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The Wallet from Sigtuna, Sweden

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Introduction

The archaeological material relating to bags, satchels, wallets and pouches of the Viking Age from the territory of today’s Sweden is surprisingly extensive. We can divide it into:

  • utility and undecorated pouches and cases.
    At least twelve pieces were discovered in Birka, namely in graves Bj 60A, 97C, 526, 759, 838, 839, 886, 943, 955, 966, 1074 and 1151 (Gräslund 1984: 153). Several pouches have been found on Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 154-5), the best-preserved one coming from Grötlingbo (Trotzig 1991: 199-201). At least two pouches are known from grave 12 from Valsgärde (Sénby Posse 2021: 55, 68; Steuer 1997: Abb. 14b). One unpublished pouch is known from Sigtuna. One pouch made of beaver tail is known from the Långön site (Arne 1926; Råhlander 2017). Said pouches were commonly used as cases for combs, fire striking sets and scales and weights. This type of find is not uncommon in Europe and has numerous analogies (e.g. Groenman-van Waateringe 1984: Taf. 23-4; Kowalska 2019: 284-5; Siegmüller 2010: 177-8).

An example of a pouch. Source: Steuer 1997: Abb. 14b.

  • folding wallets.
    Up to 25 pieces of these wallets are known from Birka, from graves Bj 503, 523, 543, 709, 710, 715, 717, 724, 727, 731, 746, 750 (2 ex.), 776, 804, 808, 834, 837, 845, 855, 904, 956, 965, 1037 and 1149 (Gräslund 1984: 153). Some have multiple compartments. The most decorative specimens are interwoven with gilded leather straps. One interwoven piece is also known from Trelleborg, Denmark (Vlasatý 2022). A folding wallet apparently lined with fabric is known from Gokstad, Norway (Vlasatý 2020a). Folding coin bags decorated with sewn applications made of leather are also known from other European countries (Vlasatý 2020b; 2024).

An example of a folding wallet. Source: Václav Maňha, Ratatosk CRAFT.

  • lyre-shaped wallets with edge fittings.
    Wallets of this type are known from five graves from Birka, namely Bj 229, 368, 798, 949, 958 (Gräslund 1984: 153). An identical wallet is also known from the Norra Åbyggeby site in Gästrikland and one mount from an unknown site in Skåne (Sörling 1939). We know a total of four representatives of this type on Gotland, coming from the localities of Slite, Kopparsvik, Hangvar and Stora Förvar (Sörling 1945; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 154-5). Bags of the same shape are known from Lithuania (Nerman 1958: Taf. 36), Latvia (Berga 1988: 59; G̦inters 1981: 22-3; Zariņa 1997: 100), Russia (Koroleva 2016; Krylaszova et al. 2014: 487-9; Nikitina 2013; 2023; Širinskij 1999: 130, 134) and Ukraine (Mocja – Skorochod 2020: 174-5). In the Volga region, wallets of these shapes are often made of beaver tail. The wallets date back to the 10th century.

Examples of lyre-shaped wallets. Source: Sörling 1939: Fig. 1; 1945: Fig. 3.

  • sabretaches with lids decorated with separated fittings.
    We know these pieces from at least seven graves from Birka, namely Bj 93B, 154, 716, 731, 904, 943, 956 (Gräslund 1984: 153). Wing-shaped mounts of a bag lid was also found in the Garrison of Birka (Hedenstierna-Jonson – Holmquist Olausson 2006: 17, 79). A well-known and well-preserved sabretache comes from grave 4 from the Rösta site (Gräslund 1975; Zachrisson 2006). Sabretache fittings of the same type are known from grave 12 from the Långön site (Zachrisson 2006: Fig. 3). One sabretache fitting may also come from Paviken on Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 142.5). There is no doubt that bags of this category have an Eastern European origin, where they served primarily as containers for fire striking sets. The closest analogies come from Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine, where they are dated roughly to the range of 920/930-970/980 (Gáll et al. 2018; G̦inters 1981: 20-1; Ivakin 2011: Рис. 29; Jensen 1993; Kivikoski 1973: Abb. 917, 931; Koperski 2003: 368; Krylaszova et al. 2014; Langó 2007: Fig. 159-160; Novicsihin et al. 2017; Puškina 1996: Cat. no. 320-322; Seljun 2021; Schulze-Dörrlamm 1988: 424; Širinskij 1999; Tereščenko 2012; Virágos 2022). However, we must emphasize that local traditions of bags with decorated lids were applied in a large part of Europe and used other forms of mounts (e.g. Galuška 2013: 64-7; Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 178-180, 457).

