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Horns decorated with openwork metal edges



Drinking vessels made of cow and auroch horns are probably the most symbolic and best known vessels of the Viking Age, which appear both in written sources at feasts and ceremonies and are depicted in iconography. The horns had this tradition long before that period and were preserved until the Middle Ages (eg Bebre 2003; Grieg 1959; Lindeberg 1984; Simniškytė 1998). There is no doubt that these vessles followed strict rules that dictated how, when and by whom they could be used. For example, some banquets may have followed the law of drekka tvimenning (the couple shared a common horn), while in other cases the lord’s horn was used for oaths, vows, and toasts; both situations suggest that the horns figured as a means of maintaining social bonds (Hofmann 2015). In societies where feasting and other forms of formal entertainment played a crucial role, horns were important household equipment, by which the owner also demonstrated his generosity and hospitality (Heen-Pettersen 2014). If we were to elaborate, we can say that the fact that an animal skull provides two horns adds to the host concept, where one horn is used by the host and his house, the other horn used by guests, reflecting the division of Old Norse long houses into domestic and guest part (Starý 2003: 85). This corresponds to many early medieval graves, in which the horns are found in pairs (Hofmann 2015: 244). Placing drinking horns in graves can be interpreted as a continuation of this host-ruling practice and a demonstration of the power of the deceased, but the horns could also play a role in calling positive agents (Bebre 2003: 34). We can add that in skaldic and eddic poetry, horns are used to drink mead and wine, while in sagas to drink beer.

Given the seriousness given to the horns, it is not surprising that a large part of the horns are decorated with non-ferrous metals – these are usually an edge (mouthpiece), terminals, hanging loops, plaques and more. Viktorija Bebre, who has long dealt with the issue of Baltic drinking horns, sees the decoration as a manifesto of quality craftsmanship and artistic processing (Bebre 2003: 34). Petersen states that four-fifths of Norwegian horns are decorated with a metal application (Petersen 1951: 396-400), which may be due in part to the fact that we are able to detect the presence of horns thanks to the fittings. Metal decoration should not be seen as an extraordinary feature of drinking horns, because in some regions the horns are found in really significant numbers – for example, we know more than 400 specimens from Curonia of 10th-13th century (Bebre 2003: 31).

From a statistical point of view, the vast majority of European horns of 9th-12th century are decorated with a cast terminal or simple narrow mouthpieces with a U-shaped cross-section of folded sheet metal usually made of copper alloy. These simple edges, which encircle the mouth of the horn on both sides, can be found both in Norway (Petersen 1951: 399) and in Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 169b.8-9; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 356) and Curonia (Bebre 2002; Bebre 2003). A smaller group is represented by horns, which are decorated with wide sheets riveted to the outside of the mouth. This group can be further divided into solid sheets, represented for example by the horns of Haithabu (Arents – Eisenschmidt 2010: Taf. 116.23), Aarhus (Christiansson 1959: Fig. 160) and Black Grave (Fettich 1937: Tab. LXXV), and perforated sheets, which we will examine below. The article will include all finds from the period of 9th-12th century, which have:

  • one-piece sheet metal edges with perforation and/or stepped lower edge. The Mammen find, which does not have perforations, certainly belongs to the monitored group and should be included.
  • multipart edges with more than two consecutive openwork applications. The Curonian horns thus fall out of the main part of the catalog (which are presented in the Appendix), in contrast to the horns from the Gnězdovo grave Л-23/1949, which undoubtedly belongs to the observed group.

The reason for creating this article is both informing the reenactor community and academic interest. We primarily aim to:

  • mapping and revising the number of these items, organizing by country of origin.
  • defining the main features, which will facilitate the search for parallels in the future; integration into the wider context.
  • proposing a relationship to other items decorated in a similar way.

It is important to mention that the presented catalog reflects the material known to us and therefore may not be complete. We would be grateful for any additional finds and comments.

