Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Latest Viking Figurine

The latest find.   Photo: Østfyns Museer.
An alert reader of my blog recently brought my attention to a new metal detector find.  Although the article she told me about is written in Polish (and may be found here), the English-language archaeology magazine site Past Horizons also wrote about it in English, here.

This figure was recently found in a field near Revninge, in Denmark. Like the Hårby "Valkyrie" figurine, it has a hole in it that makes it wearable as a pendant.  Unlike the Hårby pendant, the body portion of the woman is intact, though it's done in a kind of flat relief instead of being sculpted in the round like the head. The figure has been dated to 800 C.E. and is thought to be a depiction of the fertility goddess, Freya.

Archaeologist Claus Feveile of the Department of Landscape and Archaeology at Østfyns Museums was quoted by Past Horizons as saying, “Small characters from the Viking period are extremely rare and Revninge-woman’s dress is incredibly detailed which will contribute to the discussion on the appearance of clothes and how they might have been worn.”  While I agree with Mr. Feveile that this figurine is much more detailed than previous figurines and will add to our knowledge of pre-Viking/Viking era Scandinavian costume, it will not end the more enduring disputes about women's clothing of the period.  To the contrary, it may inspire new ones.

Consider the specific features of the woman's dress and appearance that are clearly depicted.  They are:

Her hair.  It is drawn straight back from her face into a small bun, high on the back of her head. Unlike other Viking age depictions of women, there is no indication of a ponytail beneath; she is wearing a simple bun.

Her sleeves.  They end at the wrist, and are long enough that deep wrinkles show along her arms, suggesting that they were made close-fitting, but longer than her arms so that they need to be pushed up when she is wearing them.

The length of her dress.  Since her feet are clearly visible below its hem, her dress must be ankle-length.

Though evidence for these elements of Viking women's dress and appearance are useful, and confirmation of them has been scarce, they are the only unambiguous features of her costume.  Like the other female images of the period, most of the clothing details depicted in the Revninge figurine raise more questions than answers.  For example:
  • What is that band along her neckline?  The Past Horizons article suggests that this band might be a strand of beads, such as the strands, often found in graves, that Viking women wore between their tortoise brooches. However, there is no sign of tortoise brooches on this figure, and similar punched-circle detailing also appears in the section at the center bottom of the skirt, which would not be completely covered with beads in this manner.  (If such a beaded dress had been worn, we would be finding even more beads in Viking women's graves than the quantities that typically emerge.) If the band is embroidery, it appears to show a garment with a very low neckline. Are we seeing an overtunic or a smokkr (apron dress)?  If it is an overtunic, it is depicting a costume very different from the garments popularly associated with Viking women.

  • What does the area inside the band represent?  It seems clear that the garment with the wide banded neckline is not the woman's only upper body garment, since the vee is filled in by lines suggestive of pleats.  But those pleats do not run down the woman's body, as the few finds of women's undertunics/shifts suggest; instead they form a vee inside the vee.  Is this meant to be a stylized depiction of a pleated shift with a high round neck. or something else?

  • Is she wearing a belt? At first, I thought it clear that the woman is wearing a belt, though what kind
    Brooch from Bj. 466*
    is anybody's guess. Thin leather?  There's no clear sign of a buckle, but leather belts can be knotted too, though probably not in a bow as this belt appears to be knotted.  Tablet weaving? Cord? What are those circular things on the ends of the belt?  They do not look like knots.  They might be metal plaques, or beads of some kind.  Then I looked again, and saw that the raised borders that frame the vee-shaped area at the bottom of the skirt that is decorated with punched circles go all the way to the hem of her dress, which suggests that they may be decorative bands on the skirt.  I also noticed that the placement of her thumbs obscures whether she has anything around her waist at all.  Moreover, the three-lobed shape that rests over where the woman's navel should be isn't really a bow knot, as I had thought.  It looks more like a certain style of trefoil brooch that is found in Viking age graves--I've included a photograph of such a brooch to demonstrate what I mean.  Note the length of the three lobes of the brooch and the triangular motif at the center.   

