Hard to come by – the construction of minivair

Fur was extremely popular in the middle ages. It was used for decorative purposes, to show off your wealth (because the more expensive kinds were prohibitively expensive!) and to keep you warm.

That being said, not all furs were expensive. Cheaper furs such as cat (sic!) and lamb didn’t have to be extremely costly, while ermine, marten and squirrel were big business and only for the well off.

Today I’m gonna talk a bit about one special kind of fur, minivair. Minivair comes from latin minuto vario, which means a variegated fur. The fur itself comes from the winter pelt of the squirrel, that’s grey on the back and white on the belly. This could be used to form a pattern of grey and white that was very much in fashion. But for a long time I wondered… how close were the heraldic and manuscript representations of actual minivair? They often look like little shields with a crenelation on top, see the example below, from Le Livre des Images de Madame Marie, 1290.
Hmadamemarie1290.2

Well, minivair, or gråverk (grey work) as it was known in Scandinavia, is very hard to come by today. It is manufactured in Russia (as was also done in the Middle Ages), for use in really high class coats. And while some modern examples look very nice, se below, I still wondered about the little shields. Why little shields? Was it just a heraldic thing, similar to heraldic shields in brocade fabrics?

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The answer came to me one day, with a piece of fur I bought for nothing in a flea market. It’s a baby’s blanket manufactured in the early 20th century. It had a delicate silk lining that soon fell apart, as it had become crisp (I also, later on, noticed that there were little things flying around it, and they did manage to damage it, but then I quickly as hell stuck it in the freezer where the little f*ckers died… after that I stick everything in the freezer when I buy something new). As I intended to use this historical gem for medieval clothing anyway (I know, it was kind of a museum piece in itself, but I had no use for a museum piece) I tore away the lining, revealing a couple of interesting things.

Well, first off: it was immediately apparent that the fur followed the pattern hinted at by the medieval pictures very closely. Crenelated shields!

DSCN0462 DSCN0463 DSCN0465

The construction becomes more obvious when viewed from the back. I have made a little drawing, in Paint, to show you a bit more clearly how the fur has been sewn up.

DSCN0466minivair

I am not a furrier, but to it struck me as quite an easy way to get a sophisticated pattern, that looks just like in the manuscripts! Also one more points for manuscript studies, they do sometimes show reality, albeit in a stylized way.

So that’s all for today. On a side note it felt really good writing this, as the material is perishable (the moth attack showed that very clearly) but I still want the knowledge to be passed on… and now you know too. 🙂

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A Bloody Mess – some thoughts about menstruation in Medieval times

Being a woman in the middle ages, just like being a woman today, had some implications on the way your body behaves. More specifically it means that once a month you will have your period. Lately I have found that this topic is being discussed over and over in medieval reenactment circles, and there is rarely any new evidence. I will discuss it again, and it will be the last time I do so, by examining the evidence and some very common statements.

One of the most common starts of the discussion is the topic of medieval underwear on women. This is a long discussion in itself, and we have very little, if any, evidence for women using underwear. The evidence that usually comes up is allegorical pictures of women wearing men’s undies and sometimes the underwear from Lengberg, home of the Lengberg bra. Unfortunately the Lengberg undies may just as well have been men’s undergarments, as they fit the fashion, as well as the time frame. But then someone says ”but they must have had underwear, because they must have had somewhere to put something to suck up the blood when they were having their period”. No, this doesn’t have to be the case.

So why doesn’t this argument make sense? Well, firstly, anyone being vaguely familiar with e.g. 13th century underwear will know that they would not be helpful in securing any kind of period absorbant cloth or rag or moss or whatever. Secondly the notion that pads that will stick to your underwear has always been in use is, to say it plainly, false. Lots of older people in my country, Sweden, seem to remember pads being held up by string, and thus not really having anything to do with the underwear.

But we know women didn’t usually have underwear back in olden days. So what did they use when they had their period?

Well, to take a different perspective, it’s not sure they had as much period as women do today. Women in the medieval period had fewer choices when it came to birth control, and thus many women would have been pregnant or nursing during long periods of time. Also if you were poor your period would be significantly decreased, or dissappear completely, due to malnutrition.

