Drinking Vessels of Viking Norway

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



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.



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.

17. srpna 2019

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