A bit about sources
This is my attempt at interpreting and recreating the outfit worn by the person in grave 507 from Björkö, also known as Birka. The grave, a so-called chamber burial, is interpreted as the grave of a woman and dated to the 10th century. I’m not an archaeologist and these and this is merely my interpretation, based on the knowledge I have now. I’ve been looking at pictures from the Historiska Museet database, which is quite fantastic, and read relevant passages from “Inga Hägg, 1974. Kvinnodräkten i Birka”, and “Agnes Geijer, 1938. Birka III. Die Textilfunden aus Birka.”, as best I could. I’ve also looked at many pictures and read a lot in “Holger Arbman, Birka die Gräber” (Google translate is king!). I’ve also had the pleasure of having a closer look at the some of the finds in person, at the Historiska museet in Stockholm.
General info about the grave
In Arbman’s drawing it appears as though the iron shears (7), the silver clothes pin (8) and the silver earspoon (9) has been suspended from the right oval brooch, and the knife (5) from the left. The beads (6) form two semicircles, and my interpretation of this is that they have been suspended between the oval brooches (1 and 2). They could, however, also have been worn as a necklace.
The knife seems to be hanging by a bronze chain (4) from the left oval brooch. The silver trefoil brooch (3) is located right in the middle of where the beads are found, and thus between the oval brooches. It could have been used as a third brooch to close a neck slit in the shift or kirtle, but since the sketches and preserved fabric remains imply that this brooch has been at the very top, on top of the layer of fabric that I have interpreted as a shawl, and also partially covering one of the oval brooches, it is not unlikely that it’s been used to secure a shawl or other outer garment instead of a neck slit. I decided to try both ways of wearing it.
In the upper left hand corner of the sketch one can see the amazing drinking vessel (10) that I will not attempt at recreating right now, but which further indicates that this was the burial of a wealthy and high ranking woman. I believe she was placed in the grave in a sitting position, as seems to be the norm in chamber burials of the time. The position of the metal items as indicated by Stolpe quite closely matches the position of where my recreated items ended up when I briefly tried half sitting, half lying down, in a pit, meant to resemble the burial pit.
The oval brooches
The brooches in this grave are of the P51 type, made of gilt bronze with silver gilt details, and about 10 cm big. The type is double-shelled. Arbman writes that the brooches were gilt and decorated with twisted silver wires and that four of the “knobs” were silver and further embellished with filigree work. He also writes that two of the “knobs” had indentations filled with a “yellowish inlay” (possibly amber) but that this feature is very badly preserved. I’ve been examining and taken pictures of the brooches, but can’t make out where this “yellowish inlay” would have been sitting, but it’s an interesting suggestion and I will definitely do my best to solve the puzzle in the future.
I searched near and far for a skilled craftsman with the time and will to create exact copies of the brooches, but to no avail. Instead I went for some very similar versions of P51, made by Gudred. They are almost identical to the ones in the grave, they are the right size, material and type, but some minor details deviate from the ones in “my” grave (but I love them none the less).
There isn’t a lot of information about the pair of shears, except that they were are made of iron and were found with traces of fabric stuck to them. If you study Stolpe’s drawings of the grave the shears looks kind of big in relation to the pin and earspoon next to it, so I decided to go for a semi-large pair of shears, of the same kind that was commonly found elsewhere in Birka (the shears depicted are from grave 902). Björn made a little leather sheath to protect the clothes, that could otherwise be damaged by the shears. The sheath could have been made from textile, but leather is more durable, so I just went for it.
The grave contained 12 carnelian beads and 14 made from rock crystal. The cut varies. Getting the right size and cut proved difficult, so I bought beads and tried to cut them myself. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, so I re-cut the rock crystal beads but bought new ones ready made from Linda at myhoney.se. The beads could have been worn as a necklace, but judging by the drawing and other finds from the same time I interpreted them as being suspended between the oval brooches, in two strands.