Decorated horn inspired by the find from Thumby-Bienebek 7. Production: Roman Král, Královo řemeslo

Definition of the group

As mentioned above, fittings that meet our definition are always one-sided and do not extend inside the horn, they do not have a U-shaped profile. They are almost always made of thin silver sheet metal up to 4.5 cm wide. Due to this material and the fact that the terminals are always absent, a different production tradition and strategy can be assumed in the presentation of the object – fittings are located in the belt from southern Norway and Denmark through northern Germany, Gotland, central Sweden and along the Old Rus river routes, around which Scandinavian elements are collected. It can be argued that fittings of these types are found primarily where we do not find a strong tradition of narrow mouthpieces with a U-shaped profile and cast ends, which are in most cases made of copper alloy.

While the upper edge is always straight – flat or reinforced (Ralswiek) -, the lower edge is mostly stepped, traditionally three-staged, although we also know two-staged (Tuna, Alsike III; graves 36 and 110 from Šestovica) and four-staged (Pskov, Ц-41/Сизов-1885 from Gnězdovo). T-shaped perforations and stamps (resembling the shape of hammer amulets or keyholes, see Muhl 1990: 258; Staecker 1999; Tomtlund 1978) are almost always bonded with the stepped edge and do not appear to be underlaid by contrast metal. In the case of a stepped edge, the lowest steps are always fastened with rivets, which prevents detachment and thus bending and possible damage. In some cases, the rivets are also located on the higher steps, thanks to which the maximum number of levels at which the rivets are located is equal to four or five (Pskov, Ust-Rybežno). At the upper edge, the rivets are placed in different ways, however, it is important to note that the rivets are usually organized zigzag (the fittings from the unknown Danish location being the only exception). In the case of the Gnězdovo grave Л-23/1949, the lower edge is not finished in the classical stepped manner, but by sharp spikes and palmette applications. The rivets used in this group commonly have a mushroom-shaped unadorned head; the only exception is the rivets found at the Frøyland fitting, which have a flower motif with eleven petals. We can add that all manufacturers of early medieval horns struggled with a solution to aesthetically mask the overlap or non-fit of the rims – while Baltic metalworkers covered these places with additional clamps to hold the mouthpieces in place (see Appendix), manufacturers of a group of horns with openwork decoration and stepped edge relied on the that the overlap of the sheet at the level of the highest step would sufficiently distract from the otherwise unsightly joint. Due to the precise connection and material savings, the fittings had to be precisely tailored to the specific horn in advance.

Decorated horn inspired by the find from Šestovica 2/2006.
Production: Ivan Minakov, Мастерская “Messing und Silber”

Generally speaking, horns with this type of decoration do not look very plastic and, with the exception of the reinforced edge and rivets, do not have a shaped or significantly roughened surface, as is the case with period glass, for example. This fact worsens the grip in the case of greasy hands, which can be responded to by the raised ribs of the horn fittings from Ust-Rybežna, the most significant plastic element we find in the group. Another plastic element is the raised horn decoration from Mammen. Potentially another form of roughening is attaching plaques, which are riveted below the level of the edge and which take the shape of an openwork rhombus (2/2006 from Šestovica; Л-23, Л-47 and Л-210 from Gnězdovo) or birds (Thumby-Bienebek 7). Plaques are also found at horns that do not belong to the group with an openwork – let’s name diamond plaques from the Black Mound, Ukraine (Samokvasov 1916: Рис. 5, 13, 15), round plaque with lobes from Aarhus (Roesdahl – Wilson 1992: 236), a cross plaque from Fasteraunet, Norway (T9591) or finds from the pre-Viking Baltic area (Simniškytė 1998: 25-29 pav.). It should be added that the openwork plaques are backed with a contrasting sheet of copper alloy.

Scheme of the copper alloy backing of openwork plaques. Author: Diego Flores Cartes.

