By Viktoria Persdotter, archaeologist and crafstman.
I am an archaeologist and crafstman who spends a great deal of time reconstructing Iron Age artefacts and the manufacturing techniques used. I have taken a special interest in the reconstruction of the Viking Age costume, working with metal, leather and textile techniques. During my various experiments and research I have more than once wondered at both the Viking Age costume itself, and the wats in which it is interpreted today.
For a long time the Viking Age has been, and still is, a very popular period to interpret in different ways. Costumes are an important way of creating an atmosphere when putting a prehestoric period on display, but sadly, much too often, routine habit and ignorance work together to create far from acceptable costumes and jewellery.
Trying to reconstruct Viking Age clothing is far from easy. Both textiles and leather are easily perishble materials, and only fragments remain of the origional clothing. The usually well preserved metal fittings, like buckles and brooches (usually made from bronze), can provide hints through their shapes and positioning about how costimes were fastened. In many cases, due to metal corrosion, the textiles underneath and around the metal objects are well preserved.
There are also many pictures of humans from this period, but they are usually strongly stylised, and it is therefore hard to detect the finer details of the costumes. Aslo in the saga literature, costumes are mentioned sporadically.
When reconstructing the Viking Age costume, one must also bear in mind that what today is regarded as "vikingish" and often seen in popular interpretaions of this period, in most cases, has no archaeological counterpart. There are just no traces of things like battle helmets fitted with cows' horns, metal bras, furry leg-wrappings made from sheepskin with the wolly side out and cloths made from sackcloth from the Viking Age (and not from any other prehistoric period either).
Another popular myth concerns the filthy and unhygenic Viking Age. Judging from archaelogical and written records, the hygenic conditions at the time were reasonable. On the Viking Age farms it was customary to have a bath- house, and in saga literature bathing and washing is often mentioned. During the Viking Age, most people lived on solitary farms, which also meant that they also lived under far better hygenic conditions than the later inhabitants of the crowded medieval towns did.
In order to produce as authentic reconstructions of the clothing as possible, it is not enough, however, just to study the archaeological finds. The Viking Age costume is namely not a phenomenon on its own, but a part of the society where it was made and worn. The Viking Age costume is a direct product of the technology, access to raw materials, aesthetic values, living conditions and ways of showing social rank and affiliation of its time.
There were no uniform costumes in the Nordic countries during the Viking Age either. Clothing could vary greatly according to local traditions, season, occasion, social and and personal taste.
It is also of greatest importance to carry out the reconstructions using a high standard of craftmanship, so as to obtain an acceptable result, from technical, archaeological, aesthetic and practical points of view. When museums and similar institutions make reconstructions, different "simpliflications" and "improvements" are often made, both regarding construction and materials. But in most cases trying to make prehistoric clothes more practical to make and wear has the opposite effect in the end. Since I, myself usually wear Viking Age clothes and shoes made in as authentic models and materials as possible, in my daily life and work, I can testify from experience that those clothes are both practical and comfortable to wear. In many ways they are superior to modern clothes, especially as I spend a lot of time outdoors working close to an open fire.
During my work with various ancient techniques, I have noticed that the distinct shape of the seat in Iron Age trousers found in Danish and German bogs is most likely a direct result of the working position used at the time. When I work with wood, bone and antler, I usually sit on the floor or ground, using my feet and legs as extra hands to hold the work-pieces. I also use the same working position when working with other ancient techniques like glass bead making and sewing. Nowadays this working position is seldom seen in the western world, but is still common in other parts of the world, like rural areas in Africa and
Sitting on chairs is a rather recent invention, and mostly likely the Iron Age people mainly worked on the floor- and ground level, which is also indicated by the low, almost ground level located hearths of the living houses as well as the workshops. The squatting position was not only used by professional craftsman, but also in the everyday household and farm work. I am quite convinced thet this working position is the reason to why the Iron Age trousers found in the bogs of Thorsbjerg, Damendorf, Marx-Etzel and Daetgen have their distinctive seat construction.
The same kind of seat construction as in the Iron Age trousers can also still be seen on the trousers of the traditional Sami (ethnic minority in northern Scandinavia and
As see in the drawings above, the trousers are narrow-legged, wide in the seat area and made without the median seam seen on modern trousers. I know from experience that modern trousers with a median seam in the seat will crack from the stress put on them by working in a squatting or sitting position. This is just one example that shows that Iron Age clothes were neither underdeveloped, nor primitive, but a product well adapted to the living conditions of their time.
In this article, I have tried to present some of the problems and possibilities connected with the reconstruction of prehistoric costumes in general, and the Viking Age costumes in particular, as well as pointing out the importance of practical experiments as a method of understanding ancient costumes. I hope that I have contributed to evoke thoughts and reflections on this matter. In the next issue of "Viking Heritage Newsletter" I will further describe and discuss the female costume of the Viking Age. If you have any comments or questions, you can contact me at the following address:
S-620 33 Tingstдde
Phone +46 498 27 43 56.