Shoe fragments from Birka

Translated and edited by Tomáš Vlasatý

Dear readers,

we bring you an exclusive translation of the work written by Russian reenactors that describes the leather finds from Birka and proposes the reconstruction of the shoe. The original article can be found here. The find is very valuable, since the shoes from Viking Age Sweden are almost absent and the reenators usually use the shoe patterns from Ladoga, Haithabu or York.

In 2013, an underwater archaeological survey was conducted around Björkö Island. A group of researchers from the Maritime History Museum (Sjöhistoriska museet), Stockholm, found a number of organic objects at the bottom of Lake Mälaren, including wooden parts of the ships, jewelry, tools and unidentifiable artifacts. Subsequent cleansing of some leather fragments revealed seams that allowed archaeologists to interpret objects as remains of shoes. In December 2017, these fragments were published in press (Olson 2017). We would like to introduce to you some of the conclusions.

Conclusions of the publication

A total of six heavily damaged fragments were found under water. Some of them show signs of cuts or stitches. For example, finds Nos 171, 172 and 183 represent edges that are cut but do not contain any seams. These finds are possibly production waste. Find No. 101 consists of two pieces found together. Both have seams but are not attached to each other in any way.

shoe_boot_birka_1Fig. 1: Find No. 161. Unidentifiable leather finds; condition before preservation. Source: Olson 2017: 280; 238.

After the field work was completed, find No. 161, consisting of two adjacent parts (Fig. 1), was first examined. Find No. 172 was found at the same site and could be related to the previous find, although this cannot be said with certainty. Find No. 161 can be safely associated with only the two parts mentioned, each consisting of several more or less damaged fragments. These show signs of cuts and stitches simultaneously. It is not clear how these parts were put together, but from the presence of the characteristic decorative stitches, the curved edge and the strap we can assume that they are parts of a shoe.

Fig. 2: 1st part of the find No. 161 after cleaning.

Source: Olson 2017: 280; 239.

shoe_boot_birka_3Fig. 3: 1st part of the find No. 161 after cleaning: söm = seam, invik = curved edge. Source: Olson 2017: 281. 242.

The material of the first part of find No. 161 was seriously damaged in the past, which is why there are holes on its surface (Fig. 2). As can be seen in the diagram above (Fig. 3), this section consists of fragments A, B, C and D. Fragments B and D are probably part of one whole, while this cannot be said with certainty about the remaining two fragments. Fragment B has both preserved curved edges and traces of stitches and leash. Fragment A, which is better preserved, shows signs of cut, but no stitch marks, and can therefore be classified as manufacturing waste.

Fig. 4: 2st part of the find No. 161 after cleaning.
Source: Olson 2017: 280; 240.

Fig. 5: 2nd part of the find No. 161 after cleaning: söm = seam, invik = curved edge, trä = wood. Source: Olson 2017: 281; 243.

The second part is better preserved than the previous part (Figs. 4, 5). It consists of a rectangular fragment with seams and curved edges. There is a small piece of wood inserted in the skin, probably a wooden peg (Fig. 5). The two stitches located in the middle of this fragment were decorative and functional, reinforcing the vulnerable thumb area of the shoe. From the Viking and Middle Ages, we know the upper parts of shoes that are decorated in this way. The part of the leather strap that was preserved could serve to better fix the shoe to the foot. The publication does not contain more information.

Our conclusions

Of course, these are only fragments that have limited informative value, but are still valuable pieces that will help in the reconstruction of the material culture of central Sweden. The first part seems to correspond to a shoe with a side seam and a stitched, round heel (Groenman-van Waateringe sole type 3.2; see Fig. 8). It is not possible to determine the type of binding, but it is likely that the holes for the strap were placed relatively low. The second part appears to be a part of a shoe with a side seam and sole completely sewn around (Groenman-van Waateringe sole type 3.1 or 3.2; see Fig. 8). The upper part was decorated and reinforced with a seam, the type of which can not be determined. There was a W-shaped tongue on the instep, a feature found on several early medieval shoes (eg Wedelspang, Elisenhof, Haithabu), as well as a curved edge (eg Wedelspang, Deventer or Dorestad). Since it is not clear whether both parts belonged to the same product, these elements can be used alone or together. In any case, we have a choice between the two known types of shoes. Separate use of the first and second parts makes it easier to find analogies in the corpus of European period clothing, while with the combination of both elements and minimal addition of missing parts, a shoe of the following appearance can be obtained (Fig. 6, 7).

Fig. 6: Reconstructed appearance that combined the fragments.
See PDF version made by Anton Bodrov.

Fig. 7: Reconstructed appearance. Drawn reconstruction based on the analogous find from Deventer. Source: Goubitz 2007: 137: 4.

podesveFig. 8: Sole types 3.1 and 3.2.
Source: Groenman-van Waateringe 1984: 32: Abb. 16: 4-5.

Here we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Olsson, Andreas (2017). Maritima Birka : Arkeologisk rapport över marinarkeologiska undersökningar av kulturlager och pålanläggning i vattenområdet utanför Svarta jorden på Björkö 2004–2014, Arkeologisk rapport 2017:13 Stockholm. Online.

