Friday, September 9, 2016

Viking? Or Chinese?

Tissø figure of "Freya" (Photo:
National Museum of Denmark)
Shang/Zhou Dynasty costume (from the Features China web site)
Zhou Dynasty figurine
(image from Xun &
 Chunming book;
see text)
There are a number of small metal figures and/or pendants that have been found in Viking era archaeological contexts.  They are all highly stylized, so any conclusions one can draw from them about Viking era costume are at best speculative.   

One such figure, a small silver figure found at an archaeological site in Tissø, Denmark, has received far less attention than most Viking age female figures, possibly because it is so different in appearance than the usual Viking era figure. I cropped the image in question from a photograph that appears on the National Museum of Denmark's web site.

The National Museum has a series of webpages about the Tissø site, which start here.  Tissø has been the seat of power of important men, starting in the sixth century CE, and many finds of foreign goods, and of goods made in the area to be traded abroad have been made.

Though the mode of stylization of this figure is certainly consistent with Viking art, the clothing and hair shown do not appear to be Viking at all.  Female figurines usually show long hair in a kind of knotted ponytail, not in two knotted buns at the sides.  Nor does the wide, long-tongued belt resemble anything seen on other figurines from Scandinavia in the Viking age, or in the Vendel period before it.   I have been thinking about this figurine for some time, and pondering an unusual hypothesis as to what it may originally have been meant to depict.
Tang Dynasty figurine (from The Saleroom website)

What the Tissø figure's attire and hairstyle does resemble is early period female costume from China. Specifically, her costume resembles the costume shown above and to the right, which I have seen attributed on line to the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, but also (and probably incorrectly) to the Tang and Song Dynasties. The Tang and Song Dynasties are roughly contemporaneous with the Viking Age (9th-11th centuries), while the Shang and Zhou are much earlier--they are the dynasties of China's Bronze Age, roughly 1000-1500 years BCE.  The web image of Shang costume shown above on the right is very similar to one that appears in Xun, Zhou & Chunming, Gao, eds., 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes (China Books & Periodicals, Inc., English ed. 1987).  The related text attributes this type of costume to "nobility of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties".  It apparently is based upon a jade figurine which depicts the costume in question on a male noble. (See id.  p. 18).  I have scanned the picture of the jade figurine from the book for comparison's sake; it too appears above.

On the other hand, two-bun hairstyles were worn during the Tang Dynasty, commonly by maidens (see image on the left above).

Consider these points:

1.  The Tissø figure has obvious, almond-shaped eyes--a Chinese trait, not a Scandinavian one.
2.  The Tissø figure wears her hair in buns on the sides--not in a ponytail.
3.  The Tissø costume appears to have a broad-tongued pendant or belt-end hanging down the center of her body, starting from her waist, and an overgarment whose hem appears to end at calf-level.
4.  A common motif in Tang Dynasty figurines of women are hanging sleeves shown with a bun on each side.  Several such images may be seen on my Pinterest board on the subject.

Compare the garments on the Tissø figure to the modern depiction of Shang Dynasty costume shown above. The resemblance is far from perfect--there is no indication of an open, lapped robe (though we know from Scandinavian Vendel period art that they knew how to depict such a garment).  Still, the garment looks more Eastern than Viking.

Now, serious questions are raised by the fact that the figure does not strongly resemble women's costume during the Tang Dynasty--the time period when a few daring souls from Scandinavia might have visited China, or vice versa.  Arguably, it does not depict women's costume at all.

Moreover, I keep finding modern cosplay and reproduction costumes showing this Shang/Zhou style of short overrobe/wide belt/long robe shown on both men and women, and it is possible that the costume I've shown here is, at best, theoretical given the current state of Chinese archaeology, and its presumed usage by Chinese history reenactors or cosplayers little more than a reenactorism.  I have not found any period Chinese art showing figures of any gender in these robes, but since known examples of Shang Dynasty art appear to consist of bronze items, that fact may not validate or invalidate my proposed line of analysis.

These observations are only a starting point for genuine research, but it seems to me that the Tissø figure may well be a Viking craftsman's attempt to depict a Chinese figure, in his own native style.  I am frustrated that it is difficult to find English language information about ancient Chinese costume, either in book form or on the Internet.  I would welcome any observations or pointers to more specific information in the comments.


  1. There's at least one other, similarly-styled image, from Stavnsager in Denmark: (scroll down to image 4).

    "Ability and Disability: On Bodily Variations and Bodily Possibilities in Viking Age Myth and Image" by Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh also talks about the Tissø figure, and some similar-looking ones that I didn't know about. So it does seem to be a style of depicting women that was uncommon, but not unique to this one example?

    1. Thanks for the pointer to the Stavanger figure. I think I may have seen it before, but didn't connect it to the Tisso figure because it has different elements. It seems clearly to have a long necklace, instead of a long-tongued belt, and it looks more like it's holding up two sticks (or candles?) instead of grabbing its hair. But it does seem to have a two-bun hairstyle. I'll take a look at the Arwill-Nordbladh article--if she discusses the Tisso figure and similar figures, I want to see what she says.