Reconstruction of the “Viking bag”

In this short article, we will focus on the interpretations of the bags that are very widespread within the Viking Age reenactment. Our main goal will be to compare the informative value of archaeological finds with the usual procedure of how these artifacts are currently reconstructed not only by reenactors, but also the museums. The article will be supplemented by late medieval and early modern iconography, which depicts surprisingly close analogies. Only those bags that have wooden and antler handles and that are carried over the shoulder will be descibed in this overview.


Archaeological material

The largest set of handles comes from the port of Haithabu, where at least fourteen objects were found (Westphal 2006: 80, Taf. 59.1-4). Their total length is 18.1–49.6 cm, thickness 0.7–1.3 cm and width in the central part 2.9–5.2 cm. The holes at the ends are 0.7-1 cm in diameter. The types of wood used include ash and maple. At least two handles formed a pair. The other two candidates are curved antler handles with holes at the ends, found in the same locality (Schietzel 2014: 265; Ulbricht 1978: Taf. 42.1-2). The Haithabu material can generally be dated to the period of 9th-11th century.

An underwater survey of the port of Birka in 2014 found one complete wooden handle with a length of 28.2 cm and a maximum thickness of 0.7 cm and four other fragments (Eklöf 2017; Olsson 2017: 516, Fig. 401-5). Due to the downfall of Birka, it seems probable that the handles were not manufactured after 975.

In the year 2000, a pair of complete wooden handles with a length of 48-50 cm was found in the settlement layer of Sigtuna (kvarteret Professorn, Gröna ladan), which has not yet been published in print (Sigtuna Museum 2019). The dating points to the 11th century.

Two other candidates, which resemble antler handles from Haithabu, are now in the exposition of the Viborg Museum in Denmark (Vlasatý 2016). One of the pieces is made of antler, while the other of wood. As far as we know, these pieces are not published in the press. Another promising piece, which receives little attention, was found in York (Morris 2000: 2387-8, 2423, Cat. No. 9142, Fig. 1183). This ash piece is a fragment 9.2 cm long, 5 cm wide and 1.4 cm thick; it seems to represent one of the widened ends of the handle. In the center of the widened end there is a circular hole with a diameter of 1 cm. The find dates back to approximately 975-1050.

There are dozens of other handles in Sweden and Finland, which are widely dated to the period from the Early Middle Ages to the modern age, but the correct dating will rather be between 1400-1700. These handles are made of antler and are often decorated with ornamental carvings. Very similar antler handles were used by the Sámi until modern times to reinforce the edges of fur bags (Westphal 2006: Abb. 67).

Table mapping Scandinavian bag handles. Made by Tomáš Cajthaml.


The current trend

Due to the absence of complete bags, we can find a variety of textile and leather designs in the current reenactment. Smaller, often standardized handles up to 30 cm in length are used, less often slightly longer. Handles with a length greater than 40 cm are rarely seen in reenactment. It is true that handles with elongated openings in the shape of windows are more often used, into which textile or leather loops are inserted – loops either come out of the body of the bag or are separate pieces. Finished bags, which are often decorated with embroidery, are standardly used as handbags to store the phones, wallets, bowls and spoons and similar personal items. Generally speaking, the bags in today’s reenactment serve as fashion accessories that the owners want to be proud of in front of other participants of the event.

Versions commonly used in the current reenactment.
From left: CuirFilEtCouleur, TheGuildedPlane, Half-Goat, Maéna Craft.


Detailed reading of archaeological material

While the handles can no doubt be attributed to the bags, the construction and appearance of majority of today’s production raises a legitimate question as to whether these are correct interpretations of the original pieces. If we talk about the construction, when comparing the archaeological material, we can define three basic variants of handles:

  • handles with elongated window-shaped openings
    The elongated holes are connected to both short pieces and the longest pieces exceeding 40 cm.

  • handles with circular holes along the lower edge
    They are connected with wooden and antler handles around 20-30 cm long.

  • handles without holes
    These are combined with short wooden and antler handles, which are always curved.

