From a Scandinavian perspective, the Viking Age (ca. 800 to 1050) was a time of increased contact with other countries.
People from Scandinavia plundered and traded in foreign countries. They brought home jewels, clothing, silver, gold, coins and other costly objects.
In August this year, the archaeologist Hanne Lovise Aannestad defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Oslo regarding the ways in which these expensive, imported objects were used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. In her thesis, she has surveyed over 350 imported objects that were used as clothing accessories in Eastern Norway in the Viking Age. These objects include buckles, necklaces, coins, belts and pearls from the British Isles, from the European Continent and from along the eastern trade routes to Asia via the Baltic Sea.
Parts of holy reliquaries
“Throughout the whole Viking Age, people were eager to display these exotic objects. The ninth century in particular was a time when large quantities of imported objects were refashioned into jewellery for women. Coins were turned into necklaces in big strings of pearls. Fittings from harnesses for horses and parts of holy reliquaries and books were used as buckles for clothing and thereby assumed new functions and attained a different significance in Scandinavia,” says Aannestad.
The objects show signs of both wear and reworking. These traces show that certain groups of objects were remodelled by local craftsmen, whereas others were reworked by professional metalworkers who had long experience with this kind of work. The different traces indicate social disparities, but the way in which the jewels are used indicates a common understanding throughout all of Scandinavia of the importance of the imported objects.
Imported objects used as personal adornment
Aannestad interprets the importance of the imported objects in light of cultural and ideological conditions in Norse society. When so many objects have been refashioned into clothing accessories, it indicates that it was very important to be seen wearing these objects. Norse literature describes travels to remote places. In many cases, the journey amounted to a kind of coming-of-age ritual, a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. The political circumstances in the Viking Age were unstable and power was in the hands of individuals. The prestige that was accorded to those who had been on journeys to foreign lands was significant in social and political proceedings. The fact that the imported objects were used as personal adornment attests that they signalled the individual’s or the clan’s status and prestige.
Scandinavia and foreign countries culturally and ideologically closer
The practice of refashioning exotic objects into jewellery for women disappeared in the latter part of the Viking Age. This development suggests that Scandinavians had gained a greater understanding of how the objects were originally used. Archaeological complexes with many imported objects tell us that the Scandinavians were steadily developing more stable relations with foreign countries. The way that the use of imported objects developed shows that Scandinavia and foreign countries were coming culturally and ideologically closer during the Viking Age.
The Thesis and the foreign jewels
The thesis, “Transformations. Reworking and use of imported objects in the Viking Age”, gives insight into the ways in which Scandinavian society was changed by its encounters with the new. The Viking journeys were motivated by more than just political conflicts and the need for wealth and land. The foreign jewels were symbols of travel, prestige and adventure.
Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo