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Woodworking in the Viking Age


Scandinavia has always been a perfect location for craftsmen working in wood. "The soft woods of northern Scandinavia and the hard woods of Denmark and south Sweden provided an inexhaustible source of raw material for the carpenter's craft" (Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 178).

Woodworking would have been a common skill at least at the level of being able to execute simple repairs, as even modern homeowners know today. Some more skilled craftsmen, as with the Mästermyr artisan, would have been more of a general "handyman" and perhaps were itinerant craftsmen at times. Specialists in various wood arts did exist, however, for the Old Norse literature records specialized boat-builders as well as expert homebuilders and carpenters.

The woodworker's art spans a variety of related disciplines. In the Viking Age, wood was used for homes, for ships, for barns and other buildings, as well as for farming implements and household objects, and many other uses. Some woodwork was very plain, others enormously complex with decoration carved and painted on.

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The character and nature of any type of handicraft is profoundly affected by the tools the craftsman has available. To start our examination of Viking Age woodworking, let us look first at the tools of the Viking wood crafter.


Evidence for the tools of the Viking Age woodcrafter come from a variety of sources. Perhaps the best source of evidence comes from archaeological finds of the actual tools themselves. An excellent example of this type of find comes from Gotland, Sweden, where an entire tool chest was found at Mästermyr, containing both blacksmith's tools and tools for woodwork. The Mästermyr find is very important, as it is the only example of a comprehensive collection of tools found in a single context for Viking Age Scandinavia. It is not uncommon to find a tool or two in an individual grave. Occasionally, but much less often, home or farm sites will yield an individual tool.

The second type of evidence for Viking Age woodworking comes from examination of surviving wooden items, especially close attention to tool marks, ornamentation, construction details. The items themselves are not the only good source, however, since waste and scraps produced by the crafter in making a wooden item often give extremely valuable insights into woodworking technique and the tools in use.

The third type of evidence comes from artistic representations showing woodworking tools in use in early northern Europe. The most notable of these is perhaps the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows ship builders at their work, utilizing a range of tools that are identical to the ones found in Viking Age Scandinavia, particularly the tool assemblage from Mästermyr.

Types of Tools - A Look at the Mästermyr Woodcrafting Tools

In 1936, on an island off the coast of Sweden, a farmer plowing a recently drained swampland was stopped by something buried in the ground. He found his plowshare entangled in an old chain. As he dug deeper he found the chain wrapped around a chest that contained many old tools. Subsequent investigation by Sweden's archaeologists revealed that it was a tool chest from the Viking Age and, though a millenium old, these tools would not have been out of place in any modern smith's forge or carpenter's workshop.

Mästermyr Tools Shown with Modern Wood Hafts


(22.0 cm long. Cutting edge 6.7 cm wide. Butt 2.0 × 4.5 cm) (15.0 × 4.6 × 2.9 cm; butt 3.0 × 2.3 cm)

Scenes of Timber-Felling
from the Bayeux Tapestry

Logs Were Radially Split into Planks

Axes of the type found at Mästermyr differ in many details from axes designed to be used as weapons. These axes were used for felling trees, as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry (right, above) and also at times as wedges used to split logs radially, producing planks.


(15.5 × 5.9 × 1.4 cm) (19.8 × 17.0 × 1.7cm)

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry Showing
Wood Shaping with Axes

Adzes are uncommon in Viking Age finds, but certainly would have been a common tool. The T-shaped adze (top left, above) with its curved blade was used to smooth planks that had been created by splitting logs with a wedge. This type of smoothing remained in use in northern Europe until the introduction of pit saws made it possible to cut smooth planks. Adzes were also used in coopering, being used to smooth the insides of casks.


(61.4 × 4.8 × 0.4 cm;
handle 12.5 × 3.4 cm

(34.5 × 2.0 × 0.4 cm)

(24.0 × 3.6 cm.
Frame 0.25 cm thick. Blade 0.15 cm thick.

Two woodsaws, plus a hacksaw thought to have been used for cutting metal or bone, were among the items in the Mästermyr find. The hacksaw is shown here because this same shape is used in some types of wood saw today, and it gives an idea of the range of saw types available. The wood saws pictured above resemble serrated knives, though larger than a typical knife. On the left is a fine-toothed saw, while the saw blade on the right I a very coarse saw, with the teeth set alternately left and right.


(Auger bits range from 44.2 cm to 16.6 cm in length and would drill holes between 3 to 5 cm in diameter) Drill bit and spoon bit found at York. Simple Auger Handle

Modern Breast Auger Scene from Bayeux Tapestry
Showing Breast Auger in Use.
Augers, what we would recognize as a spoon bit drilling tool, came in a variety of forms in the Viking Age. Some had a loop at the end through which a wooden handle could be inserted. The Mästermyr augers are thought to have been breast augers, in which the spoon bit is attached to a rotating shaft with a cross handle for turning the tool, but at the far end the whole tool spins in a curved cross piece. The craftsman using a breast auger would lean his chest against the curved brace to apply downwards pressure against the bit while turning the tool using the lower crosspiece. An example of this tool in use can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, where ship-builders are boring rivet holes to clench down the strake planks on the sides of the ship.

Draw Knife and Moulding Iron

Draw Knife (6.7 × 7.8 cm) Suggested handle reconstruction.
Modern Draw Knife Example of molding (modern).

A draw knife is used for smoothing wood in a manner similar to using a modern wood plane, but the amount of wood being removed can be altered by varying the angle of the blade as it is drawn up the wood. The woodworker pulls the knife towards him, shaving wood with fine control. The Viking Age draw knife could also be used as a gouge to remove wood from the inside of a trough or bowl, for instance.

Moulding Iron from Lund, Sweden,
Found with Original Wood Handles.

Moulding Iron (8.1 × 9.2 × 0.3 cm)

Moulding irons are very similar to a draw knife, but instead of shaving a thin, flat piece from the wood, the moulding iron is used to cut decorative grooves (think of modern "crown molding"). Viking ships often had decoration produced by use of a moulding iron on the gunwale. The boat found at Årby, Upland, had very complex moulding, and complex mouldings also appear on furniture and buildings.

Gouges and Chisels

(26.0 × 4.7 0.9 cm) Modern Woodcarving Chisel (16.4 × 0.9 0.6 cm) Modern Bent Gouge

Gouges and chisels were used to cut rabbets, for example, the joints between the sides and bottom of a chest. They were also used to make mortices into which a tenon would fit, usually by drilling two holes with the auger and enlarging these to the rectangular shape using a gouge and/or chisel.

Files and Rasps

A selection of files Two rasps

While the Mästermyr files and rasps have been interpreted as being used for filing metal, certainly similar tools have been and continue to be used in shaping wood up through the present day. There is one round file and three flat ones, plus two rasps in the Mästermyr tool assemblage. All have single-graded cuts which were probably produced by use of a chisel and then hardened using powdered antler or horn, a practice described by Theophilus.

Other Types of Tools

There are a few types of tools for which we do not have surviving examples in the archaeological record. However, workshop debris and literary references provide additional clues.

