Drinking Vessels of Viking Norway


Thanks to Michael Caralps Robinson,
whose persistence has no limits.

 

Introduction

Dear reader,
rather than a complete list of Norwegian drinking vessels of Viking Age, this short article is a summary of types of small personal drinking vessels and the sources we can use for learning more. Before making any step further, I have to stress that we can divide between everyday drinking occassions and highly developed drinking culture of the Viking Age (for example Andersen – Pajung 2014Callmer – Rosengren 1997Rundkvist 2011), that included strict rules about seating plan, the amount of consumed beverage and ceremonies. We have a massive textual evidence for drinking, plus a huge corpus of finds has been preserved. At this place, I will not discuss barrels, buckets, tubes, vats, bowl-shaped ladles, sieves, metal and steatite bowls, jugs, cauldrons, bottles etc, as some of them were already described in a separate article called The Period Transport of Liquids. My primary goal is provide sources for the most popular vessels used by reenactors; the overview is dedicated to anybody who wishes to have accurate personal tableware for both everyday life and feasts – cups, horns and beakers – bearing in mind that these are only a tiny fraction of the living reality that is gone for 1000 years.


Types of drinking vessels

In Early Medieval period, elite circle wanted to be presented as owners of luxurious items made of metal or glass, including the cups. Polish chronicle of Gallus Anonymus refers about golden and silver tableware, a mention that is repeated several times and it is explicitly said that during splendid feasts, there was no wooden tableware (Gallus Anonymus, Deeds of the Princes of the Poles I:6). The same picture is portrayed by Anglo-Saxon iconography, for example manuscript MS Cotton Tiberius C VI (1042-1079). Even though luxurious cups were concentrated in hands of elites, we can understand mentions and pictures as period propaganda. As is obvious from many Early Medieval graves, wooden tableware was also frequently associated with elites.

Feast scene, manuscript MS Cotton Tiberius C VI, 5v, c. 1050.

Lathed cups without handles
Simple wooden cups were probably the most common examples that were used in the Viking Age (Petersen 1951: 402). Due to their organic composition, the majority decayed without any traces. Still, we have some preserved pieces coming from well-known mounds of Oseberg and Gokstad. In Oseberg mound, at least 8 cups or their fragments were found (Grieg 1928: 148-150, 194-196, Fig. 91, 127, 128, 130), but only four are complete. The first one – C55000:167 – is 64 mm high and the maximal diameter is 127 mm (112 mm across the mouth). The second one (C55000:97) is lathed of a piece of hard wood and the diameter is circa 100 mm (80 mm across the mouth); it is also reinforced with an iron band, that goes from inside to outside and is probably a patch. Last two – C55000:84 and C55000:91 – are 40 and 50 mm high and have mouth diameter of 60-70 and 80 mm. These last two were filled with corn in the grave. According to Nicolaysen (1882: 45), there were 4 round cups made of foliferous tree found in Gokstad – besides the fact cups are very shrunk and varying in size, he does not mention any further detail nor picture. The biggest comparable material was found in Haithabu, counting 14 cups that vary between 48-107 mm in height and 76-100 mm in diameter (Westphal 2007: 35, Taf. 10).

The first complete cup from Oseberg mound. Source: Grieg 1928: Fig. 91, UNIMUS C55000:167.

The second complete cup from Oseberg mound. Source: Grieg 1928: Fig. 130, UNIMUS C55000:97.

The third complete cup from Oseberg mound. Source: Grieg 1928: Fig. 127, UNIMUS C55000:84.

The fourth complete cup from Oseberg mound. Source: Grieg 1928: Fig. 128, UNIMUS C55000:91.

Cups from Haithabu. Source: Westphal 2007: 35, Taf. 10.