An example of a sabretache with separated fittings on the lid.
Source: vikingar.historiska.se.

  • sabretaches with metal lids.
    In Sweden, these bags are represented by only two finds from graves Bj 644 and 819 from Birka (Gräslund 1984: 153). The closest parallels again come from the territory of Hungary, Russia and Ukraine, where they served as containers for fire striking sets and were placed in graves in the years 920/930-970/980 (Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 334; Fettich 1937; Gáll et al. 2018; Krylaszova et al. 2014; Nikitina 2013; Nikitina et al. 2022; 2023; Virágos 2022).

An example of the metal lid. Source: Virágos 2022: 82.

  • bags with wooden handles.
    An underwater survey of Birka harbour in 2014 gave one complete wooden handle, 28.2 cm long and 0.7 cm maximum thickness, and four other fragments (Olsson 2017: 516, Fig. 401-5). Another paired find was discovered in Sigtuna (Vlasatý 2021). The best-known examples of work bags of a similar kind come from Haithabu (Schietzel 2014: 265; Ulbricht 1978: Taf. 42.1-2; Westphal 2006: 80, Taf. 59.1-4), Viborg (Petersen 2005: 407-409, Fig. 24) and York (Morris 2000: 2387-8, 2423, Cat. no. 9142, Fig. 1183).

An example of a work bag with wooden handles. Author: Monika Baráková.

However, most of the finds are of a fragmentary nature, which does not allow for a complete reconstruction. It is typical that a large number of pieces can only be detected just by metal fittings, i.e. fully organic finds, which must have been significantly more numerous, appear to be poorly represented. Researchers who are interested in simple and well-preserved leather bags and wallets therefore until recently had to use non-Swedish parallels, such as the wallets from Elisenhof (Grenander-Nyberg 1985: 234, 247, Taf. 76; 1993) or Gniezno (Kurnatowska 2008: 354).

The situation changed somewhat in 2019, when the Sigtuna Museum (Sigtuna Museum & Art) published information about a new and relatively well-preserved wallet (Sigtuna Museum 2019a-b; 2024) that allows a realistic reconstruction. Although the wallet remains officially unpublished, the museum agreed to our offer of publication and provided us with all the necessary information. The article below, created with the consent of the said museum and its staff, aims to present the find and the context of its discovery. There is also a chapter on the production of the reconstruction, where we focus mainly on achieving a similar decorative ornament.

Position of Sigtuna on the map of Europe.


Circumstances of the find, dating and place of storage

The wallet was found during extensive excavations at the Trädgårdsmästaren site in Sigtuna in 1988-1990. The discovery took place at house no. 368 on plot V, but it is not known whether it was inside or outside the house. The 3,75 × 3,75 meter building had wicker and apparently daubed walls and is interpreted as a multi-purpose building (Wikström et al. 2011: 54, 60). The building belongs to construction phase 3, which is dated to the years 1020-1050. The same data can therefore also be applied towards the wallet.

The wallet is currently kept in the Sigtuna Museum (Sigtuna Museum & Art). Inventory number is 24836, object number TRGM 24665.

Building no. 368 and its immediate surroundings. Source: Wikström et al. 2011: 54, Fig. 37.


Wallet description

The Sigtuna find represents the outer (dorsal) side of a folding wallet, which had an oval shape with a narrowed center. The maximum length of the preserved part is 143 mm, the maximum width in the extended part is 110 mm. The minimum width in the narrowed and damaged center is 98 mm. These dimensions also include the edges that have been sewn to the counterpart; the width of the curved edges is 2.5 mm. The original wallet was turned so the seams were not visible and were inside the product. The holes for stitches are circular or oval, with a diameter of 0.5-0.9 mm and a spacing of 5-7 mm. The wallet is made of thin leather with a thickness of 0.9-1.5 mm. The leather was not analyzed.