Pole Lathe

Diagram of a Pole Lathe

We know that the Viking Age woodcrafter had access to a medieval type of "power tool" which is known today as a pole lathe. A pole lathe is a simple wood turning lathe which is itself made of wood. The tool is powered by the springiness of the "pole" or green limb, and the action of a person's foot on the treadle. "The lathe is used to rotate a material, allowing the use of a tool to shape the material. The motive power is a foot, with a return spring (the pole) to counter rotate the work. The piece of material is placed between two metal points, with one end of the lathe being adjustable. The cord is wrapped around the work in such a way as to make the work rotate towards the user when the treadle is pressed down. The tool, a chisel, is rested on the tool rest, with the point near the work. As the treadle is pressed down, the cutting edge is pushed against the work. As the treadle is released, and the pole rises, the work rotates in the opposite direction, and the chisel is pulled back away from the work. A rhythm is built up, with a cut on the down, and a pull on the up. By moving the chisel around, the material is shaped" (David Freeman, "Pole Lathe: What a Turn Around.").

The evidence for Viking Age pole lathes is in their products: turned bowls and vessels, and the "turning cores" left when producing these items. A number of turned wood finds have been found in Anglo-Scandinavian contexts in the York excavations, ranging from wide-mouthed bowls to closed cups, most in various unidentified soft woods, others in field maple (Acer campestre) or oak (Arthur MacGregor, Anglo-Scandinavian Finds from Lloyd's Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites, pp. 145-147, 155).

Lathe-Turned Bowl and Discarded Turning Cores from York.


Wood planes, used for shaving and smoothing wood, are well known from European contexts contemporary with the Viking Age. Scholars deduce that the plane was in use by the Viking Age peoples as well, since the Old Norse word for this tool, lokarr, appears as a loan-word from Old English and was used in a 10th century Icelandic poem (Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 178; Cleasby & Vigfússon, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, p. 397 s.v. lokarr). A plane is essentially a chisel held in a wooden block, and may be used for several functions, including smoothing flat surfaces and squaring edges.

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Viking Age craftsmen made use of a wide variety of woods in their work. "These included not only evergreen species, such as fir, yew, spruce, and pine, but also deciduous hardwoods such as ash, oak, alder, birch, and beech. The consistent use of specific woods for particular applications, as in shipbuilding or chests, shows that skillful Viking Age woodcrafters would choose wood appropriate to the project, just as modern woodworkers do" (Ross Johnson, "A Brief Introduction to Woodworking in the Viking Age").

Looking at just a few furniture finds from Dublin, this range of wood types can be plainly seen (James T. Lang, Viking Age Decorated Wood):

  • Alder - DW12, an elaborately carved animal head chair terminal
  • Beechwood - the boarded beechwood chair from the Oseberg find -one of the legs from a 10th century stool found at Winchester
  • Maple - 8945, a squared maple baulk that was originally part of the back or side of a chair, bench or rack
  • Oak - 8946, 8947 and 8948, "D" shaped seats for 3-legged stools - 8949, 8950, and 9176, privy seats, made of thick radially-split oak planks - Exeter privy seat, ca. 950AD - 8684, 8689 offcuts from privy seat construction
  • Sweet Chestnut - another one of the legs from a 10th century stool found at Winchester
  • Willow - DW11, an unidentified furniture piece carved as an openwork knot -DW39, a plank bench-end

Looking at wooden remains from York (Carole A. Morris, Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York):

  • Alder - spouts and spigots for casks or buckets (p. 2258-2260); wooden stoppers or bungs (p. 2265); troughs (p. 2273-2274); wooden pins (p. 2309)
  • Aspen - rakes (p. 2319)
  • Ash - wooden stoppers or bungs (p. 2265); knife handles (p. 2283); rakes (p. 2319)
  • Birch - knife handles (p. 2283)
  • Boxwood - knife handles (p. 2283)
  • Elder - spouts and spigots for casks or buckets (p. 2258-2260)
  • Fruitwood (Prunus sp., probably cherry or blackthorn) - spoons (p. 2268)
  • Fruitwood (Pomoidae family, incl. apple, pear, hawthorne, etc.) - knife handles (p. 2283)
  • Hazel - wooden stoppers or bungs (p. 2265); spoons (p. 2268); wooden pins (p. 2309)
  • Maple - spouts and spigots for casks or buckets (p. 2258-2260); spoons (p. 2268)
  • Oak - buckets (p. 2226); pot lids (p. 2262); spoons (p. 2268); spatulas (p. 2269-2270); shovels, spades, manure fork, mattocks (p. 2313-2319); rakes (p. 2319)
  • Poplar - troughs (p. 2273-2274); rakes (p. 2319)
  • Scots Pine - wooden pins (p. 2309)
  • Spindlewood (Euonymus europaeus) - knife handles (p. 2283)
  • Willow - buckets (p. 2226)
  • Yew - buckets (p. 2226); spoons (p. 2268); spatulas (p. 2269-2270); wooden pins (p. 2309)

"To a large extent, woodworkers used the woods that were available locally. Schöttmuller notes the following hierarchy of furniture woods during the Italian Renaissance: Chestnut, Elm, and Poplar for simple furniture; Spruce, Pine, Cypress, Yew, and Ash for mid-level pieces; and Walnut for the high end. Kolchin's work on medieval Novgorod, on the other hand, finds large quantities of native Pine and Spruce, although there is a significant amount of imported wood. Altogether, the woodworkers of Novgorod made use of 27 kinds of wood of which 19 were obtained locally and eight imported" (Gary R. Halstead, "Woods in Use in the Middle Ages & Renaissance").

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Glue, like surface finishes, does not survive well in archaeological contexts, though it was certainly very well known throughout Europe during the Viking Age. Still there is some evidence suggesting glue manufacture, for example small rolls of birch bark found in the York digs is thought by archaeologists to have had "some connection with the manufacture of glue" (Arthur MacGregor, Anglo-Scandinavian Finds from Lloyd's Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites, pp. 145-147, 155). Even so, glue is labor intensive to make, as can be seen by the methods described by Theophilus:

Cheese Glue The individual pieces for altar and door panels... should be stuck together with cheese glue, which is made in this way. Cut soft cheese into small pieces and wash it with hot water in a mortar with a pestle, repeatedly pouring water over it until it comes out clear. Thin the cheese by hand and put it into cold water until it becomes hard. Then it should be rubbed into very small pieces on a smooth wooden board with another piece of wood, and put back into the mortar and pounded carefully with the pestle, and water mixed with quicklime should be added until it becomes as thick as lees. When panels have been glued together with this glue, they stick together so well when they are dry that they cannot be separated by dampness or by heat.
Glue from Hide and Stag Horns When this has been carefully dried out, take some cuttings of the same hide [horse, ass, or cow-hide], similarly dried, and cut them up into pieces. Then take stag horns and break them into small pieces with a smith's hammer on an anvil. Put these together in a new pot until it is half full and fill it up with water. Cook it on the fire without letting it boil until a third of the water has evaporated. Then test it like this. Wet your fingers in the water and if they stick together when they are cold, the glue is good; if not, go on cooking it until your fingers do stick together. Then pour this glue into a clean vessel, fill the pot again with water, and cook as before. Do this four times.

A good modern version of these early glues is rabbit skin sizing glue, available from many art supply stores. Rabbit skin sizing is used to prepare a fabric canvas for oil painting, but has also been used as a glue in traditional woodworking for centuries.

