Rethinking the wallet from Gokstad

The wallet from the rich grave of Gokstad, Norway (early 10th century), is one of the most frequently reconstructed objects of the Early Middle Ages and is sold by many dozens of manufacturers around the world. However, its proposed reconstruction repeatedly attracts the attention of reenactors due to its ambiguity. In this article, we will take a closer look at the wallet and we will propose a new interpretation that has not yet been implemented.


Current interpretation of the wallet

The current interpretation, which is used by reenactors and which is presented in the academic literature, was proposed by Birgit Heyerdahl-Larsen in her article Gokstadhøvdingens pung (The Gokstad chiefstain´s pouch) in 1981. In the article, the author literally states:

[…] some ready-cut pieces of leather or hide which Nicolaysen believed to be the remains of a pouch, were found in the burial chamber along with the chieftain´s personal effects. Unfortunately the pieces no longer exist. Probably the leather dried up and disintergrated when no longer protected by the blue clay of the mound. A hundred years ago modern methods of preservation were of course unknown. Nevertheless I venture to make the «pouch» the theme of an article basing my assumptions on drawings of three of the leather pieces in the publication «The Viking Ship Discovered at Gokstad near Sandefjord» and a description in the main catalogue of the Museum of Antiquities which reads as follows

‚Two oval pieces of double thin hide, 13.5 × 8.5 cm, cut straight at one edge. The pieces correspond and have been sewn together at the edges. One piece has fine openwork patterning and was lined with a coloured material which must have offered a pleasing contrast to the hide at the aperture. There was preasumbly yet another patterned piece. There were also straps and an oblong piece, worn thin at both ends, decorated with three rows of closely-punched holes down the centre. The seams along the edges had left holes in all the pieces.’ “ (Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 104)

The text indicates that the author never saw the wallet and its interpretation based on a drawing published Nicolaysen (1882: Pl. IX.3-5) and a description that can be found today in the central catalog Unimus (Unimus 2020). The basis of her interpretation is Nicolaysen’s drawing of an oval object, to which she attaches a perforated leather belt in various ways. The basis of the two versions attached below is a two-part wallet sewn on the edges – both halves are decorated with a openwork and are lined with a textile inside and equipped with two pockets. According to the author, this base has a size of 13.5 × 8.5 cm. The version on the left places a perforated leather strip at the mouth of the pouch, while the version on the right places this strip all around the edge of the pouch. In both cases, the wallet is complemented by a handle, perhaps loosely inspired by a narrowed leather belt, which Nicolays assigned to the find (1882: Pl. IX.5).

Interpretations proposed by Birgit Heyerdahl-Larsen.
Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 37.

This interpretation is adopted by reenactors around the world, who use the wallet as almost the only surviving specimen of its kind found in Viking Age Norway. Sometimes both pieces are created to match the shape and material of the proposed reconstruction, other times the versions deviate more or less. The most noticeable differences between the individual trials are the dimensions, the contrast material and the material of the mouth reinforcement, which sometimes is wood or antler.

Version of the wallet made according to the current interpretation.
Maker: Dominik Schörkl (left), Královo řemeslo (right).

Version of the wallet made according to the current interpretation.
Maker: Bjorn This Way (left), norther73 (right).


Discrepancies

However, on closer inspection, the current interpretation is burdened by several inconsistencies that concern three areas – shape, size and construction.

Shape

In order to be equipped with a reinforcing cuff at the mouth, Heyerdahl-Larsen suggests a shape that could be called a kidney-shaped. This is in contrast to Nicolaysen’s original drawing, which shows a more rounded shape and the absence of a cuff. If we take into account the degradation of the object at the time of discovery, which could simply have caused the distortion of the drawing, it can be assumed that the object was symmetrical and had the shape of an oval or an hourglass.

It is definitely worth mentioning that the openwork also looks somewhat differently and more fragile in Nicolaysen’s drawing.

Original Nicolaysen’s drawing. Nicolaysen 1882: Pl. IX.3.

Size

The most common question of reenactors regarding the Gokstad wallet concerns dimensions. Here we cannot forgive the criticism of Heyerdahl-Larsen, who did not personally examine the wallet and considered it destroyed. If she made an effort to find a wallet, she would find not only that it existed, but also that its size deviated somewhat from the provided information. Let us remind that Heyerdahl-Larsen states the size of 13.5 × 8.5 cm.

