bag intended to carry a lot of silver coins, or hack silver, or tools, would need to be more sturdy than a bag intended to carry a woman's embroidery project and sewing supplies.  If the bag was intended to carry root vegetables, it would need to be both sturdy and stretchy.  Leather would be good for carrying heavy coin or woodworking tools, while a mesh design would be better for vegetables.
  • What materials were used to make them?  Wool fabric is plausible, but so is linen fabric, or leather.  And there are other options.  If such a bag were used to carry root vegetables, for example, it could have been made of sprang, or nalbinding.  
  • Would a lining be necessary?  Appropriate?  If the fabric from which the bag is made is loosely woven and the planned contents are sharp metal, or have pointed edges, it might be necessary to make a lining.  The properties of the contents, the potential bag material, and the potential lining need to be kept in mind.
Function would determine whether these bags really had long cords for carrying, as all of the modern reconstructions I've seen on the Internet have had.  If the bags were used as work bags, shorter cords might have been used.  If they were used to carry heavy objects, narrow leather straps might have been employed.

It is interesting to look at 20th century wooden handled bags, which were made in a variety of styles over decades and also had a variety of purposes. This model, made during the 1940s of imported silk, might have been used for sewing or knitting work. This bag from the 1960s was crocheted from jute and, given the differences in taste between the 40s and 60s, might have simply been a handbag. In the 1980s, there was a vogue for much smaller "preppy" bags that were carried by the wooden handle and often had changeable fabric pouches, like these.   And to this day similar wooden handled bags are still being sold, as this modern design, sold in 2016, shows.

There is a place for thoughtful experimentation here, maybe more so than with regard to apron dress design, and I hope to see more of it in the coming years.  Eventually, I will purchase a replica set of wooden handles and make one for myself.

EDIT:  (6/4/2017)  Added some additional thoughts I had upon re-reading parts of this post.


  1. Well there are existing hide bags that use this kind of frame ( https://digitaltmuseum.se/search/?aq=descname%3A%22Laukka%22 ) plus there are many depictions of cloth(?) bags of this type in later-than-viking periods (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Master_of_the_Karlsruhe_Passion_-_Disrobing_of_Christ.jpeg, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105072169/f224.item http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105072169/f106.item just to mention few) so there is a wide field for research and inspiration.

  2. Hi, Anna, welcome!

    Thanks for the links to the bags/bag images. In particular, the first two (from the Digital Museum) have a handle identical to the bone one from ... I think it was Hedeby. Where were they found?

    1. Here you can find a colection of bags from Swedish Historiska Museet ( http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/start.asp type "väska" or more precisely "väskbygel" in Sök area). They are mostly Saami, but did not change much from iron age to XXth century and are found in many regions of Sweden.
      Didn'd do decent any research yet, so I probably missed many other sources.

    2. Thanks! I am having trouble with the Historiska Museet's search page, but I'm sure I'll get it eventually.