Without strong adhesives, wood construction for furniture, chests, houses, and other objects and structures had to be secured by the joinery in its design or by fasteners. A number of technologically complex wood joinery methods were in use during the Viking Age, evidenced by their presence in surviving artifacts, as described by Ross Johnson:

Tongue and Groove Joints: In which a small groove is cut in one side of one of the parts being joined, and a small tenon (called the tongue) is inserted into it. This technique was used in the Mastermyr chest to join the [bottom] of the chest to the ends. Another use of this technique appears in a carved box from a Viking site in Ireland, in which the lid slides in a groove cut in the body of the box.

Carved Wooden Box With Sliding Lid, Dublin

Mortise and Tenon Joints: where a square or rectangular pin is placed into a square or rectangular hole. In some cases, such as the Mastermyr chest, or the bedslats of the Oseberg bed, a short section of a horizontal plank might extend through a mortise hole cut in another plank to which it is being joined.

Wedged Tusk Tenon: In this joint the mortise is cut all the way through one panel, and the tenon extends through and out the opposite side. Small openings are cut in the tenon and wedges or wooden pegs are used to lock the joint together. This joint is of particular interest since it is capable of being tightened almost indefinitely in response to wood movement, yet may be easily disassembled. Examples of this joint may be found in the bed frames found in the Oseberg burial (Graham-Campbell, 1994) and in a child's chair from Lund, Sweden. Tent frames such as those found in the Oseberg burial are also of some interest, since they make use of a combination of wedged tusk tenon joints to secure the structural parts in place (Shetelig & Falk 1917).

Compound Joints: A common feature of the trapezoidal Viking Age chests was the use of a notched joint between the angled sides and ends of the chest. Such a joint, in combination with wooden pegs or iron nails, helps the sides and ends support each other. Because the joint is made between two angled pieces, both pieces have to be cut at an angle which is a combination of the two intersecting angles in order to fit tightly.

Dovetail Joints: These joints require careful preparation and considerable skill to make, but are extremely strong. In a dovetail joint, the end of one piece (the dovetail) is cut so that it is wider towards its end than at the point where it intersects its partner. The other piece is cut with chisels and gouges so as to form an exact socket for the dovetail. An example of the use of the dovetail joint is in one of the weaving frames from the Oseberg ship burial (Shetelig & Falk 1917).

Other: Iron nails were used in the construction of the Mastermyr chest; three nails were found still in the chest. Iron nails were also used as both a decorative feature and as part of the structure in another Oseberg chest. Iron rivets were used in ship-building, particularly on larger vessels (Shetelig & Falk 1978). Wooden pegs were also widely used" (Ross Johnson, "A Brief Introduction to Woodworking in the Viking Age.")
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Wood Carving

Viking Age wood carving seems ubiquitous in the "coffee table" type glossy photo books about the Northmen and their possessions. Since wood typically does not survive well in archaeological contexts, it would seem all the more surprising to find many highly decorated examples of the Viking wood carver's art. However, a single find, that of the Oseberg Ship in Norway, conveniently provided us with many highly carved items at the start of the modern era of archaeology, and later excavations in wet locations where wood is most likely to survive, such as York, Dublin, and Novgorod, have also preserved a large number of carved artifacts.

The Viking Age carver's tools, as with the carpentry tools discussed above, were quite similar to those used today, and would have consisted primarily of knives, chisels, gouges, and files or rasps. It should be noted that the V-shaped gouge was absent, not having been developed until after the Viking Age (Else Roesdahl, From Viking to Crusader, p. 206). Mostly wood carving is a simple pattern in relief on two horizontal planes, but some examples can be in extremely complex, high relief, such as the "Baroque Master" carvings from the Oseberg ship. Examples of carving as reliefs, sculpture in the round, incised carving, and openwork are all found among the Viking Age works in wood (Ellen Marie Magerøy and Lennart Karlsson. "Woodcarving," p. 725). Interestingly, chip carving, which most people assume today to be primarily a Scandinavian art, was apparently not practiced during the Viking Age (Roesdahl, p. 206).

A particular point should also be made here about the fact that the Viking Age peoples carved almost every wooden surface if possible, even if only with a shallow, knife-point incised design. Wood was a very important raw material for Scandinavia, and unlike their counterparts on the Continent, Scandinavia did not have the types of visual art on paper or in stone that were found elsewhere until after the introduction of Christianity, so the wood carver was an important and respected craftsman (Ibid.).

In a study of a number of wooden items excavated from Oslo and Trondheim and dating from the late Viking Age (mid 11th-century) to early medieval period (Signe Horn Fuglesang, "Wood Carving from Oslo and Trondheim and Some Reflections on Period Styles"), several useful trends have been discovered:

  • In comparing the archaeological dating of wooden items to the style of ornamentation, ornamented wooden items follow the broad trends present in Viking Age art, utilizing motifs popular in other forms of surface ornamentation such as metalwork and stone carving. Wooden items reflect the major artistic styles popular at the time when they were made, such as Ringerike and Urnes. Styles are not prolonged much beyond the period when a given style was in fashion. There appears to be a close correlation between styles used in metalwork and woodwork, while in contrast bone crafts tend to be very conservatively carved with ring-and-dot motifs throughout the Viking Age and into the Middle Ages.

  • A town that was a trade center (kaupang) such as Trondheim was more likely to have artifacts that reflect the work of a professional wood carver, using relief carving and showing evidence of carver's irons.

  • Amateur graffiti-style decorations scratched or incised with a knife, often found on planks of Viking boats and buildings, rarely include the standard stylistic motifs, but rather appear to be "doodlings" showing scenes of ships, horses, and the hunt. These types of ornament are not found on wooden utensils and objects other than planks.

  • Amateur work is discernable on objects such as spoons, bowls, and other wooden items. These are always knife-incised and not carved with the irons available to a professional, but follow the general ornamental styles of Viking Art, usually less skillfully executed than those done by professionals.

As explained by Ross Johnson:

"Woodcarving, both for utilitarian purposes and as an art form, was developed to a high degree in Scandinavia going back to the stone age. This is perhaps not surprising when whittling was considered among the forms of solitary recreation enjoyed during the Viking Age. The tools required are also fairly simple: a small, sharp knife, a hammer and chisel, and perhaps files or rasps were all the that were required. Objects could be made through the use of carving and further embellished by the same means. Scandinavians of the Viking Age obviously appreciated ornament and decoration, when even 'everyday' objects such as spoons, boxes, and chests were elaborately carved. Some of the most notable examples of such ornamentation were found among the artifacts of the Oseberg burial (c. 950), which has been suggested to have been the work of several master craftsmen working under royal sponsorship. The main characteristics of the decorative art of the Viking Age seem to have been stylized animal (and sometimes vegetable) forms, usually curving or looping and interwoven with each other, suggesting restless and energetic movement" (Ross Johnson, "A Brief Introduction to Woodworking in the Viking Age").

Incised Decoration on Spoons from Sigtuna, Sweden

Woodcarving in the Viking Age was a rich and well-developed decorative art. The earliest Viking Age find containing a rich trove of carved wood items, the Oseberg Ship Burial, did not suddently appear out of nothing as a full-blown art - instead, it is the result of a long tradition over time.

What makes Viking Age woodcarving so distinctive are the various styles of design that appear throughout Viking art. Viking designs do not much resemble art from anywhere else. Many types of Viking design can be termed "knotwork" but these are not very much like the Celtic knotowrk at all. Viking styles of art, in woodcarving and other media, lack the mathematical regularity of Celtic art, being every bit as intricate, but in many ways much more free-form. There are also elements of style in how various components of designs were typically rendered which locate them in place and time.