So don’t we have any evidence for something absorbing menstrual blood in the middle ages? Yes, we have. In the book Montaillou – Village Occitan by Emmanuel Le Roi Ladurie, which is based on court proceedings from the south of France in the late 13th and early 14th century, a woman is being charged for being a witch since she’s carrying a pouch with, among other things, her daughter’s menstrual rags, meant to be put in wine given to the daughter’s future husband to make his love even stronger. St Brigid of Sweden also mentioned the rags. We do not, however, know if these rags were just used to wipe yourself between the legs when the need arose, or if they were held in place by strings. We can be fairly certain that they were not held in place by underwear.

But, and this is the part people have a really hard time believing: most women in later times seems to have let the blood flow freely, so to speak. This practice seems to have continued into modern times. A German account on making their own pads, as opposed to using commercial ones, from the late 19th century states that ”Most women seemed to have made their own pads or, like rural women, wore neither pads nor underpants. When they menstruated, they left a trail of blood behind them.” We also know that women did get blood on their shifts and this was considered quite normal.

So why can’t we accept what seems to be historical fact? Well, this is of course a topic for a whole new article/sociological study/book or whatever, but let me just remind you that contrary to what you see in the commercials blood is not blue. It’s red. And to me it’s no shocker that a society that can’t even handle that blood is red, or even exists, will find it very strange that once women walked around and ”left a little trail of blood behind them.” Because that is our culture. But it wasn’t theirs.

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BONUSTRACK: Hur man känner igen en lajvare på en medeltidsmarknad (och hur man fångar dem).

Den unge lajvaren är ofta skygg. Trots detta dyker han eller hon regelbundet upp på medeltidsmarknader. De är synnerligen lätta att känna igen baserat på sin klädsel. Nedan följer en kort guide för att veta om det är en lajvare du har stött på.

Den unge manlige lajvaren bär nästan alltid barett, en slags medeltida föregångare till baskern. På överkroppen bär han antingen en (vit) pösskjorta med snörning i halsen, eller möjligen en enklare färgad linnetunika. Det viktiga i bägge fallen är att den absolut inte får vara för lång eller ha kilar i sig, men gärna band. En typisk ung lajvare har aldrig tunikan längre än där fickorna slutar på ett normala jeans. Till detta bör han bära ett par pösbyxor, eller raka linnebyxor, företrädesvis i färgat linne. På fötterna duger det gott med ett par neutrala skinnskor, kanske kängor, eller möjligen lite gubbigare dansskor. Mer avancerade lajvare kan bära snabelskor. En mantel kan bäras vid kall väderlek, den får gärna knäppas med lusekoftespänne eller svartsmide. Svartsmide är grejen. When in doubt: svartsmide. Outfitten görs komplett med ett bälte med en enkel järnring, utan torne, men gärna med läderplastik, samt underarmskydd i läder. Ett trollkors eller torshammare gör det hela fullkomligt. Horn i bältet är vanligt förekommande.

Den kvinnliga motsvarigheten är enklare, men effektfullare, klädd. Krossad sammet är ett måste, klänningen skall ha hängärmar och vara snörd i ryggen. Mer avancerade unga lajvare kan också bära en läderkorsett. Oavsett: modern makeup kan inte undvaras till denna outfit, gärna svart enligt principen more is more. Enklare nördlajvare kan istället välja en mer naturlig look med en klänning i färgat lin, men för att verkligen spika den här typen av outfit bör du vara blond, ha dålig hy och vägra bära makeup. Accessoarer kan innefatta bl.a. trollkors och stora bälten med mycket metall från Indiska. Mantel kan bäras, gärna med huva. Bjällror är ingen nödvändighet, men kan användas för att krydda looken, dra till sig uppmärksamhet, locka till sig friare eller bara irritera omgivningen.

Man kan gillra en fälla för lajvare genom att till exempel gräva en grop och lägga dit ett lockbete, företrädesvis något som lajvare gärna vill ha. Exempel på sådant kan vara t.ex. en ryttarbåge, ett horn, en ocarina eller några fina tennstop. Om man vill kan man dessutom göra ett litet spår fram till sin fälla med förslagsvis brända mandlar. Man bör dock förvissa sig om att jaktförbud på lajvare inte råder. Fälljakt på lajvare är förbjudet under parningssäsongen v. 32, eftersom EU har bestämt att även om unga lajvare ibland kan vara irriterande, så är de i stort sett harmlösa och ses som en del av den inhemska faunan. Vildsvin däremot får man jaga året runt. God jakt!

