Persian silk worn by Vikings, researcher finds

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 When the Oseberg Ship was discovered in Norway in 1904, more than one hundred silk fragments were found among its artefacts. New research has shown that these silks were probably purchased from Persia through a trade network.

Vikings-Persian-Silks - photo courtesy University of Oslo

It had been believed that silks came to the Vikings as part of looted goods from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland. However, a four-year research project by Marianne Vedeler from the University of Oslo has revealed that the silk trade extended into medieval Scandinavia.

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 Oseberg ship, which was part of an elaborate burial mound, has silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries, tablet-woven silk and wool bands. 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.




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,” she says.

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: University of Oslo

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: University of Oslo

The reason why these Oseberg silks came from Persia relates to how they were designed. They were woven using a technique called samitum, a method used in Central Asia. Many of the pieces also have images and patterns that are linked to religious motifs from Persia. One pattern, for example, depicts a shahrokh, a bird connected with Persian mythology and popular with various art forms in Persia, including silks.

However, not all the pieces were likely bought by traders and imported to Scandinavia. One piece of silk bares a Christian cross, and it was likely taken from a religious site in Ireland.

Vedeler also suspects that at least one item may have been made further east, possibly as far as China. More details about how the Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire will be revealed in her book Silk for the Vikings, which will be published in early 2014.

Source: University of Oslo

Sharan Newman