When you start looking at information on Viking Age artifacts with surviving woodcarving, the reports rarely reveal anything about the actual technique of the woodworker. Instead, they usually classify the type of design into one of six periods of Viking art:

Oseberg (800-875 AD) / Broa (750-825 AD)

The Oseberg Ship's Keel Carvings
Showing the Keel Carvings (below)
and a Closeup (top)

The Oseberg style is named after the Oseberg burial, while the term "Broa" derives from a man's gravesite on the Swedish isle of Gotland containing bridle mounts. The artistic style used on the artifacts in these two burials typify a style that is found all across Scandinavia.

The Broa style is found on some of the Oseberg carved items, and the work of the so-called Oseberg Baroque Master woodcarver derives from a basis in the Broa style, thus these two are often grouped together.

The identifying elements of the Broa style include:

  • Ribbon-shaped animals with bodies that swell and taper, frequently slit with wide openings, and with a marked contraction separating the two ballooning hips. Very elongated limbs and lappets make up open loops intertwined with the bodies. These beasts are sinuous and have small heads, frond like feet and many "tendrils" of tendrils, being so highly stylized as to make them zoologically unidentifiable.

  • Surface patterning and frond-like terminals add to a sense of movement in the design.

  • Occasional use of seminnaturalistic birds and animals copied from Continental European models, probably most often Frankish originals.

  • A stylized animal form first appears in the Broa style, the "gripping beast". This element is always depicted as a substantial, even chunky creature, which holds its own neck and limbs in its paws and jaws. The gripping beast is thought to have been developed from Anglo-Saxon manuscript art, adapted from the squirrel-like animals found on Anglo-Saxon scrolls.

The identifying elements of the Oseberg style include:

  • Much less use of the ribbon-shaped animals from the Broa style.

  • New developments in the forms of the seminaturalistic animal forms and gripping beast design, often with very squat, compact shapes.

  • No big, sweeping open "knotwork" loops.

  • Use of graded relief.

  • Motifs often of an equal size and compositional value, disposed in a carpet-pattern manner.

The Oseberg Wagon Carved Panels

Borre (875-950 AD)

The Borre style takes its name from the ornament on a set of bronze bridle-mounts found at one of the graves at Borre, in Vestfold, Norway. This style of artistic ornament is the earliest Scandinavian style that was exported to the Vikings' colonies abroad, including Iceland, England and Russia, which helps date it, as it must have been present in Scandinavia by 875-900 AD before it could be exported by settlers and colonists.

The identifying elements of the Borre style include:

  • Gripping beasts refined from Broa/Oseberg. The animals in Borre ornament are a mixture of ribbon-shaped animals and gripping beasts. These animals typically have polygonal hips, four legs, a ribbon body that is often knotted in a circular design, and a triangular, mask-like head shown face-on to the viewer, with bulging eyes and big ears. Animal bodies often a grooved or hatched pattern on the body, combined with smooth, polished heads and legs.

  • Knotwork becomes very important in the Borre style, with not only animals showing knotted ribbon-like bodies, but also knotted ribbons by themselves, or in plant motifs (acanthus and vine designs) that are thought to have been copied from imported Frankish trefoil and tongue-shaped mounts ca. 900. Knots are often in a pattern heralds term a "Stafford knot," which most people will recognize as a "pretzel knot."

  • Another knotted motif that is a hallmark of the Borre style is the ring-chain pattern. This is a knotted pattern made up of a double ribbon plait forming a symmetrical interlace. Each intersection is bound by a circle which surrounds a hollow-sided lozenge. This pattern is perhaps best-known from the carved stone crosses on the Isle of Man: it is one of the most common motifs found on the Manx crosses, and often referred to as "Gaut's ring-chain" from the heavy use of this motif on a cross carved by Gaut Björnsson. In many instances a ring-chain design will end in stylized animal masks.

Wooden Handle from Wolin, Poland

Jelling (880-1000 AD)

The Jelling style takes its name from the ornament found on a small silver cup from the royal burial mount at Jelling, in Jutland, Denmark. This style overlaps both the Borre and Mammen ornament styles, and hybrid mixtures are found at the beginning and end of the Jelling timeframe.

The identifying elements of the Jelling style include:

  • Elongated, S-shaped animals, shown in profile, diagonally symmetrical and intertwined, with ribbon-like bodies without hips. Gripping beasts are not normally found (except in hybrid Borre-Jelling pieces). The bodies are frequently decorated with a hatch infill pattern, and are usually larger that the bodies of Borre animals.

  • Some Jelling animals, most commonly on metalwork, have ribbon-shaped bodies with slits in the body, a motif which is thought to be a revival of Broa style ornament.

  • Both types of animals often have open jaws and a folded upper lip, a long "pigtail" on the head, and small spiral hip joints.

  • The Jelling style was introduced by Scandinavians into Britain and was used extensively by Anglo-Scandinavian carvers in Yorkshire.

Jelling Style Dragon Head Terminal from Wolin, Poland

Mammen (950-1060 AD)

The Mammen style is named for the ornament on an inlaid axe blade found in a grave at Mammen in Jutland, Denmark, which has been dated to the winter of 970-971 AD. In many ways, the Mammen style is a natural development of the Jelling style, and the two styles can sometimes be dificult to distinguish one from the other.

The Mammen style borrows many elements from Western Europe and Anglo-Saxon England. From Europe the style adopted semi-naturalistic lion and bird motifs, while from England the style takes additional plant scroll motifs. In Mammen ornament, however, the plant scrolls are not a simple copying of a foreign element of style, but have been translated into a uniquely Scandinavian design element.

The identifying elements of the Mammen style include:

  • This style uses a somewhat more natural style of animals than hitherto seen in Viking Age art.

  • The decoration and embellishment of animal bodies are often more complex than that of Jelling beasts. Dots and lines often fill the bodies. The spiral hip remains, but is larger than that of the Jelling style animal ornament.

  • Often one or two large motifs are used to fill an area.

  • Plant scrolls, tendrils, and curving leaves are one of the most unique hallmarks of the Mammen style. These often feature abrupt twists, asymmetric composition of forms.

Ringerike (980-1075 AD)

Cock's Combs Terminal or Mounts from Dublin

The Ringerike style takes its name from a district in Norway just to the north of Oslo where it was used on carved slabs of stone such as the Alstad stone. The Ringerike style of ornamentation shows clear influence of the Christian church beginning to spread in Scandinavia. Items decorated in this style occur everywhere in SCandinavia, as well as in southern England and in Dublin.

This style borrows from Anglo-Saxon and Ottonian art, primarily in the way plant motifs are handled and overall composition schemes. The animal styles from Mammen ornament continue to appear, elaborated with foliage ornament and interlacing. The Ringerike style differs from the Mammen style in two main ways. First, the short tendrils found in Mammen style artwork now become a foliate pattern of regularly crossing tendrils, and large basal spirals are common.

The identifying elements of the Ringerike style include:

  • Plant motifs alternate lobes and tendrils.

  • Animals become more curvaceous, and lack the infills or hatched decoration. Eyes are almond-shaped instead of round.

