Viking Period Drinking Bowl

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My colleague Karl-Magnus Melin specialises in ancient and modern woodworking and has a major paper in Fornvännen’s summer issue about well fittings made from hollowed-out tree trunks. He’s kindly sent me some post-conservation pics of a Viking Period wooden drinking bowl. It’s lathe-turned unless I’m very much mistaken. The bowl was found sitting in a back-filled well last autumn, during excavations directed by Anne Carlie for the National Heritage Board at Lindängelund near Malmö.

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Waterlogged wood is a bit like precious metal in that little really happens to it as the centuries pass. With such finds, we get to see how good ancient craftspeople really were in a way that is often difficult to appreciate when you’re looking at corroded metal objects.

One thing about the Viking Period. In Anglophone historiography, almost everybody calls this time span the “Viking Age”. I can’t bring myself to do this, as it mixes taxonomical levels. In Sweden, the Neolithic is about 2300 years, the Bronze Age 1200 years, and the Iron Age 1600 years. The Viking Period is only 300 years long and forms the final Period of the Iron Age. Thus it cannot be an Age unto itself. That would be like calling dandelions a phylum.

And while I’m at it: well-educated Minnesotans recently told me that they found it enlightening when I said that being a Viking is a job, not an ethnic denomination. Most Scandinavians who lived during the Viking Period were not Vikings. It’s just that the Englishmen and French who wrote about them at the time never met any non-Viking Scandinavians, poor fellows.

Update 18 May: Anne Carlie and Anna Lagergren explain that the bowl was found sitting on the bottom of a well whose overlying back-fill contained complete flax plants. When making linen fibre, flax must be retted, “the process of rotting away the inner stalk, leaving the outer fibers intact”, as Wikipedia explains, under water. This suggests that the well was used for flax retting during a period before it was back-filled. A sample of the flax has given a radiocarbon date of 986±32 BP, that is, 990-1160 cal AD (95% likelihood).

This means that the bowl is almost certainly older than AD 1160. And since wells like these did not survive for long, it unlikely to be older than AD 900. Thus, from the radiocarbon alone we can’t rule out that the bowl may actually post-date the Viking Period by a few decades.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Blowney
    May 12, 2011

    Neato! I always had the feeling they drank out of bowls.

    As for the “Viking Age,” like “Viking,” it’s a term of convenience, and nothing more. About 100 or so years ago Norwegian Archaeology called the period “The Younger Iron Age.” The English, who like to dominate things like this, won’t let go. The closest alternative I would use, being a historian is, “The Scandinavian Expansion.” If pressed I would call it, “The Early Medieval Scandinavian Expansion,” but I don’t expect much agreement with this idea.

  2. #2 Alex
    May 12, 2011

    Okay, come on guys. EVERYBODY knows that Vikings only drank out of human skulls. That’s just basic information.

  3. #3 Markk
    May 12, 2011

    It is surprising how much this “bowl” looks like the outsized coffee cups that have proliferated these days. Seems about that size too. Did they drink hot drinks out of these by chance or beer, wine, water and such?

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 12, 2011

    Steve, actually in 1911 all Scandy archaeologists already saw the Viking Period as the last bit of the Late Iron Age.

    Alex, yes, and it was easy to hold on to the skull cups as all Vikings had horns on their heads. Because the horned helmets were of course not real.

  5. #5 Martin R
    May 12, 2011

    Mark, I don’t think anybody really knows about hot drinks during the Viking Period. Though Frans G. Bengtsson has them extemporising poetry about mulled ale in The Long Ships.

  6. #6 Steven Blowney
    May 12, 2011

    Well, actually, Martin, having looked through “Bergens Museums Aarbog” (and its various spellings) & “Stavanger Museums Skrifter” from about 1890 to 1925, I can tell you that the term “Viking Age” wasn’t used until about 1905 in the Aarbog–when Shetelig became the archaeologist there– and in the Skrifter until about 1910–when Brogger became the archaeologist there. Until then, both periodicals used the term “Younger Iron Age.” I don’t know about the rest of Scandinavia.

  7. #7 Martin R
    May 12, 2011

    Yngre jernaldern, “the younger/later Iron Age”, was subdivided by Montelius into three periods in 1869. When contributors to the Norwegian journals you mention write yngre jernaldern in the early 1900s, they are in all likelihood not referring only to the final three centuries of the period, but to the entire 700-year span.

  8. #8 Deborah
    May 12, 2011

    It’s a simple but shapely bowl. And taxonomics matter. Good post. Martin, did you have to field any questions about “Viking rune-stones” in the Midwest? (shudder)

  9. #9 Janne
    May 12, 2011

    The shape and size is strikingly similar to wooden (and, today, plastic) miso soup bowls used in Japan. I guess this shape is a local optimum for this kind of utensil.

  10. #10 Martin R
    May 13, 2011

    Deb, several people I met mentioned the Kensington 19th century rune stone, but nobody thought it was very old.

    Janne, finally we know what impelled our Scandinavian ancestors to leave these shores. They were seeking, in vain, for miso!

    Though the bowl’s dark colour is due to age and water logging.