Cups with handles
In Norwegian graves of Voll and Oseberg, 6 wooden scoops were found (Grieg 1928: 142–146). However, there are also some smaller kuksa-like cups with more decent handles in Oseberg and Gokstad, which could be interpreted as cups – especially because of presence of flat bottom and absence of a hook at the end of the handle. In Gokstad, two examples of the same design were found – C10413 (Nicolaysen 1882: 45, Pl. IX:7), while there was only one fragmentary piece in Oseberg (Grieg 1928: 149-150; Petersen 1951: 405-406). According to Petersen (1951: 406), the cup from Gokstad is circa 16 cm long. There are many similar examples in Haithabu, showing we are dealing with a widespread group of items (Westphal 2007: 34-36, Taf. 3-11).

An illustration of cups from Gokstad. Source: Nicolaysen 1882: Pl. IX:7.

Cups with handles from Haithabu. Source: Westphal 2007: 35, Taf. 3, 4, 7, 10, 11.

Ceramic cups
After the Migration Period, pottery finds are on decline in Norway (Petersen 1951: 380); Petersen mapped only 48 pottery finds from Late Iron Age. Some scholars even claim that Norway did not have their own production of ceramic in the period (Lüdtke  – Schietzel 2001: 25) and it was replaced by steatite and iron on a massive scale (Petersen 1951: 380). The biggest ceramic material in Norway was found in the trading center of Kaupang (Hougen 1993). Complete ceramic cups from Viking Age Norway are rather rare and they are almost always undecorated (Hougen 1993: 9).


A selection of ceramic cups. Source: Petersen 1951: 383.

Steatite cups
According to Petersen (1951: 354-356), there are at least 12 steatite vessels with less than 15 cm and more than 5-6 cm in diameter and are without traces of usual iron fitting for hanging. Smaller vessels can be understood as miniatures, crucibles or other tools. It is also possible that these 12 vessels are parts of forging equipment or are storage vessels, but we cannot exclude the possibility they are drinking cups.


Steatite vessel from Gjestad (C17783). Source: Petersen 1951: 355.

Steatite vessel from “Hafsol” (B4622). Source: UNIMUS B4622.


Steatite vessel from an unknown site (B8941). Source: UNIMUS B8941.

Drinking horns
Drinking cow and aurochs horns are probably the most symbolical and the best known vessels of the Viking Age. They also occur in written sources during feasts and ceremonies and are depicted in iconography. It is beyond any doubt that such a vessel had a strict decorum of how, when and by whom it could be used. For example, some feasts could have the rule of drekka tvimenning (a pair of drinkers share a common horn), while the passing and drinking out of the ruler’s horn could be understood as an oath-swearing process, both situations indicate that horns were used at feasts in order to maintain important social bonds. Horns are “thought to have been an important piece of household equipment in societies where feasting and formal entertainment played a major role [(…). In poems, horns are used for drinking mead and wine, while they are used for beer in sagas as well.] A primary function of these prestige items was to enable their owners to demonstrate status by providing unlimited hospitality, an echo of the hospitality obligations mandated by the laws” (Heen-Pettersen 2014).

According to Petersen (1951: 396-400), 24 horns are known in Norway (I was forced to correct Mr. Petersen’s information about the horns from Voll, which is not correct). 5 horns were simple and undecorated, 4 horns were decorated with a mouth fitting, 14 horn were decorated with a terminal and just 2 horns were decorated with both mouth fittings and terminals. The terminals have a form of beast head (8 ex.), ball (4 ex.), ring for hanging (1 ex.) and cylinder (1 ex.). At least one horn (T1184) had two small copper alloy eyelets for hanging mounted on the body of the horn, while some horns are found with suspension chains. Heen-Pettersen (2014) mentions 7 new finds of horns with metal mounts, and she interprets all the decorated horns as Insular imports.

Metal fittings mounted on a modern horn, Gjønnes (C20163). Source: UNIMUS C20163.


Metal fittings of a drinking horn, Venjum (B7731). Source: UNIMUS B7731.

Drinking horn from Voll (T1184). Source: UNIMUS T1184.

