The Rebec from Haithabu

Among the wooden fragments from Haithabu, three pieces of musical instruments were found (Lawson 1984: 151–159; Westphal 2006: 83–84). These instruments, together with the bone flutes from Haithabu (Brade 1978), cast light on the music practiced in the town and in Scandinavia in general. In this article, we will describe one of the wooden instruments – a fragment, which is considered to be the oldest hard evidence of bowed string instruments of the European Middle Ages.

Three types of musical instruments found in Haithabu.
Taken from Brade 1978: 28 and Schietzel 2014: 289

The fragment, bearing the inventory number HbS.916.001, was discovered while strengthening a creek dam (Lawson 1984: 151–155; Westphal 2006: 83, Taf. 61: 1). It consists of a one-piece body that is 43 cm long and made of alder wood (Lawson 1984: 151). The preserved fragment represents the rounded bottom of the sound box, which is roughly shaped into a pear or bowl shape. A flat neck is connected to that part. The roughened surface indicates that the product has not been finished, and it is even possible that it was subsequently used for a non-musical purpose, for example as a bowl.

haithabu-hedeby-rebec-fiddleFragment HbS.916.001 and its schematic drawing.
Taken from Westphal 2006: Taf. 61: 1.

Possible reconstruction of the fragment HbS.916.001.
Taken from Schietzel 2014: 289.

Although the object is only partial, it can be compared with other archaeological finds, pictorial and written material. In the English and German literature, one may find that the Haithabu find is a fiddle (Lawson 1984; Westphal 2006), but the term is not very precise because it refers to a stringed instrument that is later and differently shaped. At the same time, it can be found that the instrument is associated with the Eastern European instrument called gusli (Lawson 1984), but again, gusli is more similar to lyres or psalteries (Povetkin 2001: 235–240). The association with the Eastern European instrument called gudok, proposed by Kurt Schietzel (2014: 289), is closer because it refers to similar instruments made in the same period (Povetkin 2001: 241–243). The oldest specimen, or a fragment thereof, is dated to the middle of the 11th century (Povetkin 1997: 180–184, Tabl. 107: 1). However, the inclusion of Haithabu find in the corpus of Eastern instruments would ignore the relatively extensive number of pictorial and linguistic material that we have available for northwestern Europe. Generally speaking, an instrument of this type is traditionally referred to as a rebec in Europe. This instrument, like the bow, came to the Continent from an Islamic area and was probably domesticated as early as the 10th century (Bachmann 1964; Panum 1971: 341–346). As early as the 11th century, this string instrument appeared in European iconography.

In the Germanic environment, instruments of this kind were given a peculiar designation, which roots in the Proto-Germanic gīgana, which denotes movement. Therefore, we can find a number of string instruments that are based on this root – such as German violin (Geige), Shetland gue or Old Norse gígja. I believe that it is gígja, which is also a nickname used in the 10th century in Iceland (Jónsson 1908: 247), that best describes the relevant musical instrument from Haithabu. It should be added that the Old Norse dictionary also knows the terms gígjari (gígja-player) and draga gígju (literally “dragging the gígja”, to play gígja with a bow) (Baetke 2006: 196). The Haithabu fragment can be dated to the 10th or 11th century, making it the oldest archaeological evidence of bowed string instruments in Europe.

novgorod-gudok-fiddleGudok instruments from Novgorod, 11th–14th century.
Taken from Povetkin 1997: Tabl. 107: 1–5.

rebec-early-medievalRebec instruments depicted in Anglo-Saxon and French iconography, 11th–12th century.
1. St John’s College, Cambridge (MS B 18 f. 1), 12th century.
2. Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Bodley 352 f. 6), 11th century.
3. University Library, Glasgow (MS Hunter 229 f. 21), 12th century.
4. Portal of St Mary’s Cathedral in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, 12th century.
5. British Library, London (MS Cotton Tiberius C VI f. 30), 11th century.

The top board of the instrument from Haithabu is not preserved. Although it can be assumed that it was made of wood, it is not certain how it could have been attached to the body. From comparative sources it can be concluded that these instruments could be two to four-stringed, but usually three-stringed. The strings could be made of intestines or horsehair, which could also be stretched on a bow. The tunning pegs and bridge can be assumed to be made of wood or bone / antler (Lawson 1984: 155). Iconography shows that the players used their right hands to drag the bow and their left hands to determine the pitch; the instrument rested either on the neck under the chin or on the knees. Kurt Schietzel (2014: 289) suggests the possibility of holding an instrument in arms, although this method – as far as I know – cannot be based on any source.

