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Immortal Maidens: The Visual Significance of the Colour White in Girls’ Graves on Viking-Age Gotland

Immortal Maidens: The Visual Significance of the Colour White in Girls’ Graves on Viking-Age Gotland

By Susanne Thedéen

Stockholm Studies in Archaeology, Vol. 53 (2010)

Grave find, Krokstäde, Tofta, Gotland, Sweden. Photo from the Swedish History Museum / Flickr

Grave find, Krokstäde, Tofta, Gotland, Sweden. Photo from the Swedish History Museum / Flickr

Introduction: In some Viking-Age (AD 800-1050) burials on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea, a large number of white shell-beads have been recovered together with glass-beads predominantly coloured yellow, green, red, blue and turquoise as well as beads of exotic materials such as carnelian and rock crystal. The beads were part of bead-sets from necklaces worn by females. Previous research assumed that the shell-beads were made of local limestone, but analyses have revealed that the beads were actually crafted from the exotic cowry shell (cypraea pantherina), originating in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

The shell-beads draw attention to a discussion of the significance of the colour of the beads. The shell-beads are white and also have a texture that makes them different from the other beads. Furthermore, in a previous study by the author it has been shown that burials with the largest quantities of white beads or shell-beads belong to females between the ages of five and around fifteen Shell-beads sometimes occur in the burials of infant girls or adult women, but they amount to only a few examples in total. The purpose of this paper is to explore the significance of the colour white of cowry shell-beads in burials from the Viking Age on Gotland, considering aspects of gendered age identities as well as fertility and status.

The study of senses within archaeology has been a field of research since the 1990s. Various senses have been discussed since then and the usage, symbolism and visual aspects of colour in prehistory have inspired several studies. An appreciation for and attitudes towards colour have changed over the years, but the fact that it has been a matter of importance since antiquity is documented in written sources. A colour study of great influence stating a neo-evolutionary approach was argued by Brent Berlin and Paul Key. They emphasized universal meanings of colours determined by aspects of neurophysiology. Their opinions have been questioned by linguists and anthropologists, but also above all from an archaeological point of view because their basic colour terms, the Munsell Colour Chart, do not consider the specific contexts or historical aspects of colour. The chart has also been criticized for overlooking colour symbolism and social meanings of colours. Furthermore, it has been argued that colour must be understood as relational, culturally constructed and may be related to wider aspects of cosmology, social categorization and gender relations. Colour can act as an important means of constructing difference through dress, adornments and bodily paints or substances. Colours may also be significant for signalling certain age groups or may be important in life course rituals marking altered identities

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