Walking Sticks from Dublin (left) and Lund, Sweden (right) Chair or Bench Panels from Iceland, early 11th Century

Urnes (1050-1150 AD)

Urnes Stave Church Carved Panels

The Urnes style of ornament is so named because it is used in the carving on the wooden doors of the Urnes Stave Church on the Sognefjord, Norway. The Urnes style is sometimes termed "rune-stone style" because it is used on over 1,100 runestones in Uppland, Sweden, but this style also occurs in artwork all across Scandinavia. Some Urnes-style items were manufactured in England as well. The biggest impact of Urnes ornament, however, seems to have been adopted in the revitalization of Irish art in the 11th and 12th century.

The identifying elements of the Urnes style include:

  • Animal forms dominate Urnes-style ornamentation, including extremely stylized animals, including ribbon-shaped animals, mammals that are sometimes identifable as lions, and snakes. The Urnes style artwork also contains the first winged dragon known in Scandinavian art, found on runestones in Uppland ca. 1025-1050.

  • Animal heads and feet are very simplified, often appearing as mere elongated terminals. Larger animals often show a gradual swelling and tapering of the body which has been described as "greyhound-like." The spiral hip is still used, but is usually smaller and less pronounced than in earlier styles. Animals in Urnes compositions often appear to be in combat, often biting one another (especially the snakes). As in the Ringerike style, eyes are almond-shaped and are usually quite large.

  • Crosses are frequently found in Urnes artwork, most particularly in Swedish runestones.

  • Designs typically utilize only two contrasting line widths. Figure-eight and multiloop compositions are common, and are utilized to create an open, asymmetrical network.

Urnes Style Decoration from a Painted Church Beam

Urnes-Romanesque (1100 - 1175 AD)

Carved Bench Back from a Church, Sweden

As the Viking Age came to a close, Romanesque influences from Continental Europe began to heavily influence Scandinavian art. While a number of Viking Age motifs and stylistic elements persisted a surprisingly long time, the Romanesque winged dragon, scrolls and leaf-work became dominant in designs.

Sigurðr the Dragon-Slayer, from the Hylestad Church Doors

The Viking Age Wood Carvers

Their Tools and Techniques

Erik Fridstrøm

The best background for an analysis of the tools and techniques of the Viking Age wood-carvers is provided by a study of the Oseberg Find, and of the few secure finds of wood-carver's tools which have come to light in the North.

The mistaken belief that these craftsmen worked exclusively with a knife is common. It arises from the fact that all cutting tools have long been called knives, but the wood-carver calls his tools irons, a term which we shall also employ in the present article.

For some purposes a knife was also used, but this was a less important tool. A Viking Age tool chest found at Mästemyr on Gotland held not only the tools of a smith and a carpenter, but also some joiner's and wood-carver's tools. This chest is most likely to have belonged to an itinerant craftsman, a man possessed of many skills. It is a very interesting find, which shows that a craftsman's tools underwent only inconsiderable changes from the Viking Age until the beginning of the present century (Fig. 1).

The other source illustrating the form of the wood-carver's tools and, as far as possible, their technical application, is provided by specialist studies of carved objects. The relatively coarse ornaments of the Oseberg ship itself provide the best possible basis for such a study.

First the planks were cleft from an oaken trunk, by means of axes and wedges. Then they were "planned" with the aid of adzes and draw-knife (Fig. 1). After this, the planks were shaped to fit the ship.

Click image to enlarge.

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When the piece to be carved had been taken down again, the wood-carver's work could begin. He drew the ornaments straight on to the wood; the "pencil" of his day probably being charcoal. Then he outlined the ornaments with the point of his knife, and marked the parts to be cut away for the bottom.

His method of work was approximately the same as that employed by a modern wood-carver, but with one important difference: the wood-carvers of the Viking Age did not have a parting tool, the V-shaped gouge which is the iron in most common use among modern wood-carvers. When the ornament has been drawn on the wood, its lines are incised with this tool. Today we would also use the parting tool for some of the detail work of the ship's ornaments, such as the inner outlines of the beasts, for instance (Fig. 2).

The parting tool cuts this line in one operation, because of its V-section. But for the Viking Age carvers, this was a more complicated operation, involving two cuts with a straight iron, slanting towards a central straight cut between them. It is obvious that such a technique would require great precision, and that the work would take a long time. A parting tool is shown on Fig. 3, at the centre, while at the centre of Fig. 4 we see a straight iron of the kind used before the advent of the parting tool. When we study the best preserved parts of Viking Age ornaments, we note the sharp, somewhat irregular line resulting from this technique. The parting tool produces a clearer, but less sharp line, as the point of its V-section is slightly rounded.

The rest of the work is largely the same as today's, apart from the use of electric machinery of course. Irons whose width and curvature fitted the outlines of the ornaments were used to outline the ornaments by vertical cuts, and the bottom was produced by means of a recessing iron, with which all the superfluous wood was cut away as smoothly as possible. Such a recessing iron is shown on Fig. 1, where it is incorrectly marked stemjern - chisel. In some places, where the vertical cuts

p. 89

Click image to enlarge.

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outlining the ornaments are too deep, the marks of this tool can easily be seen, and they provide a good indication of the tool's shape and width.

Once the bottom was finished and the ornament stood out in relief, the plastic work on the beasts could begin. The bodies, heads, feet and various attributes of the beasts were woven together to form an interlacing pattern, always passing over one

p. 90

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p. 91

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p. 92

part and under the next, although mistakes are not unknown. During the next operation the bodies of the beasts were slightly rounded, and the inner outline was cut. This formed a frame for the details, which consisted of rhombic cuts of many kinds, brick patterns and hatching. The attributes, heads, legs, necks, tails and spores were also rounded slightly, and furnished with a longitudinal cut running along the middle (Fig. 2).

Fig. 5 shows some of the many variants of rhombic cuts, and at the bottom right we see how these were produced. A thin, sharp iron was employed for cutting two sets of parallel lines crossing each other, and then a corner - the same in every instance - was removed from all the rhombs with a small, sharp hardy. This tool is shown on the left of Fig. 4.

This is a simple process, and with a little experience it is also fairly quick work. The resulting decorative effect is very good.

The quality of the wood-carving from the Oseberg Find varies considerably, from the outstanding to the not quite good. Fig. 6 shows a full-size copy of the neck and head of the "academic" animal head post. This is an example of really brilliant wood-carving. The composition, with its four stylised birds, is a work of art in itself, and the execution, with its beautiful interlacing, sharp and clear outlines and, last but not least, the minute details, is an incredibly beautiful piece of work. The method of work was identical with that described above in connection with the ornaments on the ship. The smallest of the irons employed had a cutting edge measuring less than a millimetre, and they were razor-sharp. The old saying to the effect that good tools are half the job held true also during the Viking Age, even though we must surely give most of the credit to the man who used the tools.

It is difficult to estimate the number of irons a Viking Age wood-carver might have had, but a figure of somewhere between twenty and thirty irons of varying shape and width seems reasonable. Apart from his irons, the. wood-carver also used rasps and files, nor must we forget his kind of "sand-paper", possibly skin from dried sharks' fins. This is an incredibly sharp and very durable material, which is at times still used today.

An important part of a wood-carver's training consists of learning the nature of the various kinds of wood, and the uses to which they may be put. The Viking Age wood-carvers possessed this knowledge as appears, for instance, from the fact that maple was used for the animal head posts with the finest details. Maple is the hardest of all the native Norwegian woods, and these minute, exquisite details could not have been cut in any softer material.

When we take into consideration the conditions under which these wood-carvers' worked - primitive as compared to ours today - we can only express our deep admiration of their technical skill and the artistic level they achieved.