To this day, about half of the front part of the wallet with one cut spiral has been preserved in a recognizable condition. Its photograph is digitized and stored in the central catalog Unimus under catalog number C10460 (Unimus 2020). From the attached scale, the accuracy of which was confirmed in a personal discussion by the author of the photograph Vegard Vike, it is clear that the size of 13.5 × 8.5 cm applies only to this one half of the object. Theoretically, the whole wallet would take on a size of about 17 × 13.5 cm, which in combination with a reinforcing cuff and loop is not very likely.

Nicolaysen gives a certain indication of how large the original object could have been in his original drawing, which has a 1:2 scale. We have checked other small objects from the book that are preserved to this day, with the result that the objects are drawn correctly or with only minimal deviations. Therefore, if we trust the scale, the front part of the bag measured approximately 15 × 11 cm according to the drawing. Unfortunately, it is not possible to verify the dimensions in the text part of Nicolaysen’s work, which does not contain this detail due to its very fast publication.

We believe that the difference between 17 × 13.5 cm and 15 × 11 cm is due to the fact that the photograph distorts the current state. The object is stretched and the area of ​​decoration is significantly stretched, which makes the object relatively long and wide. If it were possible to reduce the spacing between the openwork decoration to a minimum, as is the case with Nicolaysen’s drawing, we believe that it would affect the size. For this reason, the size of 17 × 13.5 cm cannot be taken too decisively and it is possible to lean towards a smaller size, approximately 15 × 11 cm. Although this dimension does not appear to be dramatically different from the original proposed size, it is a dimension that precludes some means of use. In this context, it is necessary to recall the remark of the conservator Vegard Vike that the whole object most likely underwent significant drying after the discovery, and thus shrinkage. The estimated size of the drawn state must therefore be taken with some reserve and can be considered as minimal. Another fact that must necessarily be considered is the turning of the finished product, which is certainly the case of the wallet from Gokstad.

Current state of the wallet. Unimus 2020.

Construction

We finally see the discrepancies in the description of how the individual parts of the wallet are constructed. Nicolaysen’s original text contains the following simple sentence, which only indicates that the leather was lined with colored fabric (Nicolaysen 1882: 47m):

m. divers fragments of leather with fine puctures […] doubtless parts of a purse which had been lined inside with coloured cloth, that has shown itself between the openings cut in the leather […].“

The current version of the Unimus catalog is the most infomative (Unimus 2020). In terms of language it corresponds to the period about 100 years ago. It is clear that Heyerdahl-Larsen based her infomation on this text:

‚Several piece of thin leather. Two of these pieces are oval, cut straight at one edge, 13.5 wide and 8.5 cm high, which correspond to each other and have been sewn together at the edges. Doubtless parts of a purse. Both pieces are made of two-layered leather, one of which has fine openwork patterning and was lined with textile. There was preasumbly yet another patterned piece. There were also straps, partially equipped with seam holes in the middle part.“

This report is absolutely essential for understanding the whole object, as it is the oldest description from when the object was more complete than it is today. We read about two two-layered oval pieces measuring 13.5 × 8.5 cm that are sewn together. Only one oval two-layered piece was decorated. At the same time, we learn that the piece probably had the same decorated counterpart. The text relates only to half of the wallet, which confirms the photograph of the object – the piece with the openwork is two-layered (the second, uncut two-layer part is not preserved) and corresponds in size.

Heyerdahl-Larsen, on the other hand, equates Nicolaysen’s drawing with the description of two two-layered pieces. Heyerdahl-Larsen interprets the two layer information as “two pockets” and transforms the information about the openwork counterpart into the idea that it was “probably decorated on both sides” (Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 37).

The belt was assigned to the wallet by Nicolaysen and, as noted above, the oval shape does not indicate the proposed use of the belts. Objectively speaking, it is not possible to confirm or refute whether the straps were in fact parts of the wallet.


New interpretation

In June 2020, we were contacted by the Danish craftsman Thomas Nichols from the Nichols Naturligvis workshop, who pointed out some of the above-mentioned discrepancies and expressed doubts whether the wallet was reconstructed correctly. We discussed the wallet in detail together and here we would like to publish our reading of the object, which – in our opinion – has been misunderstood to this day.

