At the height of their society, the Vikings had the largest network of trade and exploration in the world. Most people know that they established settlements as far west as Canada. But the discovery of an Indian Buddha statue at a Swedish archeological site suggests their influence extended further east than once thought.
Their travels brought the Vikings in contact with innumerable other cultures. These meetings influenced Scandinavian art and customs for years to come. But even with these imported influences, ancient Viking jewelry retains a unique character all its own.
Historic Viking jewelry comes in many shapes and sizes. Some pieces were simple decorations, while others served spiritual purposes.
When Was the Viking Age?
The Viking Age lasted from the year 793 CE to about 1066 CE or so. So when we talk about Vikings, we’re only referring to less than 300 years of history.
This is an important distinction. The term “Viking” is often misused to mean “any period in medieval Scandinavian history”. Anything before the Rennaisance tends to get lumped into this nebulous notion of “Vikingness”.
Scandinavia has a long history. The oldest surviving description of the region comes from Pliny the Elder, in the year 79 CE. By this time, he estimated that Germanic tribes had already established some 500 villages throughout the south of the region.
These tribes had their own beliefs, customs, and art forms. So while they would eventually evolve into the Vikings we know and love, they should be considered a distinct society.
By the same token, Scandinavian history continued after the Viking Age. Stave churches, for example, are the most famous medieval landmarks in the region. While they’re magnificent showcases of regional artistry, most of them wouldn’t be built until the Christianization of Scandinavia was complete around the end of the Viking Age.
Rosemaling, the intricate style of Norwegian floral painting, is another notable example. While one of the more famous types of folk art from the region, it’s distinctly modern, only appearing around the year 1750. It’s distinctly Nordic, but it’s not Viking art, instead channeling traditional artistic sensibilities through the lens of Baroque, Regency, and Rococo styles.
The Role of Jewelry in Viking Culture
Understanding the purpose of jewelry in its historical context is as important as differentiating between authentic Viking jewelry and Nordic art from other periods.
Some pieces were simple decorations. Others were signifiers of official alliances. And some while others served spiritual purposes.
Rings, for example, were common Viking jewelry for men. They might be worn for decoration, but more often were a means to cement the loyalty between a lord and his warriors.
Like most medieval societies, the lords and kings of the Viking Age held most of the wealth. Gifting rings made from precious metals to favored warriors or servants let them appear magnanimous by redistributing a fraction of their treasures. At the same time, the rings served as reminders of the fealty that servants owed to their masters.
Amulets, broaches, or other pieces might be adorned with symbols that venerated the Gods. These might be worn for protection or used in daily worship.
Jewelry also served a more mundane purpose. There was no standardized currency in the Viking Age. Bartering was the rule of the day and heavy pieces of gold and silver jewelry were used in place of cash or coin.
Understanding the significance of a piece of Viking jewelry will help you gain a greater appreciation of it.
Common Types of Ancient Viking Jewelry
Historic Viking jewelry came in many shapes and sizes and served varying roles. And while both men and women wore jewelry, certain types tended to be more gendered than others.
These were the most common types of real Viking jewelry.
Because of how simple they are to make, necklaces were the first form of jewelry most ancient cultures developed. But they’ve remained popular throughout history because they can come in practically an infinite number of styles.
A simple Viking necklace might consist of a length of cord or iron wire adorned with beads, precious stones, amber, and other decorations. In particular, it appears the Vikings were fond of colored glass beads.
This is attested in both archeological finds and in the commentaries of Middle Eastern traders who encountered the Vikings. These merchants noted that glass beads were among these northern travelers favored goods, and would often barter well above their normal value for them.
It appears that Scandinavia’s domestic glassmaking industry was very small during the Viking Age if it existed at all. Instead, most glass was imported from the Mediterranean and treated as a precious commodity.
Precious metals like silver or gold were popular necklace materials for the upper classes.
A famous example appears in Norse mythology in the form of Brísingamen, a legendary necklace or neck ring of unparalleled splendor. It is owned by the goddess Freyja, one of the most important figures in the Norse pantheon, plays a pivotal role in several stories and is referenced in the epic poem Beowulf. This speaks to the value the Vikings would have placed on certain pieces of jewelry.
Pendants and Amulets
Some of the most common finds at Viking Age archeological sites are pendants or amulets. It appears that even the working classes would wear simple pendants, probably strung on plain cord or strings of leather.
Archeologists find all kinds of pendants in Viking burial sites. Some come from different cultures in far-flung parts of the Viking trade network. These were probably kept as souvenirs to commemorate a notable voyage.
Other pendants might resemble miniature weapons like spears or axeheads. The occasional cross even shows up, hinting at early successes in Christianizing the region.
The most common finds are depictions of Thor’s legendary hammer, Mjolnir. In Viking spirituality, Thor was viewed as a patron of laborers and artisans. Smiths, boatbuilders, carpenters, and other tradespeople would have worn these pendants to seek the protection and favor of their god.
Many people still wear versions of these amulets to this day. You can see examples in the viking jewelry found here.
Brooches were one of the most common pieces of everyday jewelry. They served the practical purpose of holding shawls, cloaks, and other cold-weather wear in place.
Viking men might wear a simple brooch resembling a ring with a pin through it. These were utilitarian accessories that served the important role of keeping the wearer bundled up in the bitter Scandinavian cold.
Women, however, wore much more elaborate examples. High-status women in particular might wear heavy brooches made from silver or gold. Or they could wear a brooch along a chain of colored beads. The more elaborate the decoration, the more wealthy and important the wearer was.
Rings were very popular in the Viking Age. We alluded to one reason earlier. Lords would reward faithful soldiers and servants with rings made from silver or gold to reinforce the bond of fealty.
They were probably popular because they were one of the cheaper types of jewelry to produce. They needed much less material to manufacture than metal necklaces, brooches, and even pendants.
Common rings might have served as a trade good, as they were a convenient way for Vikings to carry wealth on their person. Most Viking rings were even made with an open end so that they could be adjusted to fit a new wearer anytime they changed hands.
Armbands and Rings
Arm rings were one of the most essential pieces of jewelry in the Viking economy. While intricate ones could serve as both a show of wealth and status it was normal to use a plain one as a “wallet” of sorts.
We mentioned that Viking society ran on a barter system, they might use jewelry in place of currency. The problem was that you might not have a piece handy to match the exact value of a transaction you need to make.
The solution was to cut off a fraction of a piece of jewelry, not unlike how pirates would carve Spanish doubloons into “pieces of eight”.
Armbands were ideal for this purpose. Some would spiral around the arm several times, giving the wearer plenty of slack to carve off pieces as need be.
Wearing Viking Jewelry in Your Daily Life
The Vikings were much more than the simple barbarians that fiction often paints them as. They had a complex society with a sophisticated culture. Surviving examples of ancient Viking jewelry attest as much.
Making this jewelry a part of your wardrobe, or gifting it to someone special in your life, is a great way to show your appreciation of this ancient culture.
For more guides to unique jewelry and clothing from around the world, be sure to check out our other posts.