Groenman-van Waateringe, Willy (1984). Die Lederfunde von Haithabu, Neumünster.

Goubitz 2007 = Goubitz, Olaf (2007). Stepping through time : archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800, Zwolle.

Inspiration #3, A Woman From Birka

The third episode of inspromat is reserved for rich female costume from Birka. This time we will look at the costume of Russian reenactor and my friend, Lida Gubareva.

Lida sets her costume in the first half of the 10th century in Birka. Most of the equipment consists of replicas of items from grave Bj 965, which contains a coin, so the grave can be dated after the year 913. Despite that, Lida does not consider her costume ideal for the reconstruction of clothing from Birka, because the equipment incorporates also replicas of objects that were found elsewhere. Lida also told me that she is making a new caftan and overdress, and apologized for not knowing all the numbers of the graves, because she reconstructs three periods at the same time.

On the photographs, we can see three different underdresses that have a shape of a simple tunic. The first one (blue) is made of 100% wool woven in diamond twill. It is dyed with indigo and has hems of silk twill, whose warp is dyed with buckthorn and weft with indigo. Silk panel at the neck is decorated with two tablet woven stripes made of silver and silk, which are inspired by tablet woven strip from grave Bj 965. Second underlying dress (yellow) is made of polychrome silk and is hemmed with blue silk. The hems have tablet woven stripes as well. Third underlying dress (green) is made od simple linen and hemmed with silk which is dyed with madder and soda.

Overdress (apron, hangerock) have trapezoidal shape and are made of 100% woolen twill, dyed with indigo. Over these clothes, Lida wears crimson-red caftan, which is made of 100% wool, woven in 2/2 twill, dyed with madder. The weft is slightly darker than the warp. The caftan is hemmed with Sasanian silk with motifs of medallions depicting lions and phoenixes. Her second caftan, the yellow one, is linen and lined with silk. It has a hem of polychrome silk and beaver pelt.

Oval brooches are replicas of the find from several graves in Birka, including Bj 965. All other bucklesnecklaces and pendantsear spoon or needle-case are replicas of finds from Birka. Two exceptions are the Friesian comb with a case and crosses that are inspired by the find from Rügen. The costume is complemented by scarf with a knot, which is an interpretation of “knot” that can be seen on Valkyrie figures from Scandinavia.

I would like to thank Lidia Gubareva for granting me permission to use her photographs and for detailed description of her costume.

I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.

Inspiration #2, A Man From Birka

In the second episode of inspiromat we will stay in Birka, but this time we focus on male costume. For this reason I asked my Russian friend Konstantin Shiryaev who willingly provided me his photos with description.

The costume is based on finds from Birka, particularly grave Bj 644, but he also uses finds from surrounding regions. This is a costume of rich warrior in the mid-10th century. Konstantin says that his costume will never be done, and he intends to continue improving it.

On the head, we can see a circular four-piece woolen cap (type B) dyed with oak bark. Silk on the hem is dyed with natural indigo. Konstantin also wears linen shirt dyed with natural indigo. The shirt is fringed with patterned silk. The shirt is girded with a replica of belt from Garrison in Birka. On his belt a knife hangs in a leather sheath and a replica of the bag from Eperjeske 3. A similar find of bag was found in grave Bj 644. The lid of the bag is decorated with gilded silver plate. On his legs, we can see wide linen trousers (påsbyxor), with shape based on finds from Haithabu, woolen leg wraps and leather boots of type 8 from Haithabu.

On his head, we can see a conical felt cap (type A) with silk sewn onto it. Hat is decorated with silver terminal and a beaver pelt hem. Then, we can notice a red woolen tunic, based on the finds from Bernuthsfeld and Guddal. The tunic is decorated with patterned silk and silver embroidery and is girded with replica of belt from grave Bj 1074. Over the tunic. he wears rectangular blue woolen cloak which is lined and has a hem made of beaver pelt. The pin used to clasp the cloak is a replica from grave Bj 644. This somewhat unusual way of wearing the cloak is based on the positions of pins in Birka, Finland and Russia. Konstantin is holding a replica of battle axe from grave Bj 644. Over the previously described linen trousers, he wears red woolen leggings pinned with replicas of bronze hooks from grave Bj 905.

Costume in this figure is the same as in Figure 1. The only difference is the woolen caftan, which is decorated with a patterned silk and 12 bronze buttons. Konstantin says that the silk part of his caftan is the only fabric on his costume, which is machine-dyed, and therefore intends to sew a new one. At the waist, we can notice replica of seax from grave Bj 644 (Konstantin adds that this is the old version of the seax and now works on a new one).

Battle version of the costume. On his head there is a helmet, which is inspired by a fragment of Tjele helmet. At the waist, we can notice the sword type H in a wooden sheath. Type H swords are the dominant swords in Birka. On the back, there is a wooden shield, its front is covered in leather. Hands are protected by gloves, which are made of leather and felt (left mitten is only made of wool).

Another picture of battle costume, this time with a single-piece helmet. In accordance with Ibn Fadlan’s report, he has an axe, sword and seax. We can notice that his shoes are lower and his leg wraps are fixed with decorative garters.

I would like to thank Konstantin Shiryaev for granting me permission to use his photographs and for detailed description of his costumeHere we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.