Glass beakers
The last big group of vessels are glass beakers, probably the most prestigious and luxurious vessels we can meet in Viking Age Norway. Petersen (1951: 400-402) mentions only 11 glass vessels finds from Late Iron Age, which is not surprising, as they were probably imported from the Continent or Britain; we have only limited traces of local glassworking in Norway (Gaut 2011: 174-175). Some glass vessels were used for a very long time : the beaker from Borre mound (ca. 900) comes from 7th or 8th century (Petersen 1951: 401). Two almost complete beakers were found for example in the grave from Hopperstad (B4511). A lot of variously coloured glass were found in Kaupang, that can be categorized as funnel beakers, reticella-decorated beakers and small jars (Gaut 2007; Gaut 2011).


A reconstruction of the beaker from Borre, C1801. Source: Myhre – Gansum 2003: 20.

Two glass beakers from Hopperstad, B4511. Source: UNIMUS B4511.

Reconstructed beakers found in Kaupang. Source: Gaut 2011: Fig. 9.13, 9.14, 9.16, 9.20, 9.21.

Hypothetic cup types
To make the list complete, we have to mention various metal and organic materials that could be used for cups. While there are number of copper alloy vessels in Norway (Petersen 1951: 384-396), they were used as cauldrons, scoops, hanging and table bowls and handwashing basins. As far as I know, there is no Norwegian copper alloy vessel that could be interpreted as cup. On the other hand, Continental or Insular silver cups could be rarely used in Norway in the same way they were used in Denmark (Wamers 1985: Taf. 47:4; Wamers 2005: Kat. 43-44).

As was told above, organic cups were definitely the most common, but they occur rarely because of decomposition. They could include some extraordinary materials like birch bark, antler or fungus. In the grave from Kyrkhus, four double-layered birch bark fragments were found (S2584n). They are interpreted as remnants of a cup or a bowl. Based on the size of the preserved fragments – 34×34 mm, 37×33 mm, 35×31 mm and 52×44 mm – both options are possible. We cannot exclude a box as a possible function. Birch bark had wide scale of application, so the presence of birch bark cups would not be surprising. In the same grave, there are fragments of what was interpreted as antler or bone cup; unfortunately we do not know any closer detail. Cups made of polypore could be also possible, as we know polypore bowl from Voll (T1185).

Human superficialities by the feet of Devil, manuscript MS Cotton Tiberius C VI, 10v, c. 1050.


Final remarks

In this short overview, I tried to mention the most important find types and literature that describes them. At the end of it, I would like to give some recommendations. As you can notice, ceramic cups were somethig special in Norway, and I hope this article will help to get rid of their dominance in recent reenactment. Moreover, all the wooden, steatite, horn and glass pieces are aesthetic to an extent – some are richly decorated, others have just a simple decorating line in the center or at the mouth level. The period tableware was not as crude as we usually see at the events. Cups were owned by civilized people of advanced culture; a culture that should be reconstructed as well. Usage of cups was nuanced, and it is our goal to represent it in a most colourful and accurate way.

 


Bibliography

Gallus Anonymus: Deeds of the Princes of the Poles = Gallus Anonymus: Kronika a činy polských knížat a vládců. Traslated: Josef Förster, Praha 2009.

Andersen, Kasper H. – Pajung, Stefan (2014) (eds.). Drikkekultur i middelalderen, Århus.

Callmer, Johan – Rosengren, Erik (1997) (eds). ”…gick Grendel att söka det höga huset…” Arkeologiska källor till aristokratiska miljöer i Skandinavien under yngre järnålder. Rapport från ett seminarium i Falkenberg 16–17 november 1995, Halmstad.

Gaut, Bjarne (2007). Vessel Glass from Kaupang: A Contextual and Social Analysis. In: Norwegian Archaeological Review 40:1, 26-41.

Gaut, Bjarne (2011). Vessel Glass and Evidence of Glasswoking. In: Skre, Dagfinn (ed.). Things from the Town. Artefacts and Inhabitants in Viking-age Kaupang. Kaupang Excavation Project Publication series, vol. 3., Århus, 169-261.

