At the beginning of April 2023, we had the opportunity to visit the Viking Museum in Haithabu (Wikinger Museum Haithabu) again. Our attention was naturally focused on the most famous finds from the locality, especially the militaria from the burial grounds. During a cursory examination of the objects from the Boat Chamber Grave (Bootkammergrab), our eye fell on one of the shield bosses, whose unusual arrangement of holes in triplets we had already marveled at during our previous visit in 2016.
The boss from the Boat Chamber Grave from Haithabu. Photos come from the author’s archive.
On closer inspection, we noticed that on two almost opposite sides of the front side of the brim, there are bands of very thin contrasting metal in the rivet areas. In one case, the band is located under the large head rivet, in the other case, a fragment of the band is located in the area of the rivet hole. Since these non-ferrous applications were new to us, we decided to confront this fact with the available literature and present the result in the form of an article for all potential interested parties.
Details of non-ferrous applications on the facing side of the boss from the Boat Chamber Grave. Photos come from the author’s archive.
Context and dating
In 1908, Friedrich Knorr (1872–1936) explored a large barrow south of the Semicircular Wall of Haithabu, which, in terms of its extent and inventory, is among the most impressive graves in historical Denmark and for which the name Boat Chamber Grave is used in the literature (Knorr 1911). Inside the roughly 40 m wide mound, there was a 17-20 m long warship, made mainly of oak, oriented W-E (Crumlin-Pedersen 1998: 139). Two premises were discovered under the ship: a chamber grave of three people with dimensions of 3.7 × 2.4 m and a pit with the skeletons of three horses.
Schematic drawing of the Boat Chamber Grave from Haithabu. Source: Schietzel 2022: 172.
Detailed diagram of the Boat Chamber Grave from Haithabu.
Source: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: Taf. 46-47.
The chamber grave was 1.9 m deep and had a wooden lining and a floor of 2-3 cm thick planks. The chamber was divided by vertical planks into a larger eastern part (Kammer A) and a smaller western part (Kammer B). The larger chamber contained a bucket with iron hoops and cross-shaped fitting (Aa), a K type sword (Ab), a Mannheim type sword (Ab 1), two shield bosses (Ac, Ac 1), a fragment of a stirrup or spur (Ad), a knife (Ae ) and a number of small metal parts of equestrian equipment (Af).
A selection of finds from the eastern part of the chamber grave (Kammer A).
Source: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: Taf. 48-52.
A smaller part of the chamber was no less rich and contained a bronze basin (Ba), a K type sword (Bb), two shield bosses (Bc, Bc 1), a metal shield handle with a cast terminal (Bf, Bf 4), a glass beaker (Bd), silver fittings with filigree (Bf 1-3), amber bead (Bg), a bundle of at least nine tanged arrows with cast ends (Bh), a pair of spurs (Be), various other pieces of riding equipment (Bk), a comb (Bk 5), a knife (Bl), a game board (Bi) and two wooden containers. Furthermore, objects (pieces of equestrian equipment, a spindle whorl) were found in the chamber, the exact location of which is uncertain. The artefacts were described in relative detail by Müller-Wille (1976: 32-111) and Arents and Eisenschmidt (2010b: 111-125).
A selection of finds from the western part of the chamber grave (Kammer B).
Source: Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: Taf. 52-58.
The dating of the Boat Chamber Grave is an problem that is becoming an arena for archaeologists, historians and natural scientist. In traditional literature, Müller-Wille’s dating is established, which is based on a typological comparison of objects and which places the grave at the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 10th century (Müller-Wille 1976: 142), a period not too chronologically distant from another pompous ship grave, the mound from Ladby (Thorvildsen 1957). In 1994, Wamers published his article, which brought a twist to dating: with the help of a detailed comparison, he pointed out that the material culture in the Boat Chamber Grave corresponds to the period of 830-850 (Wamers 1994). The work also includes radiocarbon dating that considers the 9th century to be the most likely result (Wamers 1994: 52). Date until the 2nd quarter of the 9th century is still accepted today (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010a: 314) and the dating of some objects, such as swords, has been independently verified (Lennartsson 1997/1998).