It is typical for this group that the fittings are decorated with stamped decoration, which makes the horns more attractive and, like the T-shaped perforation, creates an aesthetic contrast of dark and light areas. If more than one stamp is used, the embossing is systematic and takes place in several levels, while for fittings decorated with only one stamps, the holes can be placed more or less randomly. The fittings are oriented so that the lower surfaces face the horn. There are stamps of the following shapes (fillings) on the material we present below:

  • narrow rectangular line (without filling; Birka, Bj 523; Gnězdovo, Л-23/1949; Thumby-Bienebek 7).
  • round pit (without filling; Gnězdovo, Л-23/1949; Ust-Rybežno; unknown Danish location).
  • ring (ring; Birka, Bj 523; Grågård; Gnězdovo, Л-47/1950; Thumby-Bienebek 7; Tuna, Alsike III). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71n.
  • triangle (three rings; Birka, Bj 523; Frøyland; Kyjev, ul. Vladimirskaja 1-3; Šestovica, 36, 110 and 2/2006). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71c-d.
  • triangle (six rings; Bölske; Pskov; unknown Danish location). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71i.
  • triangle (ten rings; Gnězdovo, Ц-41/Сизов-1885). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71i.
  • diamond (ring; Ralswiek; Gnězdovo, Ц-41/Сизов-1885; Kyjev, street Vladimirskaja 1-3; Šestovica, 36, 110 and 2/2006; Thumby-Bienebek 7). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71t.
  • diamond (four rings; Bölske). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71s.
  • T-shape (dot; Gnězdovo, Л-47/1950). Corresponds to Stenberger 1958: Textabb. 71v.
  • flower with four petals (Frøyland).

The most frequently used stamps appear to be circular, triangular and diamond shapes with circular fillings. These dominant groups of stamps are leitmotifs of Viking Age jewelery and can be found in numerous finds, for example, from Gotland (Stenberger 1958: 288-296; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 413-4). A comparison of the stamps used has interesting consequences, for example, in that the horns of Šestovica use identical embossing methods, so it is possible to speculate on the same manufacturer.

Comparison of horn edges with stepped fittings.
Author: Michal Havelka, baba_jaga_atelierBigger resolution here.

The dating of this group points mainly to the 10th century. The oldest find could be considered to be fittings from Frøyland, which is sometimes dated to the beginning of the 9th century (Bakka 1993: 293; Hernæs 1994: 113; Petersen 1951: 496), sometimes to the whole of the 9th century (Lillehammer et al. 1995: 167; Petersen 1951: 31, 492), mainly on the basis of the sword, axe, belt buckles and other fittings, however, it is not impossible that this dating is incorrect. The horn from the grave of Bj 523 in Birka can be dated to the 1st half or 2nd third of the 10th century thanks to the presence of glass playing figures; in contemporary literature it is dated to the younger phase of Birka (after 900; Lindeberg 1984). The find from Tjele, Denmark, is dated to the middle of the 10th century by Müller-Wille (1976: 41), and by other authors between the 950s and 970s (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 188; Lund 2006: 325). The specimen from Thumby-Bienebek is also from the middle of the 10th century (Müller-Wille 1976: 41). The find from grave 92a in Ralswiek, like the rest of the burial ground, dates from the end of the 9th century to the first half of the 10th century (Herrmann – Warnke 2008: 48-51). The horn from Ust-Rybežno is dated to 920-950 (Boguslavskij 1991: No. 113). Ščeglova (2017: 622) dates the find from Tuna Alsike to the second half of the 10th century. All three horns of Šestovica can be dated to the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the 10th century. The horn from the Gnězdovo mound Ц-41/Сизов-1885 can also be dated to the 3rd quarter of the 10th century (Kainov 2019: 191), which also applies to the horn from Mammen (Näsman 1991: 251). The fittings from chamber grave 3 from Pskov date back to the end of the 10th century (Kulakova 2015). Depots from Grågård and Bölske, which recycle older fragments, can be dated to the years 1000-1025 (Müller-Wille 1976: 41; Ščeglova 2017: 622). In other words, apart from the fact that the group of horns is strikingly similar in appearance, it was made in a relatively narrow period of time.