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”According to all sources…” – A blog about the problematic expression Historically Correct

Whenever you get into a discussion about historical clothing or gear you immediately (well, almost at least) bump into the expression historically correct. This is one of the most misunderstood terms in the whole hobby. People think that historically correct is about how it was back in olden times. To an extent this is true, but at the same time it’s entirely wrong. Let me explain why.

As most people of course know, history is all about the past. But history is also about a specific place. So history is really about a frozen moment in time and space. Everything that happens during that small segment, 11.55 a sunny spring Monday in March in the year of our lord 1123 somwhere outside a small village in Northern France, early night time in the Amazon 5000 years ago right after an important initiation ceremony, the last shivering seconds right before the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne… that is history.

The problem with history is that the moment can’t be captured. If it’s not now, then it is in fact, history, and history can never be captured in it’s entirety. The truth about the world is destroyed at the same moment that we are not there anymore. History is a construction. As we humans can never fully understand our world, never capture every moment, never see the entire picture (and even if we could we could never describe it accurately and objectively) history can never be an absolute truth. History is gone, and it’s up to us to construct it, or reconstruct it.

But history doesn’t destroy itself completely, as we all know. I am sitting in an armchair that may well have been made before my birth. It has seen history. It can tell us something. It is these traces from history that we must use in order to say something about the past. No, it will never be a perfect truth, since history is dead. But it will be a partial truth, something truer than a lie, and more than a speculation. It will not become Historically Correct, it will just become Not Historically Incorrect.

Which brings us to the next question: what conclusions can be drawn from the sources? If I took a photo of my present home and used it to draw conclusions about life in the early 21st century, then my conclusions could of course be more or less realistic and plausible. Take the airmchair for example. It’s a brown leather armchair, in a common model. We can safely say that during the early 21st century, in Sweden, there was at least one arm chair that had a leather cover. We can’t say anything about how common it was, not yet, because we have not yet seen any other specimens. We might have to look at some other armchairs, from the same era, to establish, to ourselves, how plausible it is to assume certain things. For example: were all armchairs in the early 21st century made with a leather covering? A small google search would of course immediately give you an answer: no, they were not.

But let’s move on. What I wanted to show is that we can’t say anything about history, or anything else for that matter, without sources and facts. This is, believe it or not, something that seems to be up to discussion. People want to be able to make claims without having any proof for them. Also the lack of sources makes people even more prone to say or write stuff that cannot, as the CIA would say, either be confirmed or denied, and post it as a truth.

Which brings me to one of the most common arguments about history: ”We can’t know how it was, we can’t know the entire truth, therefore you can’t say that it wasn’t like that.” This is an absurd argument that aims to circumvent logic by using something called an argument of ignorance, argumentum ad ignorantiam. One of the reasons people use it is because it shifts the burden of proof from the one saying something to the person questioning it. In reenactment I call this ”the viking pancake argument”. It goes something like this ”They had pancakes in the viking age.” ”How do you know that?” ”Well, we don’t have any proof that they didn’t have pancakes in the viking age.”. This in short means ”prove me wrong”, which of course is impossible. I can’t find a pancake that has never been made, and so I cannot prove that it hasn’t existed. But, and this is my entire point… It is not my job to disprove what you just said, it’s your job to find sources to support your claim!.

This argument is often followed by another pet peeve of mine, the ”they had all the materials, so they must have done it.”-argument. This is also, well, in short, rubbish. Yes, they did have eggs, milk and flour in the viking age, and they did have flat hot surfaces (such as pans, most probably the viking pans are for making bread, though) so they could have made pancakes. It’s true. But by the same logic we have cotton today, so the t-shirt I am wearing, which is knitted, could just as well have been made into an 1890’s evening gown for a lady, because it could also have been cotton. So why isn’t it?

Because of culture. It is not acceptable for me to wear a bustle dress in public without being questioned. I would have to defend it, or explain it, every step of the way. Not because long dresses are really more feminine than masculine, there are many cultures where long robes have been totally OK and even a sign of high rank, on men. But not in mine. There is no logic to this, just culture, because logic is culture bound.