Translated by Elizabeth Seeberg

Birkebæk, F., 1983: Vikingetiden. Danmarks historie. Oldtiden. København.

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The most common "furniture" in the Viking Age would have been the seating provided by wall-benches in homes, formed of wooden supports and an earthen fill, making a raised narrow platform around the edges of the room. Finds of furniture do not really become plentiful until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Certainly other furnishings were known, however. The most common home furnishings found are stools and chests. Chests seem often to have had bolts or padlock that are surprisingly modern-looking. The largest concentrations of furniture finds come from the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials in the ninth and tenth centuries. These burials included chairs, beds, and chests. Since these three types of furniture tend to be the ones most commonly used by reenactors, there are also a number of accessible articles with plans, diagrams and "how to" information for all three types (see Reconstructions, Plans and "How To" Articles below).

Seating - Chairs and Stools

Lund Stool, 11th century, Birch Wood

A Three-Legged Stool from York

The Oseberg Box Chair.
Conservation has Removed all
Traces of the Painted Design.

Chair Back from Lund

Reconstructed Lund Chair

Child's Chair from Lund, Sweden

The three-legged stool appears to have been the most common type of seating, found in both domestic contexts and in workshops. Most seem to have "D"-shaped seats, with one leg at either of the two corners and the third at the midpoint of the curved side. See Stephen Francis Wyley's article, The 'Lund' Viking Stool: A Method of Replication for discussion on the measurements and reconstruction of one of these three-legged stools.

Chairs in the Viking Age are rare, and are usually thought to have belonged to wealthy or high-ranking persons. By the end of the Viking Age, chairs are found in ecclesiastical contexts as well.

An unusual find from the Oseberg burial was a box-chair. Chairs of this type are well known from medieval examples, but thus far this is the only Viking Age chair of this type known. The chair consists of a beech-wood box-shaped base made up of four rectangular boards, which are jointed into corner posts. The back posts, which slant backwards slightly, continue above the seat and frame the chair-back, which is also a wooden plank. The boards that form the base of the chair has the center rectangle carved away producing a surface much like a picture within a frame. The "frame" edges of these boards are carved with three parallel grooves, or perhaps a moulding iron was used to cut the grooves. The central areas were originally covered in polychrome painted designs (see Finishing, below for details). There are holes drilled around the top edges of the boards, indicating that the seat was originally woven of cord or bast plaitwork, which did not survive.

See the article from Sacred Spaces by Marc Rubinstein (Lord Ælfric of Sarisberie), "A Viking Box Chair" for one reconstruction with diagrams.

Another surviving chair consists of the back only, found in Lund, Sweden, and dated between 1000-1050 A.D. The cross-pieces are beech, while the remainder is maple wood. The parts are joined together by mortise and tenons and in the upper cross-pieces the tenons are secured with trenails. Also pictured is a reconstruction, showing a straw seat, though this is conjectural only. Although this design may seem rustic to modern eyes, again, this is a chair and therefore likely belonged to a high-ranking or wealthy owner.

One other type of chair deserves some mention. This is a child's chair, discovered at Lund and dated ca. 1050. Only the back and side were found, but the complete chair has been reconstructed along the lines of other similar chairs from the middle ages. The complete chair would consist of five pieces and was put together using mortice and tenons. This type of chair was designed to restrain a child - probably a highly useful bit of furniture for a parent of a just-walking child in a home in which the hearth was only slightly raised from the floor.


Chests were one of the more common types of home furnishing. Viking Age finds of chests are "common in both male and female graves in the Viking Age, but usually only the metal fittings are preserved" (Roesdahl and Wilson, Viking to Crusader p. 268, catalog #161).

The Mästermyr Chest

The Mästermyr chest, discussed briefly above in connection with the tools it contained, is a good example of the most common type of Viking Age chest. Greta Arwidsson has an excellent description of this chest:

The chest is rectangular with a lid curved in cross section and a flat bottom. The bottom is joined to the ends by mortice and tenon joints. The chest is held together by wooden pegs at the ends and sides. The ends and sides are trapezoid and therefore slope inwards at a slight angle. The ends, which are made of a slightly thicker scantling than the sides and bottom, have a rectangular mortice about 4 cm from the lower edge for the tenons of the bottom plank. The lower portion of each end thus forms a raised base.

The ends, sides, bottom and lid each seem to have been made from a single piece of wood. The underside of the lid is hollowed out, leaving an oval, trough-like depression. On either side of the depression the underside of the lid is flat, where the original thickness of the plank has been preserved; this provides a good fit against the upper edges of the end planks.

The sides are pegged to the ends and the bottom and the bottom is joined by mortice and tenon to the ends; a rectangular tenon at each end of the bottom plank fits into a mortice in the ends.
(Arwidsson, Greta and Gösta Berg. The Mästermyr Find, p. 7)

For a better understanding of the construction of this chest, see the webpage describing Stephen Francis Wyley's reconstruction of the Mästermyr chest. There is also an exploded view of the joinery of this style chest shown above, also from Wyley. Also see the diagram by Darrell Markewitz of the Wareham Forge, Diagram and Plans for the Mästermyr Tool Chest.

The Oseberg burial included at least three chests, of which one was destroyed in antiquity by grave robbers. The first chest is fairly plain in appearance, being constructed of six planks. As with the Mästermyr chest, the front and back are trapezoidal, narrowing towards the top. The base is jointed into a groove in the side planks which also had a notched compound joint for the bottom plank and also in the side edges for the front and back, which were secured by nails. The chest stood on the side planks which extended 6 cm below the base. The lid was attached with two simple iron hinges. The chest was locked with a simple iron hasp reminiscent of those on footlockers today. (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, p. 269, catalog #161) Darrell Markewitz of the Wareham Forge has a diagram of this Oseberg chest, Diagram and Plans for the Oseberg Sea Chest.

The second Oseberg chest constructed much like the other, and both are similar to the Mästermyr chest as well. The second Oseberg chest differs from the first in that it has a curved lid. The chest is decorated with eleven vertical iron bands 6-6.6 cm wide, each with three rows of tinned nail heads. Horizontal bands clasp each corner. This chest was locked using a more complex and ornate fastener, composed of a long horizontal mount on the front, three hasps, and three rods terminating in animal heads. The lid has nine simple hinges. Like the Mästermyr chest, this chest contained tools. (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, p. 270, catalog #164)

Oseberg Tool Chest


Replica of the Oseberg State Bed
with Carved Head Posts

Carved Head-Post from
Gokstad "State" Bed

Surviving Viking Age beds can be divided into two broad categories: free-standing beds, and beds which have one or more sides attached to the wall of the room or structure in which the bed is built.

The sagas seem to be describing built-in beds, alcove beds built into a sort of cupboard with doors that could be shut, although the sagas may be describing medieval practice current with the written saga rather than being an accurate reflection of Viking Age practice. Some archaeological excavations in Iceland have shown that "one part of a room near a wall might be raised and traces of partitions seem to indicate bedsteads" (Hoffman, "Beds and Bedclothes in Medieval Norway," pp. 355-356). Beds attached to the walls appear to be typical of well-to-do farmers in Scandinavia between the 14th and 16th centuries, but after the Viking Age there is little or no trace of free-standing beds in this period.