The holes in the handles, which are used to stretch the shoulder string or strap, are at most 1 cm wide and circular in cross section. The use of tablet-weaving, which is popular at modern variants, is out of the question. Although it can be argued that the complete bags have not been preserved to this day, at least five finds retain textile remains. They speak about three interesting facts:

  • textile appears to be the dominant material of bags.

  • the bags were not only made of cloth, but could a sprang-like knitting.

  • the bags were attached to the handles with yarn, which was wrapped around the bottom of the handles with elongated holes and passed through the material of the bag.

Handles with preserved textile fragments.
Source: Schietzel 2014: 264; archive of Anders Söderberg.

In the same way, the function of bags as personal design accessories can also be questioned. From the list of finds, it is evident that the bags do not come from grave situations, but were deposited in settlements. This in itself suggests that they are not status objects, but rather work tools designed for transport. The construction lacks the means of closing, and it cannot be assumed that expensive objects were carried in them.


Iconography

When reconstructing bags with handles, we can also follow the later iconography from 15th-16th century, which depicts a number of organic bags with handles or reinforced edges. As a rule, these bags are depicted in work scenes (collection of nuts, eggs, pods, leaves, grain) or in scenes of moving troops, where the bags serve as luggage. Some of the bags shown have very long handles corresponding to the finds from Haithabu and Sigtuna that are up to half a meter long. In at least one case, the bag is knitted, not made out of leather or cloth.

Work bags carried on the side.
Left: pod collecting. BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol. 47, 15th century.
Center: walnut collecting. BnF, Département des manuscrits, NAL 1673, fol. 12r, 15th century.
Right: egg collecting. BnF, Département des manuscrits, NAL 1673, fol. 60v, 15th century.

Large work bags.
Left: corn harvest. Maestro Venceslao: August. Fresco at Buonconsiglio Castle, 1407 at latest.
Center: large transport bag. BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol. 104v, 15th century.
Right: leaf collecting. BnF, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol. 29v, 15th century.

Work and storage bags carried on the back.
Left: soldier’s luggage. Master of the Altar of Karlsruhe, around 1440.
Center: soldier’s luggage. Master of Uttenheim: The Flight into Egypt, 1460-1480.
Right: Master of the Altar of Fridolfinger: Carrying the Cross, 1485-1495.


Work luggage carried on the side and in the hand.
Left and center: fish bag. Master of the Ulrich Legends: The Fish Miracle of St. Ulrich, 1480-1485.
Right: Konrad von Ammenhausen : Schachzabelbuch – Cod.poet.et phil.fol.2, fol. 248r, 1467.


Another examples of hand luggage.
Left: Diebold Schilling : Amtliche Berner Chronik, Mss.h.h.I.3, fol. 355, 1478-1483.
Center: depiction of a beggar’s bag from the 16th century. Treichler 1991: 132.
Right: detail of a bag based on a painting by Jean Fouquet, around 1400. Goubitz 2009: Fig. 138.


Suggested reconstruction

In collaboration with the excellent reenactor Monika Baráková and the skilled craftsman Václav Maňha, we would like to present five variants of bags that, in our opinion, better reflect the original finds. We generally treat bags of this type as work bags for carrying loads of various sizes. We have devoted much of our attention to the hitherto neglected use of sprang, a technique also known from other Viking localities (eg Bender Jørgensen 1986: 317; Walton 1989: 359). Thanks to its simplicity and flexibility, sprang appears to be a suitable material that is easy to manufacture, can be decorated, shrinked takes up a minimum of space and, when stretched, can increase the volume several times.

 

1. Long handle with elongated holes in combination with loose sprang knitting

Variant created on the basis of the longest handle from Haithabu (HbH.119.014; 49.6 cm) and a sprang-like knitting preserved on another handle from Haithabu (Schietzel 2014: 264). The sprang is knitted from a strong hemp yarn in a very loose weave and is then attached to the holes with a separate yarn. In its basic form, the knit is 40 cm wide and can be comfortably stretched to 200 cm, with extreme pull even 360 cm. The variant is suitable for the transfer of bulky and light loads, such as textiles, sheaves or brushwood. At reenactment events, this variant can have the role of a backpack. It is a historical alternative to IKEA bag.