  11. #11 Birger Johansson
    May 13, 2011

    Miso soup bowls the optimal viking drinking vessel.

    Soo …If the regional climate had been a bit warmer (due to *regional* warming, not global- this is an important part, since the relative warmth at Greenland in the days of Leif Eriksson did not extend to the South) Ottar could have sailed East past Bjarmaland all the way to the Bering Strait, and Japan.
    After filling his ship with Japanese miso soup bowls he could have gotten stinking rich on his return!
    (never mind that “silk and spices” crap)

  12. #12 stripey_cat
    May 13, 2011

    Markk – you think that’s an outsize cup? It’s barely more than half the size of the one next to me!

    It also reminds me in form of the bowls you’ll sometimes get tisanes served in in France. (Not sure if that’s widespread, or just the French people I know, but nice earthenware bowls in any case.)

  13. #13 sng
    May 13, 2011

    So they didn’t all just drink out of the hollowed out skulls of Irishmen?

    You learn something new every day. :)

    Oh and that’s a *great* looking bowl. Wow.

  14. #14 Chris
    May 14, 2011

    Most Scandinavians who lived during the Viking Period were not Vikings.

    That does make sense. There had to be families that grew the crops, fished, handled the livestock and even cured the food (hello lutefisk! which I kind of like). Many of those had obligations that could not afford long absences (even if they claimed it could be done only by women).

    Then there were the craftspeople who designed and created that bowl, the ships and the wool sails (I visited the museum in Roskilde, Denmark). Plus the metal smithies who forged the swords, shields, the non-horned helmets, chain mail and intricate jewelry.

    I make myself feel better about my severe myopia that I inherited from my half-Norwegian mother by fantasizing that my ability to see teeny tiny things was also possessed by those who created the tiny details in Nordic jewelry. For those who are not familiar with the ins and out of myopia, without correction everything gets fuzzy about two decimeters from my face, but my eyes can see very small things without a magnifying glass. I am often called upon to read fine print.

  15. #15 scidog
    May 14, 2011

    i would assume the bowl is that size because that’s what they had to work with,tree wise.what sort of wood is it?

  16. A couple of things I would be interested in:
    - any chance of an image of the bottom outside surface?
    - What is the type of wood used?
    - Although we might estimate the size and thickness from the hand holding, what are the actual dimensions?
    (For those interested, follow the provided link to Lindängelund to see a view of the bottom surface.)

    Use of the term ‘Viking” was discussed a lot at the (get this) Viking Millennium Conference in Canada (2000). The general trend seemed to be that it was a recognized ‘evil’ – required to promote museum projects to the general public. I personally try to use ‘Norse’ as referring to the material culture of the Scandinavians during that time period. (And I know full well the problem of using ‘Norse’ – Norway versus the rest of Scandinavia – ask an Icelander about that!)
    Another ‘problem’ is that the generally accepted defining events for the ‘Viking Age’ are purely English in location. Generally the sacking of Lindesfarne in 793 and the Norman Invasion in 1066 are these event points. (Typically shortened to 800 – 1000 AD.)
    A curious side note to this is that on my visit to many museums and living history sites in Denmark in 2008, most cut ‘Iron Age’ as ending at 10000, with ‘Medieval’ starting at that date forward.
    Of course the truth is that the culture of the Norse did not suddenly spring full blown out of nothing – or suddenly morph into Christian feudalism overnight.

    We all seem to slice the historic cake in different ways!

  17. #17 Jonathan Jarrett
    May 16, 2011

    And while I’m at it: well-educated Minnesotans recently told me that they found it enlightening when I said that being a Viking is a job, not an ethnic denomination. Most Scandinavians who lived during the Viking Period were not Vikings.

    I have been happily telling people this for years and then last year found out that Peter Sawyer now favours a derivation from Viken, the land around the Oslofjord. Not many people seem to have picked this up from him but it still gave me pause. I haven’t the Old Norse to tell how plausible this is. Maybe I should blog it as a question!

  18. #18 Martin R
    May 16, 2011

    That is actually the accepted standard etymology of the word. But few Vikings were from the Viken area, just like few hamburgers are made in Hamburg. Most Vikings were probably Danes.

  19. #19 Stan Curtis
    May 16, 2011

    As a modern day bowl turner I agree that this was likely lathe turned, and by a very skilled craftsman. The shape is fully functional and esthetically pleasing. The lathe was undoubtedly much slower than mine, and not so precise on alignment, eccentricity, etc. The lack of tool marks indicates that final finishing was probably by abrasives. I would guess that the wood is birch, turned green, and then dried over a slow fire before final finishing. Has it been dated by any means yet?

    As a probable descendant from a Viking raid to the UK I heartedly endorse the fact that being a Viking was just one of the jobs available to Scandinavians of that period.

  20. #20 Monado, FCD
    May 25, 2011

    Didn’t some men farm during the summer and “go a-viking” in the winter? That was my impression.

    Nice bowl! It certainly looks lathe-turned, with horizontal and ciruclar markings. I, too, am curious about the wood or accompanying spoons.

    It looks like a good size for both drinks and stew.