Bowed string instruments in iconography of 11th-12th century and possible reconstruction.
1. Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig (unknown manuscript), 11th century, Panum 1971: Fig. 276.
2. St John’s College, Cambridge (MS B 18 f. 1), 12th century.
3. British Library, London (MS Cotton Tiberius C VI f. 30), 11th century.
4. Church carving, church in Gamtofte, Fyn, 12th century, Panum 1971: Fig. 278.
5–6. University Library, Glasgow (MS Hunter 229 f. 21), 12th century.
7. Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire de Strasbourg (Ms 37 f. 36), 12th century.
8. St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (BL Arundel MS 91 f. 218v), 12th century.
9. Suggested reconstruction, Schietzel 2014: 289.


Bachmann, Werner (1964). Die Anfänge des Streichinstrumentenspiels, Leipzig.

Baetke, Walter (2006). Wörterbuch zur altnordischen Prosaliteratur [digitální verze], Greifswald.

Brade, Christine (1978). Knöcherne Kernspaltflöten aus Haithabu. In: Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 12, Neumünster: 24–35.

Jónsson, Finnur (1908). Tilnavne i den islandske oldlitteratur. In: Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 1907, Kjøbenhavn: 161–381.

Lawson, Graeme H. (1984), Zwei Saiteninstrumente aus Haithabu. In: Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 19, Neumünster: 151–159.

Panum, Hortense (1971). The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, London.

Povetkin, Vladimir I. (2001). „Lärmgefäße des Satans“. Musikinstrumente im mittelalterlichen Novgorod. In: Müller-Wille, Michael (Hrsg.). Novgorod. Das mittelalterliche Zentrum und sein Umland im Norden Rußlands, Neumünster: 225–244.

Povetkin 1997 = Поветкин, В.И. (1997). Музыкальные инструменты // Археология. Древняя Русь. Быт и культура / Ответст. редакторы тома Б.А.Колчин, Т.И.Макарова. М .: Наука. Глава 11. С. 179–185

Westphal, Florian. (2006), Die Holzfunde von Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 11, Neumünster.

Schietzel, Kurt (2014). Spurensuche Haithabu, Neumünster – Hamburg.

The Viking Rangle

Steve Mijatovic


This article is to discuss this reasonably common yet rarely recreated Viking Age item. So what exactly is a rangle? A rangle is a type of sliding rattle consisting of a large metal ring which has other smaller rings attached to it, it often has a socket or hasp by which a handle can be attached or a shaped hook on the end. When the rangle is shaken the smaller rings known as soundings clash together creating a jingling metallic sound. The number of soundings varies and on the more elaborate rangles there could be multiple rows of different sized soundings which would produce a different tone.

Finds and interpretations

Interestingly enough, we have no clear literary or pictorial evidence. Our only sources are actual archaeological finds. The rangle seems to be a Norwegian phenomenon with roughly 98% (249 examples) of the finds coming from (mainly eastern) Norway with others were located in Sweden and Finland. Of the 150 finds from graves there is a strong male bias with 92% of finds being attributed to male graves and only 8% to female (Petersen 1951: 55). Their design and size varies significantly. 

rangleDifferent types of the Norwegian rangles. Taken from Lund 1981: Fig. 3.

The first and most widely accepted theory is based around the fact that the rangles seem to appear predominantly in elite graves where riding equipment is present (Petersen 1951: 43). This would seem to suggest some sort equine related use, possibly as sleigh bells on carts or sledges, making the ride of the noble person more impressive. Norwegian archaeomusicologist Casja Lund performed a successful experiment to validate this argument using the rattles on a replica of the Oseberg wagon (Lund 1974). We can find many historical and ethnographic parallels.

rangle-wagonPossible use of some Norwegian rangles. Taken from Lund 1981: Fig. 4.

The second view is that the rangles (as well as bells) use was in ritual, ceremony or shamanism. This school of thought seems to be based heavily on the rangles found in the Oseberg burial, because those are atypically decorated with dragon heads inlayed with precious metal. Moreover, the mound of Oseberg is contained several other objects that are associated with seiðr and seeresses, for example a wooden staff or wand, and cannabis seeds in a purse.