Grieg, Sigurd (1928). Osebergfunnet II : Kongsgaarden, Oslo.

Heen-Pettersen, A. M. (2014). Insular artefacts from Viking-Age burials from mid-Norway. A review of contact between Trøndelag and Britain and Ireland, Internet Archaeology 38.
Available at: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue38/heenpettersen_index.html

Hougen , Ellen-Karine (1993). Kaupangfunnene bind IIIB. Bosetningsområdets keramikk, Oslo.

Lüdtke, Hartwig – Schietzel, Kurt (2001) (eds.). Handbuch zur mittelalterlichen Keramik in Nordeuropa (Vol. 1-3), Neumünster.

Rundkvist, Martin (2011). Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats: Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375-1000 in Ösergötland, Sweden, Stockholm.

Myhre, Bjørn – Gansum, Terje (2003). Skipshaugen 900 e. Kr. : Borrefunnet 1852-2002, Borre.

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

Petersen, Jan (1951). Vikingetidens redskaper, Oslo.

Wamers, Egon (1985). Insularer Metallschmuck in wikingerzeitlichen Gräbern Nordeuropa, Neumünster.

Wamers, Egon (2005). Die Macht des Silbers. Karolingische Schätze im Norden, Regensburg.

The Period Transport of Liquids

The transport and the storage of liquids are one of the biggest problems in the reenactment of any time period. Archaeological finds are only a few and making a keg or flask needs skill. For a person living in 21st century, it is much easier and cheaper to load a barrel of beer and some bottles of water to a car and after that hide everything in a tent. On historical events, there are principles of hiding modern bottles, however we would be lying, if we said that it is a generally valid and strictly followed convention.

If we move from a camp to a march, there is a necessity to have a field bottle, because in our luggage there is a limited space for equipment. In such a case, we are going to plan our way close to the springs and streams. Scandinavian streams (Old Norse lœkr) and mountain rivers have stayed drinkable even up till now, so if the Old Norse people made a good journey plan, they had no thirst. In the corpus of Old Norse dictionary, there is a term rǫst (“mile”), which literally means “distance between two halts”. Literary sources show existence of route with some fixed halts, which were located near the water streams.

Reconstruction of the farmstead Stöng, Iceland.

Even buildings and farmsteads were built near to the water streams. Water is necessary for a household, and people settled there not only because of water, but also because of fish. In some sources, the connection of a farm and a stream more than obvious:

Next to Ásólf’s hall, there was a river. Winter started and the river was full of fish. Þorgeir claimed that they settled on his fishing grounds, so Ásólf moved and built the second hall on west near to another river.
(The book of settlement, chap. 21, Hauskbók version)

The same situation was during the settlement of Iceland. Settlers often took up land, surrounded by two water streams. In addition, there was the law that the settler could take more land than she or he could walk around in one day. The farmstead Stöng, which was built in 11th century and covered by volcano ash in 1104, follows the same logic – it was built on a hill approximately one kilometer above the Fossá river. In densely built-up areas, water drained from wells. The most of farms did not need wells, because they had access to water streams (Short 2003: 74).

The containers for a water transportation can be divided to big volume containers and small volume containers. Among the big volume containers belong barrels, buckets and bigger ceramic vessels. Their volume can be between ones and hundreds of litres and they served for crowds, e.g. farm residents, merchants or soldiers on war expeditions. However, the dimension limits mobility, as can be shown by the quote from the Eyrbyggja saga (chap. 39):

Then too was it the custom of all the shipmen to have their drink in common, and a bucket should stand by the mast with the drink therein, and a locked lid was over it. But some of the drink was in barrels, and was added to the bucket thence as soon as it was drunk out.

The transport of barrels at the Bayeux tapestry.

The small volume containers were using for needs of individuals and they were parts of personal equipment. We are talking about different kinds of flasks, bags and bottles, which had limited volume – only up to several litres, but it was not difficult to carry them. It is necessary to add, that there are almost no preserved containers from Scandinavian area, so we have to use the written sources or look for the analogic finds from the period Europe.

