In 1880, one of the two most magnificent mounds of the Viking Age was explored in Gokstad, Norway. Despite the extensive set of artifacts, including an almost complete ship, the whole find was published bilingually just two years later by Nicolay Nicolaysen. This haste has meant that the description of the objects is not detailed, which seems to be an unfortunate solution due to the gradual degradation of organic materials. In contrast to the Oseberg find, which was discovered in 1904 and published in detail in the following decades, the Gokstad mound still represents an insufficiently described grave. In the following article, we will try to repay this debt by describing four interesting artifacts, interpreted as candle holders.
At the aft of the Gokstad ship, between the “tent” and the rudder, a number of objects made of wood and metal were discovered. Among them were also four boards of various shapes, made of 5-10 mm thick oak wood, which were discovered on the steerer’s bench (Nicolaysen 1882: 45d, Pl. VIII.5; Unimus 2020a). The common denominator of these boards is a similar size and a central circular or oval hole. In one case, the central hole is burnt out and the space around it is charred, as a result of which the boards are interpreted as simple candle holders, candles being inserted into their holes (Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 111; Nicolaysen 1882: 45d; Unimus 2020a). The boards are simply decorated in two cases. Today they are stored in the Cultural History Museum in Oslo under catalog number C10404 (Unimus 2020a).
Board No. 1: rectangular board measuring 18 × 15 × 1 cm (Unimus 2020a). The surface of this board is decorated with two pairs of concentric lines, between which there is a simple engraved plait. The immediate vicinity of a hole (⌀ 2.3 cm; 1.8 cm according to Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 111) is charred and burnt, which, according to commentators, indicates that the seated candle has fallen (Heyerdahl-Larsen 1981: 111; Nicolaysen 1882: 45d, Pl. VIII.5).
Board No. 2: a square-shaped board measuring approximately 16.5 × 16.5 cm (or 17 cm, Unimus 2020a). The corners of this board are cut in a quarter circle (Unimus 2020a). The hole has a diameter of about 2.1 cm.
Board No. 3 and 4: two board of approximately circular shape. A board with a larger hole (⌀ 2.6 cm) is 15.5 cm in diameter, while a plate with a smaller hole (⌀ 1.3 × 1.5 cm) has a diameter of 16 cm.
The great craftsman Václav Maňha created a series of all three shapes of Gokstad candle holders, which he photographed for this project together with wax candles made by archaeologist and candlemaker Jakub Havlíček.
In our opinion, there is nothing to prevent the assignment of four boards to candle holders – the burning of one piece and the presence of holes are sufficiently eloquent arguments to support the current interpretation. Candle holders are a practical solution for how to carry and support a candle. The closest analogies are floor lamps with spikes, of which we know a total of 10 pieces from Norway (Petersen 1951: 430-433). However, these lamps are designed to be stuck in the floor. A somewhat more mobile candlestick could have been a simple metal spike with a sleeve for a handle from a blacksmith’s grave in Bygland, Norway (Blindheim 1962: 74, Fig. 10). Finally, other parallels are soapstone oil lamps (eg Petersen 1951: 361; Unimus 2020b).
Candles and their holders are found in aristocratic graves not only in Scandinavia but also in Eastern Europe, leading some researchers to believe that candles were “expensive and therefore rarely used” (Short 2010: 90) or that they were used “only in rich households” (Foote – Wilson 1990: 163). Other researchers say that “wax candles began to be used only with the advent of Christianity in the late 10th century, and if access to wax was limited, tallow was used” (Roesdahl-Wilson 2000: 138). Andrzej Janowski mapped 18 localities in Western, Northern and Eastern Europe, where candles were used in male and female graves of 7th-10th century, and he interprets the candles in the graves as a sign of Christian conversion and attributes them apotropaic significance (Janowski 2014). The opinion that the lighting of a candle in graves was carried out for protective reasons is shared by other authors (eg Roesdahl – Wilson 2000: 305, no. 296). Candles were usually placed in graves or on top of chamber graves and lit during funerals. In some cases a large number of candles were placed in the grave (Gnězdovo C-301: 11 candles, C-306: 12 candles), in other cases one large candle was placed in the grave, such as a candle from Mammen, which is 55.5-57.4 cm high and weighs 3.71 kg (Iversen-Näsman 1991: 57).
However, lighted candles can be understood from another perspective – the people responsible for organizing the funeral tried to appeal to all the senses of onlookers to get the feeling that the deceased continues in life (Gardeła 2016: 191). The burial chamber or mound was an allegory of the hall in which the deceased reigns in his majesty and in which he holds a feast. Sounds (rattles, jingle bells), scents (prepared food, herbs) and game of light (candles) were certainly used to intensify this feeling.
This article would not have been possible without Michael Caralps, who aroused our interest in the topic and provided the initial visualization. The craftsman Václav Maňha, who created and photographed reproductions of candle holders, deserves a heartfelt thank you.
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