Arbman further says: ”Pearl ribbon (94: 6), Plate ix6: I, made of 26 pearls, 14 of which are made of rock crystal, 14 octagonal, namely ro with faceted ends, length 2.1-3.1 cm, a double conical, length 2.1 cm and 3 a – / fold, length 1.9-2.1 cm, made of carnelian 10 octagonal, length 1.5-3.1, and 2 flat, rhombic with bevelled edges, length 2.3 and 2.7 cm; probably a hook made of striated silver wire from the pearl ribbon.”
The silver hook is also depicted as paired with a small silver ring. First I thought that it might have been used to close a caftan or a shawl, or even the neck slit of the shift, but since Arbman mentions it in conjunction with the beads and there is nothing indicating that it would belong to anything else in that grave I changed my mind about that. Maybe the beads really did belong to a necklace, and the hook and ring are part of the closure, so I replicated them so that I could use it as a necklace, anyway. I took a piece of waxed heavy linen string and put the beads on it and finished it off with my hook and ring closure. This way I can choose to wear it as a strand between the brooches, or as a necklace.
I like this little silver pin, it reminds me of a völva’s staff. It’s 6,7 cm long and has a round silver head, hollow, with 12 holes in it. Arbman writes that it’s been damaged prior to being buried, so that someone has attached a suspension ring through the holes in the head, in stead of the original loop. Arbman also mentions fragments of silk in conjunction with the ring. It could indicate that it’s been suspended from a silk ribbon, but that doesn’t really make sense since the loops found under the right oval brooch are made of linen and brown wool fabric, if we disregard the loops that I interpret as belonging to the apron dress/hangeroc. I tested out some different ideas, but my final solution to this “problem” was to make a silk ribbon that is attached to a brown wool loop. The loop will be hidden away under the brooch, anyway. Since know silver smith had the time to do it for me I decided to do it myself, according to the saying “I’ve never worked with silver before, so I’m sure it will be fine”. After several attempts and a lot of swearing the final product turned out OK.
The silver earspoon is truly a well-preserved little treasure. It features a woman/valkyrie with a drinking horn on one side and a wolf, possibly Fenrir, on the other side. It’s 6,8 cm long. I ordered my replica from Kvalitativt Krigsbyte. If you study it closely, or not so closely perhaps, one can see that it originally had a cast suspension loop, but that this has been broken off. Instead someone has drilled a hole and replaced the loop with a silver ring. So, I took to my well-made replica, filed down the loop, drilled a hole and put in a silver ring (I did, however, use solid silver wire, whereas the original probably had silver thread, made by coiling thin silver wire around a core of silk thread). I discovered, long after I thought I was finished, that the original was gilt, so I went ahead and bought gold and gilded the background on both sides of it.
There are only a few lumps of iron left of what was once the knife, but Arbman says that it was iron with a wooden handle, of an unidentified kind of wood. The handle had two strips of silver on it, made by winding it with silver wire in two places. I also looked at the original with my own eyes in Historiska museet, but as mentioned it’s basically just some rusty lumps of iron, with fragments of wood and silver, which leaves me with little to build on when it comes to overall shape or size of the original knife. I had to guess, again, and compared the knife to other knives found in other graves. The I asked Götz to make me a knife blade typical of the period, on which I put a handle, with some guidance from Karl Kronlund. I decorated it with silver wire, according to Arbman’s description, and made a simple leather sheath in vegetable tanned leather, with a silver ring for suspension, also according to Arbman’s instructions.
Arbman: ”3- 113: 2, the chain in a very worn, streaked silver ring, diam. “1.8-2.1 cm, ending; close to the ring an iron knife (94: 5), now badly damaged, the wooden stem fragments with remains of twisted silver threads wrapped in two 0.2 cm wide strips around the stem.”
The suspension chain
At first I couldn’t make out how this little bronze chain was assembled, with regards to the links, despite studying the original in Historiska Museet. It turned out to be a variant of S-shaped links (thank you, Internet Hivemind!). According to Arbman the chain was just 12 cm long at the time of the excavation, but it could originally have been longer. I chose to recreate it according to Arbman’s description. Johan Carlsson made it for me, which I am very grateful for! The chain runs, according to Arbman, from the left oval brooch down to the knife where it ends in a silver ring, about 2 cm in diameter (the links in my replica is, from what I can make out, just a tad bit too big compared to the original).