However, the Vikings were travellers, explorers and colonizers, so it is not surprising to see that free-standing beds that could be moved or even broken down into sections for shipment are found in Viking Age ship burials such as Oseberg and Gokstad. Free-standing beds can be further subdivided into "state beds" with ornate, carved and painted head-posts, and "simple beds" which may have some ornament but are a basic "four-post" design.

Of course, the "state beds" are the ones most commonly pictured in coffee table books, since they are usually the most elaborately ornamented. Several authors have commented on the fact that the carved head-posts and the headboard between them on the Oseberg state bed slant, and have speculated that this was to enable the bed to be set closer to the sloping side of a ship. Hoffman, however, notes that the surviving Scandinavian beds in general, with the exception of one oversized bed from the Gokstad ship, all are "remarkably short" and connects this with the general medieval European practice of sleeping in an almost half-sitting position, with the upper body supported by bolsters and "a great many pillows piled up at the head of the bed" ("Beds and Bedclothes in Medieval Norway," p. 358).

The Oseberg burial included three "state" beds in the Oseberg burial, of which two exist in fragmentary condition, while a third, found in the prow, is the one most often reconstructed or pictured. These beds' frames consisted of two decorated head-planks, two broad side-planks, two foot posts, and six base-planks (slats). A head-board was dovetailed through the head planks and secured by wedges (wedged tusk tenons). The side boards were secured with trenails (wooden pegs) to the headboard and dovetailed and wedges (more wedged tusk tenons) through the foot posts. The six bottom planks were morticed into the side planks. The head-planks are decorated with openwork animal heads which have incised inner contours. The head-planks were painted, partly to accentiate the carved ornament, partly with simple geometrical figures. Three simpler "four-post" type beds were also included in the find. (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, pp. 140, 270, catalog #162)

The Gokstad burial also contained evidence of a "state" bed in the form of two carved oak planks which served as the head-posts of a bed similar in construction to those from Oseberg. The tops are formed as forward-bending animal heads with pointed snouts, gaping jaws and large, erect ears. One of these posts is double-sided, the other is decorated only on one side. The decoration consists of simple incising. As with the Oseberg burial, there were also a number of simpler beds found in the Gokstad burial (Roesdahl and Wilson, From Viking to Crusader, p. 272, catalog #167).

For discussions of reproductions, measurements, diagrams and plans for both Viking Age "state" beds and "four post" beds, see the articles (cited in full in the Bibliography below) by Darrell Markewitz (Diagram and Plans for a Simple Bed from Oseberg), Charles Oakley (A 10th Century Norwegian Bed), Marc Rubinstein ("A Viking Bed"), and Gary Walker ("Norse Beds" and "Reproduction Norse Beds").

"Four Post" Type Bed
from Gokstad

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It should be noted, when considering finishes for wood in the Viking Age, that most wood doesn't survive in the first place, and when it does, often any finish, varnish, or paint has disappeared into the vast halls of time, leaving little or no trace. When wood does survive in an archaeological context, the various chemical processes that go into preserving and stabilizing the item very often obliterate any surface finish or paint traces. Items which remain in use through time, such as the medieval stave churches, which may give some insight into Viking Age wooden items, still are not necessarily going to have much to tell us on the subject of finishes. Periodically, wooden items are usually refinished over time, either due to wear or changes in fashion and so forth.


As a wood finish, only "drying oils," which eventually dry to a hard and protective finish, are normally used. Examples include linseed oil and walnut oil. For the Viking Age, it's likely that linseed oil would have been in use since it is a normal by-product of flax cultivation, which the Viking Age peoples were already growing in order to produce linen. In early northern Europe, the linseed oil was not the "boiled" variety we can purchase today, and didn't have the types of metallic salts added to speed drying that were later used with this substance.

Theophilus (11th century) suggests using linseed oil with cinnabar to produce a red oil finish on wood:

How To Redden Doors; and Linseed Oil
If you want to redden doors, get linseed oil which you should make in this way. Take some flax seed and dry it in a pan over the fire without water. Then put it in a mortar and pound it with a pestle until it becomes a very fine powder. Put it back in the pan, pour in a little water, and heat it strongly. Afterwards wrap it in a new cloth and put it on the press where oil is usually pressed from olives, nuts and poppy seeds, and press out this oil also in the same way. Grind some minium (red lead, Pb3O4) or cinnabar with this oil on a stone without water, spread it with a brush on the doors or panels that you want to redden and dry them in the sun. Then coat them a second time and dry them again. Finally spread on top if it the gluten called varnish...

As a note, when working with linseed oil, be extremely careful with any containers or rags coated with the oil. Linseed oil rags can and do spontaneously combust. The best means of disposal is to burn them in a controlled fashion. Otherwise, either wash them with soap immediately, or make sure they're somewhere where they will do no harm if a fire does begin. Many a workshop has been burnt to the ground by careless use or disposal of linseed oil.


"Varnishes are produced by combining a resin with a solvent such as oil or alcohol. Various natural resins are documented in period such as amber, Venice Turpentine (hardened larch resin), copal, and sandarac. All of these are crystallized or fossilized plant saps. Varnish provides better protection than oil since the addition of resin permits a harder finish. ..." (Gary Halstead, "Interior Wood Finishing in Medieval and Renaissance Europe"). Of course, not all of these were available during the Viking Age, as some were not developed until the late Middle Ages or Renaissance.

The earliest known varnish recipe is from Theophilus:

The Gluten [Called] Varnish
Put some linseed oil into a small new pot and add some very finely ground resin, which is called fornis, and which looks like very clear frankincense except that when it is broken up it has a higher luster. After putting it on the fire, cook it carefully, without letting it boil, until a third of it has evaporated. Beware of flame, because the varnish is extremely dangerous and, if it should catch fire, difficult to extinguish. Every painting that is coated with this gluten is made bright, beautiful, and completely lasting.

Another method.
Set up four stones which can withstand fire without spalling, and place a raw pot upon them. In the pot put some of the afore-mentioned resin, fornis, which is called glassa in Roman. Over the mouth of this pot place a smaller one with a little hole in the bottom. Smear some paste around it so that no air can escape between the two pots. Then build a fire carefully beneath it until the resin melts. You should also have a thin iron rod fitted into a handle, with which you can stir the resin and feel when it becomes completely liquid. You should also have a third pot on the fire close by, with hot linseed oil in it. When the resin is thoroughly liquid so that, when you take out the iron rod, a sort of thread is trailed behind it, pour the hot oil into it, stir with the rod, and cook them together without letting them boil. Occasionally take out the rod and smear a little on a piece of wood or stone to test its consistency. Take care that there are two parts of oil and a third part of resin by weight. When you have cooked it carefully to your satisfaction, take it off the fire, uncover it, and let it cool.


The Nature and Extent of Viking Paint on Wood

Paint seems to be the best-documented wood finish in the archaeological record, since other finishes may not survive, as discussed above. As a result, I'm able to present much more information on paint than the other types of finishes, but this may not be reflective of how common each actually was in the period.

"Very little is known of the actual extent of Viking Age painting. Black, red, yellow, and brown comprise the majority of colors employed in extant Viking painted artifacts. Most known Viking painting was executed on carved woodwork; the Gokstad ship tiller and the Oseberg sledges are some standout examples of carved painted woodwork. Usually the objects were painted a light color (white, yellowish white or plain yellow) and highlights were picked out in black, brown, and/or red. (Yes, even Vikings knew that the heraldic color system works!) Rows of dots or billets, sometimes paired with parallel lines, are found on some extant pieces" (Mistress Þóra Sharptooth, "Personal Display for Viking Age Personae: A Primer for Use in the SCA").