The barrel from Haithabu.

The biggest container from the Viking period is a barrel (Old Norse: tunni, verpill). The barrels are well preserved in archeological, written and iconographic sources. In the previous written example, we can see the barrels were used for long-term storage of water on ships. Barrels also served for fermentation and storage of beverages in the halls. A big barrel with the volume of approximately 800 litres was found in Haithabu, Germany. Similar finds are known also from the Rome Empire period. Barrels of this kind are also depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, where they are loaded on both carts and shoulders and carried to the ships. The Tapestry comments this depiction with these words: “These men carry arms to the ships and here they drag a cart laden with wine and arms.

A slightly smaller container is represented by a bucket, a tub and a vat (Old Norse: ker). The main advantage is a handle for the easier transport. It could be the most frequent big volume container of the period. A bucket was not provided with a permanent lid, because the liquid was meant for an immediate consumption. If it was necessary, the bucket could be covered by a removable lid (Old Norse: hlemmr or lok, see the quote from Eyrbyggja saga). The finds of buckets are well preserved in Oseberg and Haithabu. In Haithabu, they found imported big volume ceramics (so called Reliefbandamphoren) as well, which could be used for similar purpose thanks to transportation eyelets.

Opening of a bottle.  Made by Jakub Zbránek and Zdeněk Kubík.

We know only a few finds of flasks and bottles (Old Norse: flaska) made of leather, ceramics, wood, metal and glass in Early medieval Europe. Absence of local anorganic bottles in Scandinavia is a sign of the fact that organic materials were mainly used. From the following list, it is evident that ceramic, metal and glass bottles were imported to Scandinavia.

There are only a few written mentions about bottles from Scandinavia and they all are of the late date. It is interesting that some mentions are connected with bynames of people living in the Viking Age. We can find Þorsteinn flǫskuskegg (“bottle beard“) and Þorgeirr flǫskubak (“bottle back“) among the Icelandic settlers.


  • Leather bottle, made by Petr Ospálek.

    Leather bottles – it is the only kind mentioned in Old Norse sources. In Grettis saga (chap. 11), there is a funny story of Þorgeirr flǫskubak who is attacked by an assassin to his back, but he manages to survive, because the axe of the assassin hits a leather flask:

“That morning, Þorgeirr got ready to row out to sea, and two men with him, one called Hámundr, the other Brandr. Þorgeirr went first, and had on his back a leather bottle [leðrflaska] and drink therein. It was very dark, and as he walked down from the boat-stand Þorfinn ran at him, and smote him with an axe betwixt the shoulders, and the axe sank in, and the bottle squeaked, but he let go the axe, for he deemed that there would be little need of binding up, and would save himself as swiftly as might be. [Now it is to be said of Þorgeirr, that he turned from the blow as the axe smote the bottle, nor had he any wound. [Thereat folk made much mocking, and called Þorgeirr Bottleback, and that was his by-name ever after.”

This part continues with a stanza with this meaning: “Earlier the famous men cut their swords into enemies’ bodies, but now a coward hit a flask with whey by an axe. Even though it is a nice example of an Old Norse perception of society decline, but we can notice the mention about whey (Old Norse sýra). The whey was mixed with water in a ratio 1:11 and created a popular Icelandic drink, the so-called blanda (for the exactl mixture, see here, page 26). The saga suggests that Þorgeirr has got such a drink in his flask.

The leather flasks are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon sources and are archaeologically documented in Ireland, where were found some decorated pieces from 12th century. They are lightweight and ideal for long hikes. They are resistant against damage too. But sometimes water is running through, whis is a disadvantage. Summary, I recommend to reconstruct of leather variants.



A replica of a wooden bottle, made by CEA.