  • Is she wearing a caftan?   It is believed that trefoil brooches like the one above were used to close outer garments, such as caftans or possibly shawls.  Could the figure be wearing a caftan?  The vee-shape with a contrasting texture inside it certainly suggests the opening of a coat, though the top part looks like more like a pleated or gathered shift.  

  • How many layers does she have on?   There are no markings on the figurine that unambiguously indicate whether she is wearing a sleeveless tunic or caftan (i.e., a long coat without buttons) over a pleated, extra-long-sleeved shift; a long-sleeved caftan over a dress and smokkr; a long-sleeved tunic over a shift; or something entirely different. 

  • What is that triangular "gap" at the bottom of her skirt?  It could be an underdress, showing beneath a caftan.  Or beneath an open-fronted smokkr.  Or a contrasting colored or patterned gore in a full-skirted overdress.  In short, it could be almost anything.  

  • And what about those odd patches of punched circles at the waistline, just above the woman's hands?  They do seem to match the "pattern" in the triangular gap, don't they?  Maybe the woman is actually wearing a panova (a Slavic-style overskirt that is roughly contemporaneous with the Viking period, and whose form is even more speculative than that of the smokkr).
In short, I'm not prepared to attempt to craft a recreation of the Revninge woman's costume, because I can think of too many possible items of clothing that she could be wearing.  Once again, new artistic information about Viking costume just gives rise to more questions that the new information cannot answer.  It's frustrating, and fascinating, at the same time.

*    I believe the photograph to be from Birka I: Die Gräber by Holger Arbman (Almqvist & Wiksells 1940), but I'm not certain. The photograph I have reproduced here is one photograph from of a full-page of photographs of trefoil brooches. You can see that page on my Pinterest board here.


  1. he idea of an open front caftan/ long jacket with looooong sleeves over a possible smokkr over a pleated shift is an interesting idea. I've been pondering this one since it popped up on past horizons and most of what I've got is "huh. That's interesting. Not a damn clue what's going on."

    1. Hi, synj-munki! My problem is that I can imagine *too many* things that might be going on! I could even imagine her wearing a pleated, Slavic shift with a panova over it, except for the trefoil thingy.

      And one thing I didn't mention are the round things on the bottom of her skirt, that look like they are attached to the trim around the triangular opening (or the belt ends, if you think those raised strips are belt-ends). What might they be? I know of no round strap-ends that have been found.

    2. That's for sure! This one is a thinker. I'll admit my kneejerk reference when I first saw it (after wtf is going on here?) was the oseberg ship woman, with the skirt and whatnot. It's certainly not a 1:1 comparison, more a "feel" thing.

  2. The pleated area inside the neckband kind of reminds me of a fichu, though I'm not aware of the Vikings wearing anything like that. I wonder if it's something like a bliaut, where the neck opening is a vertical slit?

    1. We sure can't rule out the possibility that the Revninge figure is wearing a vee-necked tunic made in that manner.

      As for whether Vikings wore vee-necked tunics, the Skoldehamn tunic is vee-necked, though it was worn over a kirtle with a little stand collar. But there is argument about whether the Skoldhamn tunic was Viking (Dan Lovlid thinks it might have been worn by a Saami). Also, the Skoldehamn has been dated to 1050 C.E. or so, while the Revninge figure is dated to about 800 C.E.

      I think the dating is more of a problem to the vee-neck theory, myself. As you said, the vee-neck is associated with the bliaut, and all of the vee-necked examples I know of are 11th or 12th century. The Revninge figure is much earlier than that. On the other hand, it's possible that the vee-neck (formed by a vertical silt) is much earlier than 11th-12th century and we just don't have any surviving early examples.

