The article by Yngve Vogt below appeared on the Appolon Research Magazine on Nov.1, 2013. For more information consult:
- Press TV: Persian Silk textiles discovered in Viking Age Burials
- Past Horizons-Adventures in Archaeology: Persian Silk in Viking Burials
The Vikings did not only go West to pillage and plunder. Most of the silk found in the Oseberg ship may have been purchased by honest means from Persia.
The Norwegian Vikings were more oriented towards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo in Norway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of the Viking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the Norwegian Vikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hitherto assumed.
Persian Patterns: Silk textiles from the Persian region were found in the Oseberg ship. Among the motifs, we can see parts of special birds associated with Persian mythology, combined with clover-leaf axes, a Zoroastrian symbol taken from the Zodiac. The textiles have been cut into thin strips and used for adornment on clothing. Similar strips have also been found in other Viking Age burial sites (Photo Source: Past Horizons & KHM- UiO).
The Norwegian Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from a variety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Her details are presented in the book “Silk for the Vikings”, to be published by Oxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of her key findings.
In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.
At the time when the Oseberg silk was discovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. It was generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland.
Lots of Viking silk
Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from the Viking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. The last finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordland county. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad in Vestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfold county.
The highest number of burial sites containing silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Uppland region, a few miles west of Stockholm.
– Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containing silk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has been found in a single burial site as in Oseberg, says Marianne Vedeler to the research magazine Apollon.
The Oseberg longship which transported Persian silk, at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo (Picture source: Heritage Trust).
In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and wool bands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin strips and used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while the tablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.
Marianne Vedeler has collected information on silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscripts on silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantium and Persia.
– When seeing it all in its totality, it’s more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles.
Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age, silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and around Constantinople, or Miklagard which was the Vikings’ name for present-day Istanbul. The other large core area was Persia.
The silk may have been brought northwards along different routes.
– One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.
The Dnepr was the main route to Constantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river trade routes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes the laborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:
– A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they were attacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids and cataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat.
On the basis of the silk that has been found, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia than from Constantinople.
– Large amounts of the Oseberg silk have patterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique called samitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs can be linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.