 

  • Ceramics bottles – ceramics bottles were popular for the whole Early medieval period. They were used in the the Roman times (Roman ceramics amphoras for a wine transporting are known from Rhineland), in the Migration period, as well as in the period of 9th to 11th century. One piece was found in Winchester, England (11th century, photos here, here, here), another one in Gnezdovo, Russia (10th century, photo here) and yet another in Great Moravian Staré Město (9th century, photos here and here). In Belgian Ertvelde-Zelzate (9th century, here), a painted flask was found. Analogies of this bottle were found in Dorestad and in Norwegian Kaupang too. The find from Kaupang is represented by nine orange painted shards – the only proof of ceramics flasks in Scandinavia (Skre 2011: 293). The similar shape to Roman amphoras remained popular in the Rhineland, and it devepoled into so-called Reliefbandamphoren that are up to 70 cm high. Some pieces were found in Haithabu as well. Ceramic bottles seem to be popular in Eastern Europe as well.


    The pottery industry of Viking Age Scandinavia was not very developed, so we can presume that all the ceramic bottles in Scandinavia were imported. Me and my colleagues were using this type for years and it proved to be very practical. On the other hand, the use is very questionable in Scandinavia.


  • Bronze bottle from Aska.

    Metal bottles – an unique copper-alloy bottle was found in the woman’s grave in Aska, Sweden. According to works, which I found on the internet (here and here), the grave dated to 10th century and the container is considered a Persian import, because of the inscription. The origin limits the usage in reenactment. A similar bottle was found in FölhagenGotland, and it is dated to the of 10th century (the picture on demand).

  • Glass bottles – I am aware of two Scandinavian bottle necks made of glass, they are very rare finds. The first one was found in Haithabu and is dated to the 9th century (Schiezel 1998: 62, Taf. 13:1–2). The second one was found in a rich female grave from Trå, Norway, dated to the 10th century. Pictures on demand.

All the mentioned bottles except the glass and metal examples do have the eyelets. So, we can suppose that they had got a strap for a hanging. To my knowledge, stoppers are never preserved, so they probably were made of wood. The experiments showed that oaken lathed or hand-made mushroom or cylinder-shaped stoppers are functional. While a simple wooden stopper works for wooden and leather bottles, in case of other materials, it is useful if the stopper is a bit smaller and wrapped in a textile, so the neck is not destroyed by the harder material of the stopper. 

I believe that the article provided a brief summary of Early medieval liquid containers. For reenactment purposes, I recommend to use the barrels and buckets for camp life and the bottles for a march. This can also lead to reconstructing proper banquet tools, like spoons, scoop and ladles, that are present in the sources. If needed, write your feedback into the comments, the problem of a liquid transportation is still opened. Many thanks to Roman Král, Zdeněk Kubík, Jan Zajíc and Jakub Zbránek, who helped me with this article and answered my questions. 

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.


Bibliography

The book of settlement – Landnamabók I-III: Hauksbók, Sturlubók, Melabók. Ed. Finnur Jónsson, København 1900.

Grettis saga – Saga o Grettim. Přel. Ladislav Heger, Praha 1957. Originál online.

Eyrbyggja saga – Sága o lidech z Eyru. Přel. Ladislav Heger. In: Staroislandské ságy, Praha 1965: 35–131.

Cleasby, Richard  Vigfússon, Gudbrand (1874). An Icelandic-English dictionary, Toronto.

Schietzel, Kurt (1998). Die Glasfunde von Haithabu, Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 32, Neumünster.

Short, William R. (2010). Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, Jefferson.

Skre, Dagfinn (ed.) (2011). Things from the Town. Artefacts and Inhabitants in Viking-age Kaupang. Kaupang Excavation Project Publication series, vol. 3., Århus.

 

For those interested in wooden barrels, buckets and ceramic vessels, I recommend these books:

Hübener, Wolfgang (1959). Die Keramik von Haithabu, Neumünster.

Janssen, Walter (1987). Die Importkeramik von Haithabu, Neumünster.

Wesphal, Florian (2006). Die Holzfunde von Haithabu, Neumünster.