Which brings us to the next thing that gets my blood pressure going: when people say ”well, someone must have done it.” I’m not going to say much about this… well, not more than ”How many bearded men in 1890’s bustle dresses have you seen about town lately?”. We want to fit into our culture, and our culture today, even if it’s probably the most liberal culture yet, still has boundaries that we don’t really challenge very often, because they are not visible to us. It has been the same in all of history. We want to fit in and be accepted, otherwise we don’t have anyone to help us, we get cast out and die alone (*sob*). But even if we have some man, right now, proudly marching around in his bustle dress, is this the norm? Is it what we would like to show the future as an example of the representative 21st century man…? No, it’s not. It may not be a lie, but it’s a smaller truth than the one we should be showing.

To sum up: historical correctness is not about showing the absolute truth, it’s about showing something that is true-ish, truer or at least not a lie. Because no one likes being lied to.

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Väl rutet – en kort blogg om rutigt på vikingatid och medeltid, del 1 / Check it out – a short blog about checkered fabrics in viking and medieval times, part 1

One of the most common questions people ask about viking age, and medieval textiles, is:

what about checkered textiles? I will try to answer this question as best I can (at the moment. Remember, these are what I have come across, but I haven’t read all that’s out there).

Different times will have different fashions when it comes to textiles. Patterned textiles is no exception. Some ages prefer to have it made with colours, like using different colours of the weave to form a pattern, other times prefer to let the weaving speak for itself. So what evidence do we have?

For the viking age the material is, as always, pretty scarce. There are a few things being hinted at, though, in my opinion. But let’s not jump ahead, let’s go to the sources. This is what I have been able to find:

1. A checkered black and white fabric from Oseberg. I don’t know which context this came from, as I have not yet read the appropriate litterature. I have not found any evidence that this is from a piece of clothing, though. My guess is that it’s part of a blanket. Anyone who can, as the FBI say, either confirm or deny that has my gratitude. 😉

Oseberg checks

2. A big rectangular piece of cloth from Skjoldehamn. It was wrapped around the body, and has with a great deal of probability been a blanket. It is also a lot older than the other textiles, being from around the year 1000, while the rest of the outfit should, according to data in Lövlid (though somehow not the conclusion Lövlid comes to himself) be dated to the late 12th century.

Skjoldehamn blanket

3. Cloth from Hedeby/Haithabu. These fragments are all found in graves. The three graves 159/1960, 27/1963 and 182-185 all contained fragments of blue linen with either white or red stripes forming checks. The blue/red fragment in 159/1960 has been interpreted as a shirt, and so has the blue/white in 27/1963. The blue and red fragment in 182-185 came from a decorative band, according to Hägg (Hägg 1991:212). Also a linsey/woolsey fragment (or actually several fragments) was found i grave VI/1930. It’s a fine woolen chevron twill with a checker pattern formed by one weft and one warp thread in a light colour. These are probably linen.

Hedeby shirt

4. Fabric from Birka, grave 757 there is a tabby linen fragment with a white and a red thread followed by six blue threads. The cloth had 20 threads to the centimeter (Geijer 1938:15). My personal guess is that this too is a shift/serk.

Birka grave 757

5. Fragments from Elisenhof in Germany, 8th century. Fragment E-76 is of a 2/2 (woolen?) twill in black and brown checks. Reputedly the pattern is, from the edge: 13 black, 24 brown, 8 black, 8 brown, 8 black, 18 brown, ripped edge. And in the weft: ripped edge 17 brown, 14, black, 18 brown, 14 black, 14 brown, 6 black, 6 brown, 4 black, 14 brown, 4 black, 4 brown, 4 black, 13 brown, ripped edge. 10 threads per centimeter. Source stated is Hundt 1981:15,41,103.
There is also another fragment from Elisenhof called E-414a, but here it’s a woolen tabby of reddish brown and black checks. The warp pattern is: 27 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, at least 25 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black at least 23 red, and then there’s a rip in the fabric. The weft sequence is: 4 black, 4 red, 4 black, 4 red, 4 black then red until the fragment ends.(Hundt 1981:15,159)