Decorated horn inspired by the find from Ц-41/Сизов-1885, Gnězdovo. Production: Dmitrij Nedviga

Relation to other types of objects

Geographical distribution suggests that the chosen group is closely associated with Scandinavian culture, which explains its use during the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the 10th century in leading Old Rus localities. The visual similarity with other objects from the same culture also leads to the same. In the Scandinavian and Baltic areas, it shows that the horn fittings are visually connected with the fittings of the sheaths of short and long knives, which can sometimes lead to their confusion, as happened in Spicyn’s description of the find from mound 56 in Gnězdovo (Sizov 1902: Табл. V.6; Spicyn 1905: 20, 42). While in the case of Baltic knives and horns, fittings with a serrated edge are used (where the teeth are fixed with two rivets placed one above the other), in Scandinavian analogies a stepped edge is used in combination with a T-shaped or cross-shaped openings. Each region had its own characteristic craftsmanship.

Comparison of Lithuanian serrated decoration on the example of a knife and horn remains.
Source: Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 21 pav; Simniškytė 1998: 17 pav.
Comparison of Old Rus stepped decoration on the example of a knife and horn remains.
Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 127; Sizov 1902: таб. IV.

Knife components with a stepped edge can be found in Norway (Myhre – Gansum 2003: 23), Sweden (eg Arbman 1940: Taf. 178.3; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 184-5) and in Old Rus (eg Blifeld 1977: Табл. VI.5, XXV.10), ie in approximately the same region. In several cases, horns and knives decorated with this type of edge are found in the same localities (Birka, Gnězdovo, Šestovica). Although the main promoters of stepped fittings appear to be Scandinavians and Old Rus, it is necessary to ask how and when the mentioned method of decoration developed. This article fails to answer this question at this time – it might seem to be a reworked version of the serrated work from Curonia, but it should be noted that horns with a toothed edge are common in Anglo-Saxon England (Evans 1994: 64-6; Graham-Campbell 1973) and Scandinavia (Christiansson 1959: Fig. 160), and is therefore spread in much of Europe. Due to the fact that the stepped edge with openings appears in different places independently of each other in the past (Kubik – Radjuš 2019: Рис. 7, 9), the possibility cannot be ruled out that this form of decoration is a distinctive Scandinavian achievement.

T-shaped or cross-shaped openings are similarly common for knives and are found in Sweden (eg Arbman 1940: Taf. 6), Latvia (Rybakov 1987: 420, Table CXI.38) and Old Rus (eg Leontiev 1996: 121, Fig. 47.1). However, the perforation and stepped edge of knives are often accompanied by a contrasting metal backing, which we cannot find at horns. And the differences continue – unlike horn fittings, knife fittings are made of non-silver alloys, usually a copper alloy, which is sometimes tinned. The form of the embossing also differs for knife fittings.

Catalog of openwork edges


Material: silver.
Literature: Müller-Wille 1976: 41, Tab. 33.8.

Fitting from Grågårdu. Zdroj: Müller-Wille 1976: Tab. 33.8.

Material: gilded copper alloy.
Width: 3 cm.
Literatura: Näsman 1991: 238-245.

Fitting from Mammen. Source: Näsman 1991: Fig. 29, 31.

Material: Müller-Wille gives silver as the material, Leth-Larsen says copper alloy.
Literature: Leth-Larsen 1984: 95, Fig. 7; Müller-Wille 1976: 41, Tab. 33.9.

Fitting from Tjele. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Tab. 33.9.

Unknown Danish location
Unknown context. Fittings are stored in the National museum of Copenhagen, inv. no. C24116.
Material: silver.
Width: 3.3 cm.
Literature: Pedersen 2014: 215, 222; Williams 2014: 143, Fig. 38.

Fittings from the unknown Danish location. Source: Gvido Libmanis.