Scholars often propose the suggestion that the rattle was used to frighten or ward off evil spirits. This idea is also supported by Saxo Grammaticus and his Gesta Danorum (early 1200s), where he connects jingling or rattling with the worship of Freyr:

He went into the land of the Swedes, where he lived at leisure for seven years’ space with the sons of Frey. At last he left them and betook himself to Hakon, the tyrant of Denmark, because when stationed at Uppsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of the bells.” (Traslated by O. Elton)

Based on this message, Terry Gunnell came with the theory that rangles could be used during leikar, the costumed ceremonies connected to the cult feasts (Gunnel 1995: 78-79). Julie Lund thinks that this powerful tool was included to the liminal phase of the funeral, similarly to medieval bells (Lund 2006: 335).

The third possible use for the rangle was as a musical instrument. Apart from the Grammaticus quote above, there are modern day folk instruments, such as the lagerphone, which could be used in a similar fashion by tapping out a rhythm and causing the soundings to jingle.

C20168The find from Torshov, Norway (C20168). Taken from Unimus catalogue.

The Recreation

I first encountered the rangle when doing some research into Viking Age music and instruments, which are quite underrepresented in my local reenactment scene. The item in question did not resemble anything I had ever seen in a reenactment context and I was curious if it could be the ‘clattering bells’ described by Grammaticus. Some quick research revealed some debate about the use of these rangles and I thought that a recreation may help me form an opinion if the rangle could be used as a musical instrument or if it was more suited to one of the other proposed uses.

While searching for more information to commence my reproduction I was lucky enough to come across a toolmaker who was already producing the metalwork component. Dennis Riley from Daegrad tools in the UK makes some fantastic replica items and always provides the find details along with the item.

I ordered the replica of the find from Torshov from Daegrad and once it arrived I decided to mount it on a smaller handle. I used some oak dowel I had lying about and carved a simple spiral serpent into it to assist with grip. I was unable to find any record of a surviving handle so my handle was pure conjecture but given some of the finds are from high status graves and feature elaborate decoration on the heads my modest handle decoration did not seem overboard. With a now complete rangle there was only one thing left to do and that was try it out.

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Questions and answers

A surprising part about the reconstruction is that it has been a source of curiosity and speculation to everyone who sees the rangle. It’s constantly being picked up and swung around by people testing the best way to make it jingle and clatter.

Reenactors of many years experience will express surprise that they have never even heard of such a thing and then be found passing it back and forward while debating the possible uses. Seeing that engagement and spark of curiosity has been one of the most rewarding parts of this simple project.

So to premise one, the rangle as a musical instrument?

Plausible but unlikely as a solo instrument. Although it could have been used as a percussion accompaniment, it’s sound is very raucous and not at all pleasing to the ear. Some modern musicians such as the group Eldrim have used rattles in attempts to recreate Viking music.

Premise two, the rangle as a ritual item?

Plausible. The rangle bears some resemblance to the wands used by vǫlur and the loud rattling could have been used in ritual as suggested to frighten or ward off evil spirits. Moreover, The Book of the Settlement (Landnámabók) mentions a man called Loðmundr gamli that performed sorcery, using his stick with a ring. Another possible ritual use could simply be to gain attention, such as a leader using it to call for silence before speaking.

Premise three, the rangle as an equine accessory?

Probable. As experts have pointed out the frequency of the rangle being discovered in graves with horse related goods is too high to discount. And while I am yet to test it on horseback I did find that if held over the shoulder while walking it gets a nice rhythmic clinking in time with your step.


Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, translated by Oliver Elton, 1905. London: Forgotten Books, 2008.

Gunnell, Terry (1995). The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Lund, Cajsa (1974). Paa rangel 1974. In: Stavanger museums årbok, Stavanger, pp. 45-120.

Lund, Cajsa (1981). The archaeomusicology of Scandinavia, World Archaeology, 12:3, pp. 246-265.

Lund, Julie (2006). Vikingetidens værktøjskister i landskab og mytologi. In: Fornvännen 101, Stockholm, pp. 323-341.

Petersen, Jan (1951). Vikingetidens redskaper. Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske videnskapsakademi i Oslo 2, Oslo.