The dating of the Carolingian component of the grave is precise. At this point, we can only suggest a minor addition or correction in the form of a note about the grave with goods that show a significant similarity with the Boat Chamber Grave. It is a chamber grave Bj 850 in Birka that was appointed as a similar grave Müller-Wille (1976: 35, 135). The 3.3 x 2 m chamber housed an H type sword, a C type winged spear, a bucket with iron hoops and cross-shaped fitting, a knife, a bundle of ten tanged arrowheads, a ceramic vessel, a chest with metal fittings and a shield. The shield was equipped with a boss of the R564 type with the brim edge surrounded by a sheet of copper alloy and a metal handle at least 40 cm long with a cast terminal (Arbman 1943: 323-5). As we can see, both graves share almost identical buckets, drinking vessels, shields and weapons of Frankish provenance. However, the grave from Birka lacks an equestrian component.
Selection of finds from grave Bj 850 in Birka.
Source: Arbman 1940: Abb. 272-3; Warming et al. 2020: Fig. 10; SHM Stockholm; Viktor Brolund.
If we accept the goods of grave Bj 850 as the closest analogy to the equipment of the Boat Chamber Grave, new dating possibilities can be suggested. Although Bj 850 is traditionally dated to the 9th century (Gräslund 1980: 27, 39), Androshchuk noted that in Phase 4 of the Birka settlement, casting molds were found for the production of identical shield handle terminals to those discovered in grave Bj 850 (Androshchuk 2014: 147). This settlement phase is dated approximately between 840-860 (Ambrosiani – Erikson 1996: 11; Ambrosiani – Androščuk 2006: 4).
The only other grave that combines a cast handle terminal and a boss of the R564 type with a brim surrounded by contrasting metal is Bj 467B at Birka (Arbman 1943: 134, Abb. 80a). This grave has been rather hastily stylistically dated to the late 8th or early 9th century (Wamers 1994: 26-7), but all we can say for sure about the grave is that it is older than Bj 467A, which was digged in the upper layer and which contains a piece of coin dated to 893-903 (Arbman 1943: 134; Gräslund 1980: 36). Completely identical fittings, as we know from Bj 467B, were also found in Rurikovo hillfort, where the terminal is dated to the 10th century (Nosov et al. 2017: 138-9, Рис. 56.24), and in grave 3 in Świelubie, which Łosiński dates to the second half of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century (Łosiński 1966). Duczko calls these fittings so similar that they look as if they were made by the same hand (Duczko 2020: 169). The boss from grave Bj 467B has rivets with a pearl edge, which have a single analogy – the boss from grave II from Vendel, which is also accompanied by a metal handle with cast terminals. Stolpe dates this grave to around the year 900 (Stolpe 1927: 59). Finally, we can agree with Müller-Wille’s opinion that all cast terminals can be dated to 9th-10th century (Müller-Wille 1976: 79).
On the basis of limited analogies from Bj 467B and Bj 850, it can be assumed that the shield component of the Boat Chamber Grave corresponds to a fashion that can be dated to the middle of the 9th century at the earliest. At this point, it is appropriate to mention the conclusion of Pedersen (2014: 158, 258), who describes the equestrian component of the Boat Chamber Grave as “one or two generations older” than the equestrian set from Ladby (around 925), which rather indicates the 2nd half of the 9th century. Based on a comparison with Great Moravian swords of type K, Košta does not rule out that the Boat chamber grave can be dated to the 3rd quarter of the 9th century (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2022: 299). Dating to the 3rd quarter 9th century would also make sense when compared with the magnificent grave from Kolín (Košta – Lutovský 2014): both princely graves are located on the periphery of the Frankish Empire, they contain Frankish weapons, garniture, buckets and glass drinking vessels. Such a fact would mean that some objects of the Boat Chamber Grave were several decades old at the time of their deposition, which is quite common in the case of Carolingian fittings in Scandinavia (Androshchuk 2014: 111; Thorvildsen 1957: Tav. 1). The dating to the years 830-850 is, in the existing literature, largely connected with the dating of the artistic style of the richly decorated sword Bb, and secondly, it is driven by the desire to connect the prestigious grave with the historical context, namely the Jutland king Harald Klak, who was baptized by the Franks and, according to the Annals of Fulda, he was killed in 852 (Radtke 2007; Wamers 1994: 32-42). However, in our opinion, similar historical interpretations are beyond the possibilities of the find.