As Mistress Þóra pointed out above, the Oseberg ship find contains examples of painted objects, and in fact a fairly wide sampling of painted surfaces. The discussion of painted items in the reports of the Oseberg find is very useful from the viewpoint of people dealing with producing A&S documentation, so I reproduce it here entire:

As supplementary to the descriptions of wood-carving and metal-work, a brief account is given of the few remains of decorative painting occuring in the Oseberg collection. As previously mentioned, colours were often employed to emphasize the carving, e.g. on the frame of Schetelig's sledge (fig 83) black contour lines and rows of black dots, on Gustafson's sledge, brown and red in connection with carved, geometrical surface designs. (fig 168). In later works from Oseberg the centre ornamental part is blackened to increase the effect, and in the objects from Gokstad both two and three colors are employed on the carvings. Colour is constantly used in connection with carved decoration.

Reproduction of the Carved Tiller of
the Gokstad Ship Showing Paint Details

Independent, painted decorations occur on the bed-boards, ends of the tent supports, and the 'chair'. There is always a smooth surface covered with a light uniform background, and on this is a painted figure in darker colours. Unfortunately, the paintings were in a bad state of preservation when found, the colour was soft and washed out, and there were only small portions in which the drawing of the decoration could be discerned. Neither was it possible to preserve the painting. It could not be treated in a wet state, and inevitably had to be sacrificed when it was necessary to preserve the wood. All efforts were thus concentrated upon securing illustrations at the excavation and afterwards. Chemical analyses were also made of the colours. The yellow-white ground colour on the bed-boards was found to contain iron ochre and a little zinc white. The black lines were of lamp-black or soot. No information is available regarding the medium used for the paint. Specimens of the bedboards are depicted in figs. 245 and 246. The ground is yellowish white, the drawings of either black or brown-black lines and in some cases the surface inside the figures is painted a deeper yellow. Along the neck of the animal there are painted locks over the surface in indication of a mane, and in addition there is a row of small triangles along the contour. On the surface, in the midst of the animal's head, there is painted a free ornament, a richly designed cross, fig 245, and animal motif fig. 246. The cross has undoubtedly a prophylactic purpose, like the drawings on the heads of the Kent supports (Vol.I, p.328).

Only three of the heads on the Kent supports bore traces of painting, but of these two were exactly alike. The two different designs are depicted in figs. 247- 248. It has already been mentioned in Vol. I, that one of them bears the figure of three united triangles, the other a combination of three magic signs, a cross, a man's head, and a serpent. In addition, we find rude designs of rectangles, a number of pointed tongues projecting inwards from the edge, a border of false meander, etc. They are all painted in brownish strokes on a light ground. As in the case of the bed-boards immediately preceding, the object of the painting is first and foremost to fill in the work of the wood-carver. Only one object in the Oseberg collection has decorative painting independent of the wood-carving. This is the 'chair' a remarkable object which is described in Vol.I p. 67, and depicted ibid, fig 54 [see photograph above]. It is shaped like a box with whole sides, all of which are painted with ornaments in several colours on a light ground. Along the edges there are geometrical borders, and the entire compartment is filled with close and complicated ornament. All the painting was badly preserved. In order to give and idea of its character, one side is depicted in fig.249, from a sketch made during the excavation. In spite of the defective state it is possible to distinguish all the animal ornament, with the remarkable smooth heads and long serpent-like bodies, composed with entrelac, the drawing executed with manifold contour lines, series of dots and vigorous oblique stripes. The motifs and design differed considerably from those of the ornament of the wood-carving, and there is thus reason to believe that on the whole the painting belonged to a different artistic circle, in the same way that textile art had its own style and form. This, the only work which we possess, thus gives us a glimpse of decorative painting as a special form of art in Vestfold. The existence of painted decorations is proved, but nothing beyond that." (Brøgger, Falk, and Schetelig, Osebergfundet: Utgit av den Norske Stat, pp 233-238)

Items from the Royal Graves at Jelling, Denmark,
Showing Red and Yellow Painted Details

Another interesting source for Viking Age paint on wood comes from shields. The Gokstad ship, for example, had 64 shields, with some painted entirely in yellow, with the others painted in black (Nicolay Nicolaysen, The Viking Ship Discovered at Gokstad in Norway). Other interesting examples of painted wooden shields come from Ballateare and Cronk Moar, on the Isle of Man. The Ballateare shield has a leather facing that was painted, instead of the paint being applied to the wood, and it seems to have been painted with black and red patterns on a white background, using a gesso (organic matrix, such as egg yolk) paint was used, while the Cronk Moar shield has traces of white paint (Bersu and Wilson 1966. Peter Beatson, The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology). Another example is from a 10th century chamber grave at Grimstrup, Denmark, where a circular wooden board that covered the corpse from head to hip, considered to be a "shield blank" or unfinished shield, "was elaborately painted with interlace patterns, though the overall design is no longer discernible. The background colour is dark blue, the interlace is grey-green edged with white lines. Some lines of red paint and white dots are also visible" (Peter Beatson, The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology).

Painted Shield Fragment
from Ballateare, Isle of Man
Painted Board from 10th Century
Chamber Grave at Grimstrup, Denmark

Formulation of Paint

Paint consists of a pigment, such as ochre, mixed with a binder, such as linseed oil or egg yolk. Most of the period "paint recipes" that survive are intended for artists' paint, not furniture, walls, or everyday objects.

For one example of surviving paint on wood, consider the Gokstad ship, which had 64 shields, with some painted entirely in yellow, possibly using a paint based on orpiment, As2O3, and the others painted in black, possibly with a paint based on charcoal as its pigment agent (Peter Beatson, The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology).

"Red pigments in ancient paints seem to derive from mineral sources ochre (Fe2O3, as on the Jelling figurine: Marxen and Molkte 1981); or cinnabar (HgS, as on the Illerup shield of c.200AD: Forhistoriskmuseet, Moesgard Denmark: pers. obs. 1994). Also on the Jelling figurine were a dark blue paint made by mixing powdered white chalk with burnt organic matter (charcoal?), and a yellow of orpiment (As2O3) in an oil base" (Peter Beatson, The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology)

Theophilus describes creating paints from a variety of pigments: red from burnt ocher, cinnabar, minium (red lead, Pb3O4), carmine (cochineal), and folium (a vegetable juice); yellow from orpiment or saffron, green from various copper salts, especially copper acetates and copper chlorides, as well as various chlorophyll greens from vegetables; blue from copper carbonate (Cu3-(CO3)2OH2), indigo, and various plant substances; black from lampblack or ground charcoal; and white from lead carbonate, ground bone ash, calcium carbonate, lime, gypsum or chalk.


Gary Halstead, in his "Interior Wood Finishing in Medieval and Renaissance Europe" web article, suggests that, while wax (beeswax) makes a fine polish over another finish, that it is by itself " too soft to provide much protection." There is also the point to consider that bees did not live everywhere in the Viking world, and were mainly found in England and Sweden. Certainly wax could be obtained in trade, but shipping a product adds to its expense, which would probably lead craftsmen to look for other alternatives which could be obtained locally and more cheaply, and which had better properties as a finish.

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