Thumby-Bienebek, chamber grave 7
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Accompanied by two fittings in the shape of birds.
The original diameter of the horn is about 7 cm.
Literature: Müller-Wille 1976: 41, 50-1, Tab. 30, 32, 33.

Fitting from Thumby-Bienebek. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Tab. 30, 32, 33.  

Ralswiek, grave 92A
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Literature: Herrmann – Warnke 2008: Taf. 52; Müller-Wille 1976: 41, Taf. 33.10.

Fitting from Ralswiek. Source: Herrmann – Warnke 2008: Taf. 52; Müller-Wille 1976: Tab. 33.10.


Grave find. S2222.
Material: silver.
Width: 2.6 cm.
Length: ca. 18 cm.
Literature: Hernæs 1994: 94-5.

Fitting from Frøyland. Source: catalog UNIMUS and Hernæs 1994: Fig. 4.


Gnězdovo, mound Ц-41/Сизов-1885
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Literature: Müller-Wille 1976: Taf. 33.5; Sizov 1902: 47, таб. IV.

Fittings from the mound Ц-41/Сизов-1885, Gnězdovo. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Taf. 33.7; Rozenfeld 1997: таб. 29.1.

Gnězdovo, mound Л-23/1949
Grave find.
The fittings are accompanied by an openwork plaque with T-shaped perforations.
Material: silver.
Literature: Avdusin 1951: Fig. 35; Avdusin 1952b: 349; Rozenfeld 1997: таб. 29.2.

Fittings from the mound Л-23, Gnězdovo. Source: Avdusin 1951: Fig. 35; Rozenfeld 1997: таб. 29.2.

Gnězdovo, mound Л-47/1950
Grave find.
Horn applications consisting of at least six fragments of mouthpieces and two rhombic plaques. A plaque with a valknútr was found in the grave, but it is not bent and is decorated with somewhat different decor and rivets. At least three horns were deposited in the grave, and the valknútr plaque appears to be from another organic product. The material from the grave is currently being published by S. Kainov and A. Ščedrina.
Material: silver.
Literature: Avdusin 1952a: 98, Fig. 29.1-2; Kainov – Novikov 2022: 79-80.

Fittings from the mound Л-47, Gnězdovo. Source: Avdusin 1952a: Fig. 29.1-2.

Fittings from the mound Л-47, Gnězdovo. Source: Kainov – Novikov 2022: Fig. 2.

Gnězdovo, mound Л-210/2018
Grave find.
The fittings take on a classic three-stage shape with T-shaped perforations and very careful embossing. Accompanied by a rhombic plaque with T-shaped perforations. The material from the grave is currently being published by S. Kainov and A. Ščedrina.
Material: silver.
Literature: a new, unpublished find. Information provided by Sergei Kainov and Alexandra Shchedrina.

Pskov, chamber grave 3
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Diameter: max. 6-8 cm.
Width: 2.5 cm.
Literature: Jakovleva 2015: 128-9, 151.

Fittings from Pskov. Source: Jakovleva 2015: 151.

Ust-Rybežno, mound XIX
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Literature: Brandenburg 1895: 102, таб. IX.4; Müller-Wille 1976: Taf. 33.5.

Fittings from the site Ust-Rybežno. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Taf. 33.5; Rozenfeld 1997: таб. 29.4.


Birka, grave Bj 523
Grave find. Consists of two decorated horns.
Material: silver.
Width of the wider fitting: 2.3-2.45 cm.
Width of the narrower fitting: 2.1 cm.
Literature: Arbman 1940: Taf. 196.1-2; Lindeberg 1984; Müller-Wille 1976: 41, Taf. 33.2-3.

Fittings from Birka. Source: Arbman 1940: Taf. 196.1-2.

Tuna, Alsike, grave III
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Literature: Arne 1934: 28, Taf. VII.12; Müller-Wille 1976: 41, Taf. 33.4.

Fittings from Tuna. Source: Müller-Wille 1976: Tab. 33.4.

Hoard. SHM 2305.
Material: silver.
Width: 4.25 cm.
Literature: Stenberger 1947: 80–81, Taf. 195.2.