Previous publications of the boss
The discussed boss Bc 1, found “on the head of the deceased in the northern part of chamber B” (Müller-Wille 1976: 78), has been published several times. It is described in the inventory card as “similar to the boss Bc” and having a “diameter of 15.3 cm and a height of 7.5 cm” (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 117). The most detailed description is offered by Müller-Wille (1976: 78):
“Iron boss, the greater part of the brim not preserved, maximum diameter 16.3 cm, height 7.5 cm. The brim is 1.8 cm wide, according to the X-ray with two rivets with a diameter of 0.9 cm. Beveled neck 1.4 cm high, rounded dome, offset from the neck, with a height of 5.5 cm.“
Müller-Wille adds that it is a boss of type R564 (Müller-Wille 1976: 79). Newer literature does not bring new knowledge and repeats Müller-Wille’s assessment (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010b: 117).
Boss Bc 1 from the Boat Chamber Grave from Haithabu.
Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 35.4-6.
Comparing Müller-Wille’s description with the current state of the boss raises several questions. Müller-Wille publishes a drawing of a boss with a significantly damaged brim, which is also documented in the textual description. However, the attached photo and the current condition indicate that the boss was restorated and missing parts of the brim and dome were added and stabilized from disintegration. It is noteworthy that Müller-Wille does not mention the use of non-ferrous metal, which may lead one to legitimately speculate that these bands may be related to conservation. This idea needs to be developed into a more comprehensive discussion:
1. the nature of the coloured material
First, the material of the bands needs to be discussed to rule out the possibility that they are some type of preservative paste. The material is yellowish. Upon personal observation, we got the impression that it is a metal material thinner than 0.1 cm. There is a possibility that it is a copper alloy. This assessment is also supported by the photographs taken by us, which show deformations typical of metal (twisting of the edges of the bands and grinding of the surface together with the surface of the brim). According to our assessment, it is clearly metal.
2. placement of non-ferrous metal
The material is found on the part of the brim that has withstood the test of time, while the contrasting material is not used on the restorated part of the brim. If the bands represented the conservator’s attempt to imitate the decorated bosses of the Early Middle Ages, she or he would have placed the bands symmetrically in other places on the brim as well. Metal bands are found in the area of the rivet holes, with one of the rivets being rust-baked to the base and most certainly not separated during conservation. Even if, for some reason, the rivet had been lined with the band during the restoration, it would have been of a regular shape and would not have been damaged. These arguments lead to the conclusion that the bands are not a recent intervention, but are an original part of the boss.
The material, thickness, shape and location of the bands as well as their deformations correspond well to the analogies mentioned below. The overall appearance of the decorated boss and accompanying handle corresponds well with the find from grave Bj 850 in Birka. Ultimately, the presence of a decorative band at the edge of the boss and the clamps that hold the band together explain the strange placement of the rivet holes, which the conservator understood as three triplets of holes. In fact, the boss could have 16 holes, 4 of which were intended to attach the boss to the board of the shield and the remaining 12 could be used to attach a decorative band to the boss.
The question is, of course, how all the works published so far could have neglected to mention the existence of a contrasting metal on the boss. There can be several reasons. The bands are indistinct and difficult to see without detailed focus and good lighting. Another factor is that similarly decorated bosses are very rare: out of the total number of thousands of Scandinavian bosses, only a few units are decorated with the contrasting metal. Under such circumstances, it is quite natural to overlook poorly visible elements.
Approximate reconstruction of shield boss from Haithabu.
Made by Tomáš Cajthaml, grafikacajthaml.cz.
In order to understand the Haithabu boss, it is worth reviewing all European decorated bosses of the period 800-1200 AD. Bosses are naturally divided into those whose brims are decorated by shaping or iron applications (type 1), and bosses with brims decorated with non-ferrous metals (type 2). From both dominant methods of decoration, it is evident that the logic of the decoration was aimed at creating the impression of rays, contrast and the play of light and shadow on the brims. This is achieved by shaping the material, openwork and applying a contrasting material (tin, copper alloy, silver, gold).
1. Ferrous decoration of bosses
1.1 – brim with lobes
The brim of the boss is circular or hexagonal in shape and is decorated with semicircular or pointed lobes, in which there are holes for rivets. Representatives of both variants come from a Scandinavian ship burial from L’île de Groix in Brittany (Müller-Wille 1978: 51, Abb. 4).
