“Making reconstructions is a way to how to understand the past.“
Ragnar L. Børsheim is Norwegian archaeologist and artist. After doing his thesis in 1995, he participated several excavations and started to make illustrated reconstructions as a hobby. In those days, he was also learning himself digital and 3D illustrations. After 12 years, in 2007, Ragnar launched his company Arkikon that makes archaeological reconstructions in the form of illustrations and animations, mainly set in Prehistory, Viking Age and Middle Ages. His reconstructions became quite famous among Scandinavian academia and reenactors, mostly because plenty of them are online.
Interior of the Old Norse hall. Made by Arkikon.
Welcome, Ragnar, and thank you for your time. Let me ask you how many reconstructions have you done? Where can people see your works?
Reconstruction needs a deep knowledge. What are your sources and to what extent you can use your own fantasy?
Our reconstruction is always based on archaeological finds. Archaological traces are frequently fragmented and sparse, and then we have to rely on general knowledge of the period, analogies, style and technical levels of the period. A reconstruction usually is an interpretation that hopefully is as close to the original as possible, but we can never be sure. However, the main goal is to be true to the archaology and time period.
One example is the design Arkikon did for the great hall at Borre(designs are available here). There were georadar oulines of the hall which gave us the ground dimensions. The design of the building is a combination of traditional trestle built longhouse and elements from the oldest stave churches. The designs should be belieavalbe and in accordance with known Viking/Early Medieval buildings techniques and materials, and also show the grandour and wealth of the chieftain/local king who built it.
The great hall at Borre. Made by Arkikon.
From your point of view, what are the most interesting aspects of past periods, including the Viking Age?
All periods have their thing. As an archaologist that is focused on Iron Age, I find this period (including the Viking period) maybe the most fascinating, because of the richness of the material culture. I am fascinated by the impressive craftmanship, their worldview, and that the prehistory is in many ways a completely different world to ours. Most people lived hard short lives, death was always around the corner, but they found time to make beautiful art, develop top skill metalwork, and trade over huge distances. At the same time, they were also societies with slaves, high death-rate, much violence and warfare. Trying to uncover the past is fascinating, thats why I became an archaologist in the first place.
The mound of Oseberg, Norway. Made by Arkikon.
What a reconstruction means to you?
Making reconstructions is a way how to understand the people of the past. Especially in archaeology, visual reconstructions are an excellent way of how to make interpretations understandable, since the actual remains found in excavations often are fragmented and poorly preserved and the actual iconography from prehistoric times in Northern Europe is poor. By good visual reconstruction, you can easily deliver the meaning across both age and language barriers. With increased knowledge, the reconstructions of tomorrow will probably be somewhat different from those of today.
Every period has their own understanding and reconstructions of the past. Our knowledge is changing after new finds are unearthed, and new interpretations arise as new tools are developed. For example, our understanding of the Iron Age farm structure and its houses has changes drastically in last 20-30 years in Scandinavia, after the introduction of a new excavation method (topsoil stripping) in 1980’s. Today, the advancing geo-radar technology gives archaeology new knowledge that was unavailable earlier.
Thank you very much for your answers, Ragnar. The Forlǫg Project wishes you good luck and fruitful moments in the future.
Reconstruction of the burial chamber from Myklebust, Norway. Made by Arkikon.
Then and now : the mound after the opening and the current state.
Dear reader, welcome back on this site that is dedicated to research and reenactment!
This time, we will examine belt components from Gokstad mound, Southern Norway. Being covered with 50×43 meters big mound and consisting of a richly furnished ship, the grave is one of the most well-known Scandinavian burials (more here and here). The buried person was probably a man of high rank that was connected to ruling family. Thanks to dendrochronological analysis, it was found that the timber for the burial chamber was cut in the first decade of the 10th century, and therefore the whole grave can be dated to this period (Bonde – Christensen 1993).
Even though the grave was robbed and all weapons and valuables were presumably taken, the presence of organic remnants – like skeletons, leather and wooden objects – as well as some cast products, makes the grave significant. However, the only scientific overview of the find was published by Nicolay Nicolaysen in 1882. It might seem some objects are not even treated in the book, while others are not depicted or described, but we have to realize that the mound was re-opened several times, namely in 1925 and 1928/9. From around 1950 onwards, Gokstad grave has been given academic attention several times, that covered bone, wood and metal analysis, detailed scanning of wooden objects and non-destructive documentation of the mound and near landscape. This delicate work has brought some light into how colourful the grave was originally (for example Bill 2013).
The grave of Gokstad recreated. Made by Ragnar L. Børsheim,Arkikon.no.
Among the finds, there were also many belts components. Before the experimental part of this article, it has to be said that it is not able to determine the sets, nor which components could be waist-worn and which were used as parts of horse bridles. That makes reconstruction extremely difficult, virtually impossible. To sum up, there are at least six belt buckles, at least nine strap-ends, at least seventy-four mounts of eleven different kinds and at least three belt slides. The complete list can be seen or downloaded here. Given the fact the burial consisted of twelve horses, eight dogs, several birds etc., it is very probably the most of belts belonged to animals. In the text below, you can read two different approaches of experienced reenactors and owners of custom-made Gokstad belt recreations. They both try to portray Norwegian high rank men from the 9th/10th century.
Reconstruction of the bridle from Borre. Taken from Unimus.no.
Reconstruction of the bridle from Gokstad.
Selection of belt components from Gokstad. Taken from Nicolaysen 1882.
