Marianne Vedeler is Associate professor in Archaeology at Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. Her research and publications focus on clothing, style and costume accessories from the Middle Ages. Her latest title for Oxbow Books, Silk for the Vikings, is a study of the production, trade and consumption of silk during the Viking Age. Here she talks about the use of precious metal in the textiles in Viking graves, and the techniques used to incorporate them into the fabrics.
“When working on the book Silk for the Vikings, my eyes were opened to the exclusive use of precious metals in some of the silk textiles found in Viking graves. Nearly half of all the Viking Age silk sites in Scandinavia revealed silk in combination with gold or silver thread. The metal thread can be found in tablet woven bands, but it also occurs in embroidered textiles. But what kind of techniques has been used in the textiles I have been focusing on? – And is it really pure gold and silver? By using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) we will hopefully get some answers.
Beforehand, we knew that generally two types of metal-wrapped silk thread have been in use. One method is to use thin sheets of gold or silver cut into narrow strips called lamellae and wind them around a core of silk. The metal is hammered out to an extremely thin sheet, before “spinning” it onto a silk thread by the use of a distaff.
Another method is to use gilt membrane strips for which gold sheets are beaten onto an animal membrane, cut it into lamellae and then, like in the first method, wound around a core of silk.
Braids made with metal-wrapped silk thread like this are known from many European archaeological sites dated as early as the 7th century. In Scandinavia, metal-wrapped silk thread has been found at ten Viking Age archaeological sites. The sites are spread across the research area for Silk for the Vikings, in modern Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as in Finland. Both silver and gold are represented among the finds; in four cases both have been used in the same product. But what methods were actually used in these Viking Age textiles? Not many of them have been tested by modern methods. Together with Hartmut Kutzke at the University of Oslo, I have started new investigations into the precious silk-and gold textiles from the Gokstad Viking ship`s grave.
The most prestigious grave, containing the best preserved Viking ship ever found, was constructed around 900 AD. A huge man who died in his 40’s was laid to rest there. A beautiful and very special piece of embroidery with metal wrapped thread was found in this grave, together with remnants of tablet weave. The techniques used in the embroidery are known from other early medieval grave finds in Scandinavia, but the form is rather unique. The high quality materials used underlines the impression of a high status grave at the Norse society’s very top level.
We have just finished the first scanning of the gold wire used in the textiles from Gokstad. It shows that the metal plate used is made of approximately 80% gold. Our next step is to find out if an animal membrane has been attached to the gold plate, or if the Gokstad wire consists of pure hammered gold.
Ongoing investigations will hopefully reveal more secrets hidden in the textiles from Gokstad, in clothing, braids, embroidery as well as in the remnants of the ship`s tent found in this magnificent grave.”
Silk for the Vikings is now available from Oxbow Books and to pre-order from Casemate Academic.
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