Fittings from Bölske. Source: Stenberger 1947: Taf. 195.2.


Kyjev, street Vladimirskaja 1-3 
Unknown context.
Material: silver.
Width: 2.2 cm.
Literature: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 77.

Fitting from Kyiv. Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 77.

Šestovica, grave 36
Grave find.
Material: silver.
Length: 30 cm.
Width: 4 cm.
Literature: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 187, Fig. 131; Arne 1931: Abb. 36; Müller-Wille 1976: Taf. 33.6.

Fittings from Šestovica 36. Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 131.

Šestovica, grave 110
Grave find.
Rozenfeld’s drawing reconstruction contains a mistake, the original fitting has a classic three-stage edge.
Material: silver.
Literature: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 272, Fig. 209; Blifeld 1977: 176.

Fittings from Šestovica 110. Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 209; Rozenfeld 1997: таб. 29.3.

Šestovica, grave 2/2006
Grave find. Another smaller horn was found in the grave.
Openwork fittings accompanied by openwork plaque.
Material: silver.
Literature: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 327, 334, 340; Komar 2012: 353.

Horn of the grave Šestovica 2/2006 in situ. Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 327; Komar 2012: Рис. 15.
Fittings from the grave of Šestovica 2/2006. Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 340.

Fittings of both graves from the grave Šestovica 2/2006. Source: Tom Nordulf.

Appendix: Catalog of other openwork applications

Kyiv, Podil
Unknown context.
The object is interpreted as a remnant of a decorated horn with two different fittings. The mouth as the widest part is reinforced with a wider strip, while an openwork rectangular fitting is placed perpendicular to it. Both fittings are said to be iron and gilded, fastened with small nails.
Material: gilded iron.
Literature: Gupalo 1982: 84-85; Rozenfeld 1997: 40.

Fittings from Podil. Source: Gupalo 1982: 85.
Photo of the Podil find from the exposition of the museum in Podil. Source: Lesya Tkachuk.

Raņķu Kapenieki, grave 28
Grave find. V 7635:36.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Bebre 2002: 12. att.

Fittings from grave 28 from Raņķu Kapenieki. Source: Bebre 2002: 12. att.

Raņķu Kapenieki, grave 16
Grave find. V 7622:5.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Bebre 2002: 20. att.

Fittings from grave 16 from Raņķu Kapenieki. Source: Bebre 2002: 20. att.

Alšvangas Kantiķi
Náhodný nález. V 9562:7.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Bebre 2002: 13. att.

Fittings from the site Alšvangas Kantiķi. Source: Bebre 2002: 13. att.

Alsungas Kalniņi, grave 20
Grave find. V 11722:37.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Bebre 2002: 21-22. att.

Fittings from grave 20 from Alsungas Kalniņi. Source: Bebre 2002: 21-22. att.

Unknown context.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Schiefferdecker 1871; Širouchov 2014: 122.

Fittings from Stangenwalde burial ground. Source: Širouchov 2014: 10. pav.

Grave find. LNM 185:617
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Simniškytė 1998: 39-40. pav.

Fittings from Griežė burial ground. Source: Simniškytė 1998: 39-40. pav.

Grave find. LNM 185:1192.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Simniškytė 1998: 40. pav.

Fittings from Griežė burial ground. Source: Simniškytė 1998: 40. pav.

Laiviai, grave 277 / 366
Grave find. EM 2:1409.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Simniškytė 1998: 42. pav.

Fittings from Laiviai burial ground. Source: Simniškytė 1998: 42. pav.

Grave find. ŽMA 22:609.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Simniškytė 1998: 42. pav.

Fittings from Gintališkė burial ground. Source: Simniškytė 1998: 42. pav.

Grave find. LNM 185:224-227.
Material: copper alloy.
Literature: Simniškytė 1998: 41. pav.

Fittings from Griežė burial ground. Source: Simniškytė 1998: 41. pav.

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