Belts are a crucial parts of reenactor kits. I consider them to belong to the basics, that everyone should get for a start, next to a tunic, trousers, shoes and a simple everyday-use knife. For a lower class character basically everything that can bind the tunic at the waist can serve as a belt. There is, hovever, a tendency towards richly decorated belts, and reenactors often purchase beautifully looking belts with rich fittings, even before doing proper research. I was no different in the beginning, I have to admit. When I started, I bought the first „viking-style“ belt, labelled so because of an overall nordic style, but absolutely not fitting to the region and time I wanted to depict (Norway in the 9th century). It was, in fact, not nordic, nor even early medieval at all, as I found out later.
I could have avoided that by doing my research, but also by taking smaller steps first. A simple D-shaped buckle would have served me perfectly, as I now recognize, and in my opinion even a simple leather strap, a piece of hemp rope or a pleated band would have been sufficient.
After a while, when my ambitions grew and my methods of research got better, I recognized that the issue with belts was a big one, because of a simple fact: tunics, trousers, shoes and knifes are somewhat generic in their overall look, it is hard to specify a reenactors region and timeframe by them alone. The fittings of a belt, however, can identify a person, if they are shaped according to a specific find. That is not only true for belts, but for jewellery in general. That’s way you can easily spot for example a brooch from Gotland on Norwegian woman’s apron, and it can be supposed she did not do her research properly. For belts it is much the same, regions and timeframes get mixed and mingled with others or are chosen wrongly, horsegear appears on people, and even unintended crossdressing can happen. Therefore, I decided that I had to purchase something that would fit the region and timeframe our group depicted better. The Gokstad ship-burial seemed obvious in that regard, because I am the leader of our group and was supposed to show some wealth in my kit.
This was actually of a great difficulty for me. Showing wealth in your kit is, to some extent, forcing you to be wealthy in reality too. Of course a modern recreation of a period piece does not match the worth of the original, but they can be quite expensive anyways. Needless to tell any reenactor that this hobby is an expensive one, I am sure.
When I decided to get myself Gokstad belt, I checked out some artisans who cast belt-fittings, located in Germany. The prices were stunning, and in the end I went along with a kind of poor recreation from an e-shop, that only featured the buckle and strap-end I desired, but no further ornaments, and it was smaller in size than the original. I went along with that for some years, but I was never fully satisfied. It was by mere chance that I later discovered a maker in Poland, who had quite reasonable prices and sold belts with Gokstad fittings. The assambling of the belt was not perfect, because the fittings were placed in a way, that they would be visible if one used the famous belt-knot that is widely accepted in reenactment, but for which there is not real evidence I have knowledge of. So I ordered the fittings only, and intended to assemble the belt myself.
Meanwhile I asked one of our group members, who had allready gained some experience in dying leather with period ingredients, if he could dye a strap for my belt in a bright red, making the finished piece more imposing. He came up with a recipe he found in the Mappae Clavicula, speaking of red wine and kermes. Cochineal was used as a replacement for kermes, again a matter of finances. The result was great. The belt did not become bright red, as intended, but took on dark, almost purple red, much like the colour of wine. For me, it is mostly that colour that makes the belt so great. When the ormaments arrived in the end, I only had to assamble the whole thing. Now I’m finally satisfied with my attire, even if the belt is not yet finished, since I’m still lacking one specific fitting, that I will add when I manage to find it. So my journey to a beautiful belt was a long one, and I have not yet fully completed it, but I am happy that my kit is again a bit improved. And that is, by all means, a process, that can never really end.
During my reenactment “career”, I have had about five or six belts. Some of them were done with pure fantasy, others were based on particular finds. In the beginning of 2016, I started to feel the need for a new belt, that would fit to my 10th century Norwegian impression. To be honest, it is not so easy to find a well-preserved belt, consisting of a buckle and a strap-end, in the region. Therefore, I decided for Gokstad.
My incredibly skilled friend Jan Bana from Storrvara took the task and made the set to order. During the process, he kept me updated by photos, so I could make some correction online. After several months, the bronze set was done, for a really reasonable price. The set consists of a buckle (C10437), a strap-end (C24239c) and twelve mounts (6×C10445 and 6×C10446). My friend and fellow Jakub Zbránek mounted the components to an impregnated belt for me.
It is true that my choice was quite hasty and motivated by the urge of recreation of unique objects. Indeed, some components are, to my best knowledge, the first imitations after 1100 years. Due to my decision, we were forced to make the buckle a bit smaller than the original, with a bronze tongue and without a folded sheet; the find from Hedrum (T1620) can be an analogy, when it comes to reconstruction. Another mistake is that no component is gilded. The biggest fault, however, is the usage of mounts, that were, with high probability, parts of horse bridles. If I spent more time doing the research, I would save money, and more importantly, my kit would be more accurate. On the other hand, my mistakes encouraged me to write this article. The fact that I was wrong is very important for me and my future progress. I am sure that I am going to order a new one in some time, a belt that would be more accurate and that could be called “a replica”.
Before the very end, let me express my thanks to Josch Weinbacher. In case you found this article inspiring, feel free to share it in your community or let us know. For any questions or notes, please, use the comment board below. Love the past, enjoy the present and look forward to the future!
Bill, Jan (2013). Revisiting Gokstad. Interdisciplinary investigations of a find complex investigated in the 19th century: In: Sebastian Brather – Dirk Krausse (ed.), Fundmassen. Innovative Strategien zur Auswertung frühmittelalterlicher Quellenbestände, Darmstadt: Konrad Theiss Verlag, s. 75–86.
Bonde, Niels – Christensen, Arne Emil (1993). Dendrochronological dating of the Viking Age ship burials at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune, Norway. In: Antiquity. A quarterly review of archaeology vol. 67, 256, p. 575–583.
Nicolaysen, Nicolay (1882). Langskibet fra Gokstad ved Sandefjord = The Viking-ship discovered at Gokstad in Norway, Kristiania.