1.2 – brim wih teeth
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and decorated with large, medium or small teeth directed from the center. We currently know of at least six finds. One of them comes from grave Bj 573 in Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.9; 1943: 186), another from a ship grave from L’île de Groix (Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4) and four from the Norwegian sites of Kolkjøn ( C19723), Mælum (C1927), Strandå (Ts964) and Framstad (C7273).
1.3 – brim surrounded by a toothed band
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and decorated with a toothed plate that surrounds its edge. The teeth point towards the center. We currently know the only find of this type, which comes from grave Bj 731 in Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.8; 1943: 253-255).
1.4 – hexagonal shaped brim
The brim of the boss is hexagonal in shape, with the rivets located at the apexes. Only one representative is known to us, namely a boss from the ship grave from L’île de Groix (Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4).
1.5 – openwork brim
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and has openwork holes in it. The only specimen is a find from Berlin – Spandau (Müller – Müller-Muči 1999: 25-6, Abb. 4.3).
2. Non-ferrous decoration of bosses
2.1 – brim with decorated rivets
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and attached and decorated with copper alloy headed rivets with a pearl edge. An example of this solution is known from grave II of Vendel (Arbman 1943: Abb. 80b; Stolpe 1927: 18-19, Pl. XI). Decorated rivets are also known in the older period (e.g. Freeden 2020: Taf. 32).
2.2 – the brim surrounded by a straight band
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and decorated with a straight sheet of copper alloy that surrounds its edge. The sheet is attached using clamps made of the same material. Finds from graves Bj 467B (Arbman 1943: 134, Abb. 80a) and Bj 850 (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.2; 1943: 323-5) in Birka correspond to this form of decoration. Boss from Haithabu also belongs to this variant. The clamps may be attached with pearl-edged rivets of silver-plated copper alloy, as shown by the find from grave Bj 467B. A straight sheet of copper alloy, which is attached by means of clamps, is also known from Vendel period bosses (Arwidsson 1954: Taf. 14; 1977: Abb. 104), where it is part of more complex compositions.
2.3 – the brim surrounded by a stepped band
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and decorated with a stepped sheet of tin that surrounds its edge. The plate is three-stepped and corresponds to the fittings of knife sheaths (Vlasatý 2022) and mouth fittings of drinking horns (Vlasatý 2021). The only known find is a boss from grave Bj 544 in Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.1; 1943: 170; Arwidsson 1986: 42).
2.4 – brim surrounded by a toothed band
The brim of the boss is circular in shape and decorated with a toothed sheet of copper alloy that surrounds its edge. The teeth point towards the center. This variant is known from grave Bj 628 in Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 16.1, 17.7; Arwidsson 1986: 42).
2.5 – gilded surface
The brim of the boss is circular in shape. The entire boss is made of copper alloy and is gold-plated completely. The gilding is intentionally left out on the brim so that the left-out spaces have the shape of teeth or rays pointing from the center. The rays are arranged in one or two rows. We know of only two finds of this variant, the first from Berlin – Spandau (Müller – Müller-Muči 1999: 25-6, Abb. 4.4), the second from the Finnish site of Nousiainen – Myllymäki (Kivikoski 1951: 39-40, Abb. 1100). Other gilded bosses are closely related to the group, namely a piece from Pfulgriesheim, which is decorated with two rows of dots on the brim, a find from Füllinsdorf, whose brim is finished with rosette-like projections, and a find from the Gammertingen-Baldenstein site with an openwork brim (Martin et al. 2013: 159-161).
The shield boss from part B of the Boat Chamber Grave is very probably the only decorated find of its kind from historical Denmark. The recognition of this find brings new possibilities in the search for parallels to the grave inventory (grave Bj 850 in Birka) and potentially offers clues to a more accurate dating of the entire grave. The assumption that the dating of the Boat Chamber Grave from Haithabu can be placed closer to the middle or the 3rd quarter of the 9th century will have to be independently verified by new exact analyses.
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This article would not have been possible without Melf Negel, with whose help the decorations on the Haithabu boss were discovered. For that he deserves our immense thanks. We are greatly indebted to Tomáš Cajthaml (grafikacajthaml.cz), who selflessly created excellent illustrations for this article. We consulted the obtained material with Viktor Brolund, Kristián Jócsik (Nitra University), Matthias Toplak (Viking Museum, Haithabu) and Rolf Warming (Stockholm University). Thank you for your help!
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