So what can we see in this information? Well, for starters, we see that I have not been able to dig up sources for checks in more than 3 colours in the same fabric. The Irish, which the vikings had a great deal of contact with, wore their own style of checkered mantle, called a brat. A book called Lebor Gabála Érenn, ‘The book of the taking of Ireland’, a pseudo historic text written in the second half of the 11th century speaks about multicolored brats and their way of distinguishing the poor form the rich:

”By Tigernmas were purple and blue and green first put upon garments in Ireland. By Tigernmas were first made checkerings upon garments in Ireland – one colour in the (single) garment of slaves, two colours in the garb of peasants, three in the garments of hirelings and fighting men, four in those of lordings, five in those of chieftains, six in those of men of learning, seven in those of kings and queens.”

The vikings had lots of dealings with Ireland and with the cultural mixing and the resulting Gall-Ghàidheil I don’t think it’s that far fetched to imagine the Hiberno-Norse in variegated cloaks.

So – to sum up the viking age, what is a plausible use for checkered fabric?

As you can see, the material I have been able to gather points to the evidence for checkered fabrics during the viking age being fairly slim. However, we do have some pieces of evidence that with relative certainty can be sorted into two groups:

1. Shirts and shifts in blue/red/white simple checkered linen. This seems fairly safe.

2. Blankets and cloaks. This can refer, I think, both to an actual cloak, but also to a blanket. It’s interesting to note that the word ”plaid” is Gaelic for ”blanket”. So, at the same time this use of checkered fabrics is consistent with a use of checkered fabrics for bedding later in the Middle Ages, but also points to checkered fabrics being used as cloaks in an Irish, Scottish and possibly Hiberno-Norse setting, and when it comes to pattterns we have some ”sort of tartan-ish” fragments, mainly the Skjoldehamn blanket and the unidentified fragments from Elisenhof, although they seem to be quite far away from many Scottish contemporary clan tartans. This is no great surprise as they are hundreds of years later in their Clan form.

This article is to be translated at a not so much later date. 🙂 I will also try to keep it updated if new pieces of evidence comes along. I will try to add more sources very soon.

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The Skjoldehamn outfit – viking or medieval?

This will be my first serious blog post in ages. It’s going to be about something that I’ve thought about for a long time. There has been much debate over the Skjoldehamn find and its ethnicity, is it ”viking” or is it ”Saami”? But not so many people has cared to critically discuss its dating. I think it’s about time to do just that.

So, first things first. What evidence do we have?

The Skjoldehamn outfit is a complete outfit found in Andøya, very far north in Norway, in 1936. It was found in a bog by a man cutting peat. The police ordered it to be reburied in a graveyard, but it was instead reburied just next to the original place where it was found. This was in June, and by autumn the museum in Tromsø had heard about the find, but it was assumed to be no more than 200 years old, so they did not want to carry out any archaeological excavations straight away, instead urging a farmer to dig it up and send it to the museum. Here it was taken care of by archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing, who analysed it and published an article about the outfit. He concluded that it was a late 15th, perhaps early 16th century, outfit, based on the appearance of the kirtles. On of them had a collar that Gjessing meant dated it to the late middle ages. It had similarites to later Saami outfits, but Gjessing meant that the person wearing it was culturally Norwegian, based on some elements in the cutting and the use of the sewn socks, something that the Saami people never wore according to Gjessing. The similarities were explained by Saami outfits being influenced by medieval Norwegian outfits. The strange burial site, in an unholy bog instead of sacred ground, was explained as punishment for evil deeds.

The individual itself is a slender person found in a bog, wrapped in chequered blanket, on a reindeer skin and some rods of birch, and a layer of birch bark covering it. The bone material reveals nothing about the gender of the person, just that it has been quite short, around 160 centimeters tall. DNA analysis showed no traces of Y-chromosomes and not any saami specific DNA sequences. The conclusion was that the person was a Norwegian woman. I must say that this conclusion is a bit rash, since DNA can degenerate over a thousand years and genetic ethnicity is not necessarily the same as cultural ethnicity. I don’t believe the possibility of the person being a Saami man, Saami woman or Nordic woman can really be ruled out. A Nordic man is less likely, given that the corpse is below the Nordic male average even in that time period, but it can’t be ruled out either.