Front and back of wallet from Sigtuna. Source: Sigtuna Museum.

The entire visible side of the leather plate is decorated with a simple ornament that is barely visible from the opposite side. Two lines run through the center of the longer side of the entire object, which are accompanied by two more lines at a distance of approximately 20 mm. The width of this quartet of lines is 10 mm. The side arms, also formed by pairs of lines, are subsequently separated from the main pair of lines. The distance between all three resulting pairs is 4-5 mm. The side arms reach half the length of the wallet and do not extend to the second half, defining which half was dominant when folded. The area between the pairs of lines is raised and the space of the “dominant” half is adjusted so that it forms an raised meander-like zigzag with a spacing of 3-4 mm between the peaks. The wavy finish on the reverse half is not present. All lines are dark and 1-1.3 mm wide. The method of achieving the ornament will be the subject of the next chapter.

Detail of the decoration on the dominant half of the wallet from Sigtuna.
Source: Sigtuna Museum.

The original meaning of the ornament is unclear and can be the subject of wild speculation. Swedish archaeologists Eric Östergren and Anders Söderberg, upon personal inspection, suggested the possibility that it could be a variant of the Eastern European heraldic trident with a long central prong. If we look at the corpus, we find variants that are quite similar in the 10th-11th century period (Beleckij 2014: 360). However, this similarity does not mean a definitive interpretation, only a theoretical possibility. Since we also know Eastern European miniature axes in Sigtuna from a similar period (see Edberg 1999; 2006), it can be concluded that Sigtuna was definitely connected to long-distance trade routes leading to this region. The theory cannot be completely ruled out.

The inner side representing the storage space is missing. Based on the closest analogies, we can say that it was either a one-piece plate that was sewn around and that had a central hole (see Arbman 1940: Taf. 130), or it was two separate pockets (see Arbman 1940: Taf. 132). The find does not make it possible to say which of the variants was used in this case; the following diagrams represent both options. Another question to which we do not know the answer concerns the use of a strap that would secure the wallet in the folded position. We can assume its presence, but we do not know what particular form it took.

Two design variants of the wallet from Sigtuna. Author: Diego Flores Cartes.


Reproduction

The obtained photos were consulted with professional reenactor and replica maker Roman Král (King’s Craft), who had already created one functional version of the wallet in the past. The subject of the consultation was mainly a correct imitation of an ornamental motif. The wallet itself is not a complex product and can be made by anyone with basic knowledge of leatherworking. A minimum of tools are needed for production: a knife, an awl, a thread and wax. Roman states that the production and preparation took 4-5 hours of work, while the decoration took about a third of that time, roughly 1.5 hours.

A detailed reading of the decor confirmed that the ornament was most likely achieved with a knife and a single tool of a bone nature with a blunt point that was similar to a bookbinder’s bone. All decoration is created by work on the face side of the wallet. The leather is soaked before decorating, which allows it to be shaped. The decoration is created by straight knife cuts, which are then deepened with a bone tool. This tool is used to smooth the outer edges, thereby raising the inner space and compressing the leather that darkens. The next step is the creation of incisions in the edges of the raised lines at regular intervals and outlining them at an angle. In this way, a meandering pattern is created, from which only long straight lines are projected into the back of the leather.

An ideal reproduction of the wallet from Sigtuna.
Production: Roman Král (King’s Craft).


Appendices

Appendix 1: All photos of the reconstruction created by Roman Král (King’s Craft).


Acknowledgment

We would like to thank the Sigtuna Museum (Sigtuna Museum & Art), namely Mr. Anders Söderberg, for the very quick and helpful action that led to this publication. A key role in the evaluation and reconstruction of the ornament was played by the professional replica manufacturer Roman Král (King’s Craft). We must also mention Diego Flores Cartes, who is the author of diagrams.

We hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact us or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund our project on PatreonBuymeacoffee or Paypal.


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