    2. On whether the Vikings ever wore scarves or fichus--we don't know that, either. The other usages of scarves that I know of are all much earlier in time; Roman soldiers wore scarves, apparently to protect their necks from chafing due to their armor, and the Huldremose woman was buried with a scarf (though one that is much too long to tuck in at the neck). But again, that doesn't mean scarves weren't worn by Viking women, simply that we have no evidence.

  3. Working on the basis that a lot here is hard to determine fully as its metal work and seems to contain some schematic elements that make sense if you know what they are (unlucky for us!) I think there are a few interesting things to be considered.

    I do think the top circles are supposed to represent beads, and as you suggest I believe the item in the lower abdomen/waist is a trefoil brooch. I think a caftan brooches at the abdomen or wait makes some sense, I personally am not too worried about whether the v inside the beads is the same as outside it, I think this could be a neckline, undergarment, or simply an attempt to continue the pleated design inside the beads, but beign limited by the objects size and the needs of sculpting something this size (its not easy!)

    However, If this was a pleated under serk with nothing on top of it but beads at the neck, it sure would match some of Thor Ewings theories about wide V-necks coming quite low would it not? Fleming Bau had theorised that sleeves may have been horizontally pleated, and includes them like this in his reconstructions, so perhaps this is whats going on? It would be amusing if some of his ideas appear to be true! I'm not sure what the trefoil brooch is doing in that instance, perhaps holding the neckline together at the waist... (it would be pretty revealing as Ewing suggested, without a Smokkr in that case!), or perhaps we are seeing a belt?

    I have to say, the caftan seems to make most sense, but perhap that was pleated? If not it sure looks like that dress might be split all the way down the front.
    P.S On scarves, I was sure Thor Ewing had mentioned scarves in his book, but can't for the life of me find it now, I'll try to remember to ask if I see him at a conference again.

    1. Eblueaxe: I'm inclined to see the figure as wearing a pleated, round-necked shift too! In fact, I toyed with the possibility that the woman is meant to be Slavic, wearing a pleated shift with a panova (open-fronted skirt) over it. But two things count against that; the trefoil, and the fact that she's bare-headed--showing a woman's hair after her marriage was very taboo among the Slavs (with them, covering the hair was not acquired from Christianity, but was a long-standing practice).

  4. I'm seeing something quite different when I look at this little figure-a male figure. At this early date, I think only men were wearing trefoil brooches, women took it over later. And men wore their hair in top knots, I have seen one grave in a museum with a male with a top knot. I haven't seen a woman with one yet. The necklace- seems very large and imposing-a large bead necklace or large gauge wire weaving chain. Strikes me as a male style of jewelry. The stance, the shorter skirt length, the position of the feet: That seems to me to be a male/warrior stance. Very challenging stance with the thumbs hooked into the belt.

    No flowing skirts on this figurine. At the bottom of the skirt-the circles seem to be more like chain mail-altho I don't know the dating of that possibility. Could be decoration.

    The only thing that is not male like: no beard or facial hair. A young warrior? A young man who just became king?

    So I throw this idea out.....is it a male figure?

    1. Susan: I'm not sure whether trefoils were worn solely by men in Scandinavia at the approximate period of the figure (about 800 C.E., so not *that* early). But I am sure of two things: 1) There's no evidence that men wore necklaces with many large beads in them; bead finds in men's graves typically involve a modest number of beads (1-5). 2) The figurine is *not* wearing a top knot. A top knot is positioned on or near the crown of the head. The figurine's bun is very clearly shown on the back of the head. So I am disinclined to think that the figure is male--whatever its choice of costume. :-)

    2. Well, it would seem others think it may be a man as well :-)

      - carol stevenson


    3. Hi, welcome to my blog!

      I don't doubt that there will be plenty of people debating whether this figure is male or female. That's part of the risk in trying to make deductions about costume based on Viking age art. It's so stylized that it's hard to tell what the artist is trying to depict. The last big figurine discovery, the Leire figure was thought by some to be male, as well. http://cathyscostumeblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/another-female-viking-image.html