What era is that then? Gjessings estimate was based on his knowledge about costume history. With the advent of radiocarbon dating we have been given yet another tool to work with in dating this kind of archaeological remains. So what did the 14C dating show?

The first datings, done in 1986 and 87, concerns the blanket and the bone material. These dating showed a calibrated date of 1180-1280 AD for the blanket, and 1000-1210 AD for the bone material. The graphs looked like this:

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These datings were ”normalised” in a book by Margareta Nockert and Göran Possnert, called ”Att datera textilier” (Dating textiles), published in 2002. A calibrated date of 936-1023 is set for the blanket. That is the last dating for the blanket.

In connection with his master thesis, Nye tanker om Skjoldehamnfunnet (New Thoughts on the Skjoldehamn find), Dan Halvard Løvlid, in 2009 additional datings were done. The samples were taken from the outer tunic (called ”kofta” in Norwegian), the textile fragment S2 (referred to as ”probably a piece of the sleeve of the inner tunic (”skjorte”, literally ”shirt” and ”skjorteerme”, ”shirt sleeve”) as well as some of the reindeer hairs that were found in the grave. The datings were as such:

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This is where it gets exciting. Løvlid arrives at one conclusion. Below is the original in Norwegian, and my translation:

”Dateringene av teppet (Ua- 11037) og reinsdyrfellen (TUa- 7755) peker mot siste halvdel av 900-tallet og første halvdel av 1000-tallet. Koftas datering (TUa- 7754) peker mot siste halvdel av 1100-tallet og tidlig 1200- tall, men også mot siste halvdel av 1000- tallet. Fragment S2 (TUa- 7948) peker mot sent 1000- tall til litt over første halvdel av 1100- tallet. Tendensen er derfor at teppet og reinsdyrfellen virker eldre enn kofta og fragmentet. Dette kan også tenkes å være riktig. Mens klær gjerne er en forbruksvare som fort blir slitt, kan tepper og skinnfeller holde seg lengre ved moderat bruk. Det kan derfor hende at den gravlagte har fått med seg et gammelt teppe og en gammel reinsdyrfell i graven. Spørsmålet blir i så fall hvor gamle disse kan ha vært ved nedleggelse, og dette er det nesten umulig å svare på. […] Jeg tror uansett at dateringene av teppet og reinsdyrfellen gjør at vi trygt kan se bor ifra koftas tyngdepunkt på 1150-1210 e. Kr. Da står vi igjen med toppunktet på 1050-1090 e. Kr. ”

”The dating of the blanket (Ua-11037) and the reindeer hide (Tua-7755) indicates second half of the 10th century and the first half of the 11th century. The dating of the outer tunic (Tua-7754) indicates the late 12th century and early 13th century, but also the second half of the 11th century. The fragment S2 (Tua-7948) indicates late 11th century to a little after the middle of the 12th century. Because of that the tendency is that the blanket and the reindeer hide appears to be older than the tunic and the fragment. This could very well be. While clothing is a commodity that is quickly worn out, blankets and reindeer hides can last much longer than that with moderate use. It might be that the buried person has had an old blanket and an old reindeer hide along with the person itself in the grave. The question is how old these were when they were put in the grave, but this is almost impossible to say. […] I believe that the dating of the blanket and the reindeer hide makes it safe to disregard the emphasis of the tunic to 1150 – 1210 AD. We are then left with the indication of 1050 – 1090 AD.”

This is where we can begin to discuss the results. I don’t believe this at all. I think, in short, what Løvlid arrives at is somewhat remarkable. First he concludes that we are probably dealing with a younger outfit buried with an older blanket and reindeer hide. Then he chooses to completely change his previous statement and arrives at the conclusion that it is more or less the same age as the blanket and the hide. Also I think that the view that the whole costume was made at the same time, along with the other items in the grave, is very unlikely. Until further radiocarbon dating, preferably from other items of clothing in the grave, as well as the many pieces of fabric used to repair the outfit, which could give us an interesting hint about how long the garments were in use before they ended up in the grave, my conclusion is that the Skjoldehamn outfit should most likely be dated to the medieval period and not to the viking age.

Sources:

Nye tanker om Skjoldehamnfunnet, Dan Halvard Løvlid, Master thesis from the University of Bergen, 2009

See forth the sources Løvlid states for his thesis.

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