The trefoil brooch
This small silver trefoil brooch, decorated in a filigree technique, is very well preserved. Arbman says that it’s 4,1 cm big and has been used as a fibula. It explicitly says that it was used to fasten clothing, which is a bit surprising since Hägg, who wrote about the Birka finds at a later date, thinks that it has been remade to fit a necklace, since there is a hole drilled in one of the corners. I, once again, took to the drill and made a hole in mine, but I think it could have been used both as a brooch and as a pendant, depending on the situation. I do believe that it was intended to be used as a clothes fastener at the time of the burial, since the position in the drawings seem to indicate that. Trefoil brooches were commonly used in female graves as a “third brooch”, together with the paired oval brooches, that were also designed to fasten clothing. Arbman also mentions there being textile remains on the back of the brooch, but not at the front, which would indicate that this brooch has been on top of the fabrics. My interpretation is that it has been used to fasten the shawl, or possibly the neck slit of the shift.
According to Geijer there were three different fabrics in the grave, which is consistent with what I saw when I studied the remains in the Historical Museum. Two of the fabrics were broken diamond twills, one a bit coarser than the other, but both of a light, fine and densely woven quality. As far as I understand there has been no analysis of possible dyes used to colour these fabrics, but Geijer still writes that the finest broken diamond twill fabric (w10i) is dark blue and the other (w10e) is “a lighter shade”, which I interpret as both fabrics being dyed with woad, but in different shades. There are also fragments of a thin diagonal twill. My guess is that we are dealing with a 2/2 twill. From what I’ve gathered it’s common for viking age fabrics to have more and harder spun threads used for the warp than would be used for the weft. That kind of yarn, or fabric for that matter, is hard to come by today, unless you spin and weave yourself, but since I don’t know how to weave I had to be content with commercially available fabrics, albeit based on the Birka finds.
There are some notes about linen fragments together with decomposed material in the grave, so it seems to me that she had a shift made out of linen closest to her body. I’ve chosen to sew the shift with waxed linen thread, the woollen garments with a dyed woollen thread and the silk strips used for decoration with a dyed silk thread. The shift and kirtle are made with panels and godets, in accordance with the principles given by Inga Hägg.
The thinner, darker, of the two broken diamond twill fabrics (W10i) seems to be underneath the brooches, chain and tools, so I interpreted that as a long sleeved kirtle. But, after finishing the entire garment, by hand, I realized that this was probably the fabric intended for the apron dress/hangeroc, and that the other twill was probably meant for the kirtle. The reason for the mix up is because both Geijer and Hägg labelled both the uppermost and the undermost pair of suspension loops preserved under the oval brooches as belonging to W10i. Be that as it may; there is no way that I am going to remake all of this at this point.
I used an undyed broken diamond twill fabric from Historical textiles that I then dyed blue with woad. I got a really deep and delicious colour!
Since there are two gaudy oval brooches in the grave it seems clear to me that the outfit has included a hangeroc/apron dress. For this I used a thin, undyed 2/2 twill fabric that I bought from a Russian seller a long time ago. It might be hand woven, but I can’t remember anymore, to be honest. Since I don’t have a lot to go on when it comes to colour I chose to dye this one with woad too, but a lighter shade, but still very clear and bright. As mentioned earlier I realized too late that I’d mixed up the fabrics for the kirtle and the hangeroc. Well, life goes on…
There were also two small fragments of silk found in the grave. I chose to hem my hangeroc with a 1 cm wide strip of pattern woven silk, partly because that’s how it’s found in other graves, but also because the hem is subjected to a lot of wear, and the silk helps to prevent this. The beautiful pattern woven silk is bought form Kvalitativt Krigsbyte.
The second diamond twill (W10e) that’s described as a bit lighter and sturdier (still very thin and densely woven) is very clearly resting on top of one of the oval brooches. Furthermore, it seems to have been hemmed with a silk fabric and finished with a plied cord made from wool. The cord’s exiting because in the text reference it’s said to be blue and red… and when I had the pleasure of seeing it in real life, even to my untrained eye, that seems to be the case! My cord is made from a madder dyed yarn that I got from Pinglan, and an indigo dyed yarn that I bought from Historical textiles.