 

2. Short handle with elongated holes in combination with a dense sprang knitting

The variant is created on the basis of the shortest handle from Haithabu (HbH.119.003; 18.1 cm) and a sprang-like knitting preserved on another handle from Haithabu (Schietzel 2014: 264). The sprang is knitted in a basic weave, made of naturally dyed wool yarn with a Z-spin and then it is fastened to the holes with a separate yarn. In its basic form, the knit is 13 cm wide and can be stretched up to 30 cm. The variant is suitable for the transfer of crops, fish, clams, wool and similar smaller loads. It is a historic alternative to a shopping bag.

 

3. Short handle with round holes in combination with cloth

The variant is created on the basis of the preserved handle from Birka (28.2 cm), which is equipped with only four holes (Eklöf 2017). The body of the bag is formed by a sewn textile rectangle, which is then sewn to the holes. The variant is suitable for the transfer of crops, including nuts and pods, fish, wool and similar smaller and loose loads, which could fall through the sprang variant. It is a historical alternative to a shopping bag or plastic bag.

 

4. Short antler handle with round holes in combination with fur

The variant is created on the basis of a fragmentarily preserved antler handle from Sädvajaure (SHM 34358 [196]), which is analogous to another complete handle that is kept in the State Historical Museum in Stockholm (SHM 20415:7). The dating of these handles can be 17th-18th century (SHM catalog) and they undoubtedly belong to the Sámi cultural circle, where bags were traditionally made of reindeer fur (Westphal 2006: Abb. 67). Sámi antler handles are typically equipped with two to seven holes through which the bags are attached. The variant is suitable for the transfer of crops, including nuts and pods, fish, wool and similar smaller and loose loads. The two findings mentioned above are provided with a central holes for closing, and thus it is possible that the bags could be intended for the transport of personal objects and could fulfill the function not only of the bag but also of the satchels.

 

5. Short antler or wooden handle without holes

The variant was proposed by the Viborg Museum that can explain two finds from Viborg and two from Haithabu. The handles are short, curved, with holes at the ends. According to the proposed scheme, the bags were attached to them using stitches that went around the complete handle. The variant is suitable for small objects. It is a historical alternative to a plastic bag.


I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Bibliography

Bender Jørgensen, Lise (1986). Forhistoriske tekstiler i Skandinavien – Prehistoric Scandinavian Textiles, København.

Eklöf, Nina (2017). Väskbyglarna från Birka / The purse frames from Birka. In: Sjöhistoriska museet [online]. [2021-01-05]. Available from: https://www.sjohistoriska.se/marinarkeologi/marinarkeobloggen?p=9027.

Goubitz, Olaf (2009). Purses in Pieces: Archaeological Finds of Late Medieval and 16th Century Leather Purses, Pouches, Bags and Cases in the Netherlands, Zwolle.

Morris, C. A. (2000). Wood and woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York, The Archaeology of York 17/13, York.

Olsson, Andreas (2017). Maritima Birka : Arkeologisk rapport över marinarkeologiska undersökningar av kulturlager och pålanläggning i vattenområdet utanför Svarta jorden på Björkö 2004–2014, Arkeologisk rapport 2017:13 Stockholm.

Sigtuna Museum (2019). Veckans föremål. In: Sigtuna Museum & Art. [2021-01-05]. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/sigtunamuseumandart.se/photos/2362226670520228.

Schietzel, Kurt (2014). Spurensuche Haithabu, Neumünster – Hamburg.

Treichler, Hans Peter (1991). Abenteuer Schweiz. Geschichte in Jahrhundertschritten, Lausanne

Ulbricht, Ingrid (1978). Die Geweihverarbeitung in Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 11, Neumünster.

Vlasatý, Tomáš (2016). Bag handles. In: Projekt Forlǫg : Reenactment a věda [online]. [2021-01-05]. Available from: https://sagy.vikingove.cz/bag-handles/.

Walton, Penelope (1989). Textiles Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York. Vol. 17/5, London.

Westphal, Florian. (2006), Die Holzfunde von Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 11, Neumünster.

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