Unique Viking textiles found in woman’s grave – HeritageDaily
To the untrained eye, the artifact looks brown and drab, but it’s actually something very special: an embroidered woolen fabric over 1,000 years old, kept on top of a turtle brooch.
“Finding embroidered textiles from the Viking Age is so unusual that you almost can’t believe it’s true,” says archaeologist Ruth Iren Øien of the University Museum of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU ).
“Those of us who work with textiles are happy if we find a one-inch-by-one inch piece of fabric. In this case, we have a textile remainder of almost 11 cm. Discovering the embroidery in addition is quite unique, ”said Øien.
In fact, this discovery was so unique that Øien could hardly believe what she saw through the lens of the microscope.
“Embroidered textiles from the Viking Age are something we only know of a few opulent tombs, like Oseberg and Mammengraven in Denmark,” she says.
The brooch with the textile was found in a woman’s grave in Hestnes, in the county of Trøndelag, in southern Norway, during excavations in 2020. The grave is dated to around 850-950 CE , in the middle of the Viking Age.
The deceased woman was placed in a wooden burial chamber in a long mound above the tomb – an elongated mound. Chamber graves of this type are unusual in central Norway.
“Chamber graves are mainly found in Birka in Sweden and in the former Danish regions – Denmark, including Scania (now Skåne), south-eastern Norway and Hedeby in present-day Germany. “, explains Raymond Sauvage, archaeologist and project manager for the excavations.
The grave goods were also out of the ordinary. The woman was buried with a three-lobed brooch, which is quite rare in Norway, typical especially in ancient Danish regions. She was also buried with several hundred miniature pearls – a type known only from very few Norwegian graves.
“The pearls were concentrated on her right shoulder, but we don’t know if it was a pearl necklace or something. A find by Hedeby with similar pearls has been interpreted to be pearl embroidery in one form or another, and it is plausible that the same is true here, ”explains Sauvage.
2000 sheep for a sail
Archaeologists believe they found the remains of eight different textiles in the tomb – six pieces of woolen cloth and two of linen cloth. Fabrics vary in quality, structure and appearance.
Today we throw away clothes and buy new ones without thinking twice, but that was certainly not the case during the Viking Age.
“To make enough textiles to dress a family for a year, it took a full person-year of working hours. Of course, it was not usual to have new clothes every year, and a lot of things have been passed on, ”explains Øien.
Making sails for a Viking Age boat required wool from 2,000 sheep. Between labor and raw materials, a Viking Age sail is estimated at NOK 15-20 million at today’s prices.
In other words, the fact that the woman in the bedroom tomb was adorned with so much clothing means that she was buried with solid valuables.
“I guess the textiles in the grave were as valuable as the items she brought with her – if not more,” Øien explains.
Rare glimpse of the woman’s outfit
It is very unusual to find so many well-preserved textiles in a grave. In several places, textiles are layered, including where the needles attach to the pins. These probably represent both indoor and outdoor clothing. In addition, several fragments reveal information about the seams and details used for various types of clothing.
All of this gives archaeologists a rare glimpse into women’s attire.
“We imagine that the woman was wearing a pinafore dress, which was closed with turtle brooches. Under the dress she probably wore over a sark or a linen or fine wool shirt. On her shoulders she was probably wearing a cape with embroidered decorative elements, ”explains Øien.
“The cape appears to have been lined with a fine woolen fabric and along the edge we can see remnants of tight braiding. This braid may have been made to reinforce the edge, but it also had a decorative function.
Archaeologists will also take a closer look at the colors of the clothing.
“Under the microscope, we can see that some of the embroidery threads have a different pigmentation than the fabric underneath. This may be because the types of fibers used in embroidery threads were affected by their time in the soil differently than the fibers in the fabric. We hope that further analyzes will provide us with answers, ”says Øien.
She adds that analyzing the color of prehistoric textiles is extremely difficult, as they were dyed by plants without the use of chemicals. Colors have leached into the soil over the past 1,100 years.
“However, some colors are easier to trace than others, such as indigo, which creates a blue color,” explains Øien.
Although identifying textile colors can be difficult, it may in fact be possible to know where the wool of one of the textiles is coming from. The remains are so well preserved that archaeologists hope to be able to do an isotopic analysis of the fibers.
“Isotopes are variations of the same element, and they vary between food sources and between different geographic areas. Analysis of isotopes in wool could therefore tell us whether the fabric came from local sheep or was imported, ”explains Øien.
Header image credit: NTNU University Museum