I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for November, 2014


This installment comes about for two separate but complementary reasons that fit together like a jigsaw. One was reading about glazed pottery in Julian D. Richard’s Viking Age England, a very interesting and informative book dealing with the Norse culture in Britain. The second was an inquiry from friend, Tim Jorgensen, a couple days later that forced me to reread parts of the book before answering him. These two things got me thinking and realizing that I really should try to comment on what Viking Age reenactors should and should not be looking for.

Should pottery used in Viking reenactment have a glaze? That is a very controversial question, since it would appear in artefacts of the time—both Norse and Anglo-Saxon—glazing is found but is not catholic or common. There is pottery that has a glaze and pottery that does not have a glaze. Pottery from some areas—and presumably nations or cultures—is not the same as in other areas, so a universal, generalized statement is of no more validity in this instance than in many others.

Glaze is a layer or coating which covers the pottery and then has been fused to pottery. Glaze can serve to color, to decorate, to strengthen or to waterproof the pottery, and its fusing process involves a certain amount f heat, that was more difficult to attain during the Viking Age because of its technology. On the Regia pottery page, Ben Levick and Roland Williamson note that “Sometimes the pottery was glazed with simple glazes, most often of yellow or olive green (the technique of glazing appears to have been reintroduced from the Byzantine countries through France). Other pottery was decorated with a red paint or slip in the continental style….In the early period the pots were fired in a covered fire pit called a clamp. This did not always reach a very high temperature so the pots often did not fire very well. The fire that was built over the pots excluded most of the oxygen which fired the pottery black or charcoal-grey. By the later period firing was done in a simple kiln which was easier to control, guaranteeing a better and more even firing.” The temperature was still more primitive3 and, therefore less effective, than that easily attained in later times

To a good extent, it appears that the probability of an object being glazed was influence by what the object was. It makes sense that the pottery that was glazed had a specific and dedicated use. For example, Ian Richards in The Viking World, notes that flasks, lamps, spouted pitchers and sprinklers were more likely to be glazed, while cups, mugs and bowls were not.

The colors also appear to be relevant, and they are relevant for both glazed and unglazed pottery. Richards notes in that book notes that “The potters generally selected white-firing clays, enable then to achieve clear yellow, or olive-green colour Experiments in glazing dark reduced wares, such as at Lincoln, tended to be short-lived.” To the list of likely colors, we will add yellow-orange, which was found in York. Therefore, you would not usually find a piece of pottery that was dark, such as dark red, strong, dense colors, though an area such as Stamford seemed to have glazed pottery and painted it red from the beginnings of the industry in the ninth century. Richards notes that “Their sudden appearance suggests that they may have been introduced by foreign potters working in Stamford. These are unlikely to have been Danes, as the idea originated in northern France or the Low Countries.”

Many of the potters with whom I had talked about this do not lave their pottery unglazed—one worker I know glazes the inside but not the outside in some instances—partly for commercial reasons—many clients will not buy unglazed pottery since they feel, perhaps justifiably in some instances, that it is unsafe—and partly because they fear a law against its sale. While it is true that unglazed pottery can be more dangerous—harboring unsafe bacteria or other toxins despite cleaning—I am unaware of any such law—which is not the same as saying that no such law exists anywhere—I am amused by the imagined loopholes that some potters—such as the one above who glazes only the interior of pottery—willingly jump through!

In the end, I can only note that when you accumulating kit for your impression or for the portrayal of your wic, that you consider whether you should have glazed or unglazed pottery, what colors you should have and the forms, designs and markings. When purchasing pottery for use in your kit, it would be best to take a look at designs, styles and forms that have been found in that area during the time you are reenacting. It is my feeling that most pottery in your kit should be unglazed if it is more common and smaller, while glazing should be used on larger, more specialized and more important–-to you if nothing else—pieces. The colors of both the glazed and the unglazed pottery are dependent on the class and the location in which the pottery was created. A compromise—for safety matters—might be involved as well.

I recommend that you have an idea of what you want and that you shop around. And if you do not find what you are looking for, talk to the potters! They may relish the challenge. They might disdain the restrictions of accuracy. And they might be able to direct you to other potters who would be able to give you what you need or to willingly and perhaps profitably debate the matter.

Pottery from the era is readily available—in shards if nothing else—and there have been many studies that reenactors might find educational and engaging. For example, I might note this ebook available for free from the York Archaeological Trust.