The cord seems to have been sewn to the silk hemming either as decoration or to further prevent wear and tear. The silk seems to be applied to the wool fabric designated W10e. When comparing Geijer’s drawings to my observations in the museum it seems to me that the cord, or at least the same kind of cord, has been fastened both to the hem of the silk and the broken diamond twill wool fabric.
My interpretation of this is that this is a shawl, and it’s had a silk hem, finished with a red and blue woollen cord on both sides of the silk strip. It’s not impossible to interpret this as a caftan or a coat, but I still think it’s a shawl, for the following reasons:
No hem or selvedge seems to have run across the oval brooches, there are no edges preserved on top of the brooches. This seems to indicate that the edges have been outside of the area of the oval brooches, more consistent with a shawl than a caftan.
On many viking age pieces of jewelry, guldgubber, picture stones and tapestries such as the Oseberg tapestry, and indeed on the earspoon in my grave, there are pictures of women who seem to be wearing what looks to me like a big decorated shawl.
For the shawl I’ve used an undyed diamond twill wool fabric from The Historical Fabric Store, that I’ve dyed a light blue with woad. I’ve decorated it with a replica 9th century Byzantine silk, that I’ve finished on both sides with the plied cord I described earlier.
Together with the fabric W10e there is a mention of fragments of squirrel fur, but these are no longer present among the textile fragments in the museum. It could have been some kind of decoration or lining of the shawl, but since I had a heard time getting squirrel fur I just skipped that.
In one of the oval brooches, the right one on the drawing, there were three fabric loops, according to Geijer, two woollen ones (W10e) attached to the pin of the oval brooch, one at the top and one at the bottom, and between them a linen loop, plus the bronze chain. I interpret the woollen loops as belonging to the hangeroc, but I’m a bit at a loss when it comes to the linen loop. I still made it and attached a silver ring, a replica of one that was also found in the grave, to it. It could be the remains of a suspension used to hang something that has since been lost.
Inside the other oval brooch (the left one), there are two woollen loops (W10e), an additional woollen loop and a linen loop, according to Geijer. My interpretation based on Stolpe’s drawing is that the woollen loop could be for the pair of shears, and the linen loop could belong to the earspoon and the pin that were found on that side. Since there is a mention of silk fragments connected with the silver suspension rings on the earspoon and pin I chose to suspend them from two ribbons, one for each item, made of pattern woven silk, attached to a shared woollen loop. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, I know, but I’ve been inspired by other burials where there were pattern woven silk ribbons, and I need to motivate the extra woollen hoop, and I need to suspend the silver items somehow, so this is the solution I went for.
I’ve chosen to complete my outfit with a pair of woollen hose, reaching to my knee, a thin undyed tabby neck cloth and a pair of leather shoes from Hans Gunnar Pedersen.
This project has taken well over a year to finish. I’ve reinterpreted the material and changed my mind a lot of times along the way, and there are probably still many things about this outfit that could be wrong, but I’ve have learned a lot and had a great deal of fun. I feel that living history is more about learning and growing than getting everything right on the first try, anyway.
I’d like to thank Amica and Historiska museet a lot for allowing me to look at the finds in person.
I’d also like to say a big thanks to Linda Wåhlander who made me curious about this grave by writing about it on her very interesting blog linda.forntida.se. I’ve also bought some beads from her.
And a big thank you to all the skilled handicraft people who’s helped me with the replica fabrics, the earspoon, the pin and the oval brooches. And thanks to Rickard Wingård for translating this text. 🙂
Link to the invaluable database belong to Historiska Museet, with among other things the grave material from Birka: http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/kontext.asp?kid=714
Here’s a link to Historiska Museet’s collection of digital literature, available online:
Inga Hägg, 1974. Kvinnodräkten i Birka.
Agnes Geijer, 1938. Birka III. Die Textilfunden aus Birka.
Holger Arbman, Birka die Gräber.