The shape of the wallet can be based on Nicolaysen’s drawing, which shows an approximately oval shape. The cross-section of the wallet must be based on a report from the Unimus catalog – the front had openwork, was two-layered and sewn to the back, undecorated two-layered part, which had to be a pocket. The back decorated part of the wallet was missing. Nicolaysen’s text and catalog show that the textile layer of contrasting fabric was placed between the two two-layered parts, where it prevented the deposited objects from falling out. It means that the wallet was originally folded and Nicolaysen’s drawing shows the wallet in an unfolded state. This reading is supported by 4 symmetrically placed holes, which in the previous interpretation were considered as decoration. The holes can be understood as a construction feature used to fasten a strap, which was apparently stretched in them. The same case may be the central elongated opening, which may not be a decoration but may have been used to store items in the wallet.

The closest analogy to our proposed interpretation is the wallet from Sigtuna (Sigtuna Museum 2019a; Sigtuna Museum 2019b). The object, found in Trädgårdsmästaren and dated to 1030-1050, consists of a front part measuring 14 × 11 cm, of a hourglass shape, with a simple geometric decor and a possible central opening. The inner parts of the wallet are missing, as with the current state of the Gokstad find.

The purse from Sigtuna. Sigtuna Museum 2019aSigtuna Museum 2019b.

Experimental reconstruction of the purse from Sigtuna. Author: Oleksii Malev.

The interior of the wallet offers several possible interpretations. In the visualization attached below, we propose three methods:

  1. both sides of the wallet are sewn together and the wallet is not openable. The interior is halved by one two-layered leather plate that creates two pockets. The textile layer prevents objects from falling out. The objects are inserted into the wallet through an opening on the upper edge.
  2. both sides of the wallet are left unstitched and the wallet is openable. The textile layer is covered with a leather part, which is then covered with two pockets. The opening on the upper edge is covered with textile.
  3. both sides of the wallet are left unstitched and the wallet is openable. The textile layer is partially covered with a leather part, which is then covered with two pockets. The opening on the upper edge is covered with textile. The space between the leather part and the textile can be used to store items, so the wallet has a total of four pockets.

Unfortunately, we do not know the nature of the textile used. The only information we have is the color of this textile layer, which created a contrast. It is not impossible that it may have been the silk, which is represented by the other find from Gokstad mound (Vedeler 2014: 41-2).

The position of the belt, which was assigned to the find by Nicolaysen and subsequently interpreted by Heyerdahl-Larsen, cannot be estimated. We should not rule out the possibility that these fragments do not belong to the wallet at all.


Visualization of the new interpretation

In collaboration with the reenactor and saddler Thomas Nichols from the Nichols Naturligvis workshop, we have prepared a visualization of the described interpretation, which proposes the construction step by step. The author notes that the production of the wallet takes about 2.5 hours, which is a significant acceleration compared to the 9-11 hours that took the production of the wallet of the current interpretation.

Pictures of the variants can be easily downloaded via the following link:


Variant 1


 

Variant 2

 

Variant 3


Acknowledgement

Revision of the find would not be possible without observant eyes and a determined mind of Thomas Nichols from Nichols Naturligvis workshop, who created functional models of the newly interpreted wallet and whom I warmly thank.

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.


Bibliography

Heyerdahl-Larsen, Birgit (1981). Gokstadhøvdingens pung = The Gokstad chiefstain´s pouch. In: Wexelsen, Einar (ed). Gokstadfunnet : et 100-års minne = The Gokstad excavations : centenary of a Norwegian Viking find, Sandefjord, 36-7, 104-5.

Nicolaysen, Nicolay (1882). Langskibet fra Gokstad ved Sandefjord = The Viking-ship discovered at Gokstad in Norway, Kristiania.

Sigtuna Museum (2019a). Veckans föremål. In: Sigtuna Museum & Art. Visited 19th March 2020, available from:
https://www.facebook.com/sigtunamuseumandart.se/photos/a.424430047633243/1963497667059799/?type=3.

Sigtuna Museum (2019b). Uppdatering av Veckans föremål. In: Sigtuna Museum & Art. Visited 14th June 2020, available from:
https://www.facebook.com/sigtunamuseumandart.se/photos/pcb.1991639364245629/1991636104245955/?type=3&theater.

Unimus (2020). C10460. In: Unimus [online]. [2020-06-14]. Available from:
http://www.unimus.no/artefacts/khm/search/?oid=67669&museumsnr=C10460&f=html

Vedeler, Marianne (2014). Silk for the Vikings, Oxford – Philadelphia.