More wit, wisdom and philosophy from literary works of the Viking Age:

Wealth brings leisure
But share it freely
if you really want God’s pleasure.
      The Rune Poem (tr. Harper)

For our women’s work they are to give at the proper time, as has been ordered, the materials—that is, the linen, wool, woad, vermilion, madder, wool combs, teasers, soap, grease, vessels, and the other objects which are necessary.
      Capitulary De Villis (Tr. Robinson)

They journeyed boldly
Went for gold
Fed the eagle
Out in the east
And died in the south
In Saracenland
Gripsholm rune-stone

A man in the open country must not
go more than one step
from his weapons;
because one can’t be sure
when, outside on the roads,
a spear will be needed by a warrior.
Verse 38 of The Havamal (tr. Ball)

I ask you O Lord to send your delight into my heart and your love into my senses, and to let your mercy cover me
      The Book of Cerne

There are many who have spent a long time at court, and know but little or nothing about these courtesy. And this is true of those who bear the hirdman’s name and should be very close to the king, as well as of those who have lesser titles and rarely see the king….when you remarked that those who came from the court seemed no more polished or cultured, or even less, than those who had never been at court. To that I replied, and with truth, that everyone who wishes to be proper in his conduct needs to guard against such ignorance as they are guilty of, who know not the meaning of shame or honor or courtesy, and learn nothing from the conduct of good and courtly men, even though they see it daily before their eyes.
from 192 of The King’s Mirror (tr. Larson)

(With thanks from Regia mates: Hrolf Douglasson, Gary Golding, Rich Price, Kim Siddorn, Ali Vikingr and Paula Lofting Wilcox)

(With thanks from Regia mates: Hrolf Douglasson, Gary Golding, Rich Price, Kim Siddorn, Ali Vikingr and Paula Lofting Wilcox)


It is called “experimental archaeology,” not “I got it right the first time because I’m so Damned good archaeology.” The process goes beyond merely experimenting with new methods but looking at the construction of objects.

I am a woodworker. Whenever I start a new project, attempting to reproduce on some manner, an historical artifact from the Viking Age, I assume that there are going to be problems with the first attempt. I often make it out of cheap pine or scrap wood rather than any other expensive wood. And I assume that I am going to be learning something about how to better put it together.

Anyone who is not taking notes of how the project was done and what material were used is being a fool. Write down what actions were taken, what materials were employed and how much material was used. Sometimes the excitement of doing something and doing something successfully—or the exasperation and frustration of doing something unsuccessfully—can lead you to forget important details about the process.

Making mistakes when first doing a project can often be more illuminating and more educational than doing it right to begin with.

When doing an experimental archaeology project, it is of course best to do all the proper research beforehand. Uncover any suppositions about how something was done in period and then design—perhaps on paper, on your computer or even if your head if you trust your memory—the exact method you would use when going about the reproduction. One of the worst thing you can do is to see a photograph—sometimes not even a good photograph—of an artifact and then sit down with a scrap of lumber and attempt to recreate that artifact without making any plans, without thinking about it and without making any plans about it at all, so confident in your ability—as taught by modern methods, which are in may minds superior to any medieval technology—that you do not do any planning or thinking!

A major difficulty, which is not usually mentioned or debated, is when the first attempt is so successful. You are overjoyed and perhaps over-confidant, but the next attempt is not nearly so successful. 😦

This is not to say that your first attempt at reproduction will be unsuccessful. It will probably be a learning experience and in the end greatly educational. You might very well have to discard this first project, which is another reason to keep it cheap!


A correspondent was uncertain of the reason for our series of triptychs. She wondered if I was attempting—and failing—to duplicate exactly the inspiration? I realized that I had alluded to but had not come out and said the reason for the triptychs.

The fact is—and let me plain about this—these are shots that stemmed from and may well be included in for a book that I am doing on the proper way to move in historical dress. I believe that maintaining the proper method of movement is almost as important as wearing the accurate dress, and I have been incredibly upset by photos of people dressed even in accurate costume but who look as if they just came from a modern fancy-dress party! As Ruth M. Green says in The Wearing of Costume: “…when you have a fine tool you need to know how to use it. The most correct costume looks like fancy dress if you don’t know how to wear it, and when you do know you’ll find the clothes give more scope than you thought.” Hopefully when you see someone dressed even in immaculately accurate costume but posing and behaving like someone from the twenty-first century, you will be as unsettled as I am! The illusion is broken!

Therefore, in the triptychs, there is an incorrect scene, where a person dressed in at least some accurate costume is posing and behaving in an inappropriate manner; a correct scene, where the person dressed in accurate clothing is in my opinion at least posing ad behaving appropriately; and a period illustration that stands as the inspiration. I have attempted to show what irritates me, what pleases me and what inspired my feelings. The correct photo is not a scrupulous copy of the inspiration but rather an attempt to show the proper way to pose and behave, for example not slouching, head covered (if a woman) and not showing too much—or inappropriate—regions of skin.

I am sorry that I have not been so detailed in earlier appearances of the triptychs and hope that this brief note will help explain what I have attempted to do and will be attempting to do in the future!