A text passage translated to English from older German:
GRAVE 507. SKELETON GRAVE, Fig. 94. It is not mentioned whether it is visible in the surface. A pit, oriented NW. + 10 ° W. — SO. + IC 0., length 2.55 m, width in the NW. 1.7 m, in the SO. almost 1.95 m, depth 0.9 m. A few small stones in the rubble. The bottom of the pit has a 7.5 cm deep, rectangular depression in the western part, which probably comes from an older grave. No traces of wooden boards in the pit. Enclosures: 2 oval, bronze bowl clasps (94: 1-2), plate 64: 3, gold-plated, the surface badly damaged, the edge decorated with twisted silver threads, the 4 loose buttons with hat-shaped silver humps in filigree ornamentation from three circles touching each other Three raised points each, one point in each gusset, the two smaller buttons in the rhombic fields have in the middle a depression filled with a brown-yellow mass, of which very little is now preserved, the bronze needles with remnants of cloth ribbons, the clasp lying to the north with the needle tip to the northwest. directed, the one facing S. with the tip facing SO .; 7 \ three-pronged silver fittings (94: 3), plate / • ,,,%, 73: 5, size 4.1, 4.1 and 4.2 cm, thickness 0.3 cm, mounted as a clasp, what on the back is clearly recognizable, the front with, a filigree ornament made of flat, hammered, edged, with, \ 2, each other by small transverse 0’10. G \ ‘, tapes fastened threads, in between, \, short silver pens, around the edge \, a twisted thread; Fragment of a / 3- 113: 2, the chain in a very worn, streaked silver ring, diam. _ “1.8-2.1 cm, ending; close to the ring an iron knife (94: 5), now badly damaged, the wooden stem fragments with remains of twisted silver threads wrapped in two 0.2 cm wide strips around the stem; Pearl ribbon (94: 6), Plate ix6: I, made of 26 pearls, 14 of which are made of rock crystal, 14 octagonal, namely ro with faceted ends, length 2.1-3.1 cm, a double conical, length 2.1 cm and 3 a – / fold, length 1.9-2.1 cm, made of carnelian 10 octagonal, length 1.5-3.1, and 2 flat, rhombic with bevelled edges, length 2.3 and 2.7 cm; probably a hook made of striated silver wire from the pearl ribbon, plate 112: 4, length 2.5 cm; Iron scissors (94: 7), type like plate 175: 1, very damaged; Silver needle (94: 8), plate 173: 1, length 6.7 cm, the round, not massive head with 12 holes, in between rhombi in niello, the eyelet worn, the ring made of silver wire pulled through two of the holes, with remnants a silk ribbon; Silver earrings (94: 9), plate 173: 1, length 6.8 cm, width 1.4 cm, the eyelet worn, a rough, streaked silver ring in a hole below the animal’s head, the stem flat with a gold-plated base , on one side a female figure with a drinking horn in her hand, her dress, a sleeveless coat, shaped like a wing, on the other side a lion – like animal in full leap, plastic animal heads en face above and below, both the figures and the edges of the stem with niello inlays; Bucket (94: 10) made of bronze-milled, turned birch wood, plate 203-204, height 18.3 cm, mouth diameter. 17.8-19.5 cm, bottom diameter. 12.6 cm, the wooden surface divided into three strips by two groups of furrows, the muzzle part thickened a little, Fig. 204: 1 c, the bottom fitted in a groove, 2 wide, horizontal bronze bands with rich decoration, 8.4 resp .8.65 cm wide, groove-shaped fitting at the mouth, band-shaped ornament on the bottom edge, 2 narrow, unadorned, vertical bands below the handle holder, the handle made of trough-shaped bronze sheet with wooden insert, in the place of the three- ’14 / j ‘, 1 Bronze chain (94: 4), length approx. 12 cm, the links S-shaped like table. Square handle holder on the inside two triangular, unadorned bronze plates. The decoration of the bucket in the Irish style, see Plate 204: 2, description by T. J. Arne, Ett kärl i irisk stil, Fornvännen 1924, p. 142 ff.
Many thanks to Björn Falkevik for the photos
and a huge thank you to Rickard Wingård for the english translation of my text