Oseberg Viking Pendant
(About) A Flowing Nordic Pendant with a Unique Artistic Style
The master jewellers at Darksword Armory have been designing and forging spectacular original medieval jewellery in-house for more than two decades – and their masterpiece Viking-inspired Oseberg Viking Pendant is the culmination of years of practise and study. The Oseberg Viking Pendant is made from .925 silver, also known as sterling silver. Fine silver of high purity is often fragile and soft, so alloying it with a small amount of copper and nickel makes it much more resilient. The Vikings knew this, and much of their jewellery is alloyed with around 10% copper. Darksword Armory have chosen sterling silver as the closest period-accurate modern analogue which will withstand the rigours of everday wear in a re-enactment or LARP setting.
Our Osberg Viking Pendant takes its inspiration from the ancient Viking pendants that have survived from Viking Age Europe. Although Viking jewellery is well represented in the material record we have from the Viking period, pendants have only been found in a scattered few graves, likely meaning that they had a special value for the wearer and their journey to the afterlife. The symbology drawn upon is that of the dragon: dragons had a unique significance for the Vikings and vikingr raiders in particular, symbolising the destructive phase of the creative cycle. Our Oseberg Viking Pendant is made in the image of Níðhǫggr, the evil serpent who gnaws on the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. It imbues the wearer with berserk strength, and strikes fear into the hearts of those who would stand in its bearer’s way.
(History) Viking Jewellery
Not before time, the popular image we have of ‘the Vikings’ as unsophisticated brutes in horned helmets who burned half of Europe is finally beginning to give way to a much more nuanced understanding of the Viking Age Norse peoples as explorers, farmers, traders and colonists – some of whom were indeed raiders and slavers. It’s probable that we’ve been left with this barbarian impression of Viking peoples by the dearth of contemporary Viking voices, especially in the early period of Viking expansion from the 700s CE onward. We have plenty of lurid accounts of the acts and crimes of the Vikings who raided the settled, literate peoples of Christian Europe, especially England and Frankia, but written Viking accounts, histories and legends only begin to appear with the Christianisation of peripheral Norse communities like Iceland in the 11th-century CE, with first-hand Danish literature dating from the 1130s CE.
Thus, to understand the Vikings themselves, especially in the early period, aside from reading between the lines of later histories, we can examine the vast amount of material wealth, from everyday objects to the most finely crafted works of art in Europe. A hugely important component of the things the Vikings left behind is their jewellery – decorative objects made from precious metals and rare materials designed to be worn for personal adornment.
Why did the Vikings Wear Jewellery?
Once we start to get away from the idea of Vikings as a brutish caricature, it becomes more understandable why there was a place in Viking society for art objects and jewellery. Whilst there are some examples of Viking artworks that incorporate beads, glass and precious stone, the majority of Viking jewellery, certainly from the early period of Viking expansion, is mainly made from precious metals: sometimes gold, but more usually silver. As mentioned above, silver was often alloyed to increase its resilience, but gold was very often made pure through skilled Viking goldsmiths separating it out from alloys. The preponderance of silver jewellery has a simple explanation: economics. The Vikings traded all across Europe, forming lucrative trade relations with the Islamic empires around the Mediterranean in particular. Whilst this would have begun as a simple barter relationship, swapping Northern European exports like furs, tin, and honey for Middle Eastern good such as spices, weaponry, textiles and tableware, by the 9th-century a complex bullion economy had developed. This was generally based on silver measured by weight rather than a standardised coinage, and we have found many examples of Viking weighing scales with weight stamped with Arabic marks. The primary form that the Vikings’ silver took was ‘hacksilver’: small fragments of silver that were ‘hacked’ from larger pieces of silver tableware and coins – or, for our purposes here, jewellery. A small Norse Viking pendant might suffice to be traded whole, a larger one might be hacked in half or shaved to complete a larger sum: we can think of a Viking’s jewellery as a wearable wallet.
As Viking society gradually transitioned away from a focus on raiding towards colonisation and settlement with the struggles of dynastic politics coming to the fore, the most significant use of Viking jewellery began to be one which is most familiar to us today: the display of status. Being able to invest material wealth in objects which were functionally useless for nothing but their beauty is an even more pointed statement when life was a continual struggle against the elements, never mind popping down to the Swarovski shop at your local mall. The material of choice for the most ostentatious display was gold, and perhaps the most spectacular item of surviving Viking gold-work is the unequalled Hiddensee Treasure, likely made in the gold workshops of King Harald Bluetooth in the middle of the 10th-century.
(History) The Oseberg Ship
The namesake for our ancient Viking pendant is the Oseberg Ship, and the style of Nordic art that bears its name. In 1903, Knut Rom, a farmer on the Oslofjord coast in southern Norway, found an eight-inch-long splinter of old wood covered with beautiful carvings near the strange mounds on his newly-purchased farm. He convinced Profs. Gabriel Gustafson and Haakon Shetelig of Oslo University to investigate the site, and by May 1904, Gustafson and his team had uncovered the most exciting of all finds in Viking archaeology: a staggeringly well-preserved ship burial, over 70-feet in length. The early archaeologists were certain that they had found a site of enormous significance dating back to the Viking Dark Age – and they were correct. Recent dendrochronological dating (a fancy word for counting tree rings) has subsequently placed the burial chamber all the way back to 834 CE!
The grave contained the remains of two richly dressed women, raimented in silk and linen – the elder, likely in her 70s or 80s, has been theorised to be Queen Åsa, matriarch of the semi-legendary Yngling dynasty of Danish Kings, whilst the younger, in her fifties when she died, remains a mystery. However, the archaeologists quickly realised that the burial had been looted likely not long after it had been buried, and the grave was absent of precious metals. The thieves had broken into the burial chamber through the stern, taken the most valuable of the grave goods, and scattered the contents to the degree that it would take years of painstaking work to reconstruct – what the taken objects were will forever be lost to history. Yet they had left behind objects which fundamentally changed our understanding of Viking art and culture. An enormous four-wheeled wooden cart, three cunningly constructed wooden sleighs, five carved animal heads (which we shall return to below), five beds, dozens of farming tools and kitchen utensils, even a whole farmyard of livestock – (fifteen horses, six dogs and two cows – were part of the burial goods, as well as more fine clothes, combs and shoes. Meticulously documenting these objects, the archaeologists noticed a unique and striking artistic style which marked out some of these items from earlier artistic styles, signalling a fundamental shift in Scandinavian art – which became known as the ‘Oseberg Style’.
The ‘Oseberg Style’
Several of the objects in the Oseberg tomb fit the established customs of Scandinavian artwork. Those already established in the early Viking period as it emerged from the Migration Period and the Vendel culture revolve strongly around animal motifs such as the ribbon animal and the gripping beast. The ribbon animal motif is where recognisable animals are deconstructed into abstract topological forms, their heads shown in profile and their limbs ‘spaghettified’ into intertwining ribbon-like forms. The gripping beast is its opposite: shows staring ‘at’ the observer, with squat bodies, and their paws and feet ‘gripping’ the frame they are depicted within. These forms emerged as a mixture of distinctly Scandinavian art with Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon Insular art in the 700s CE as the Vikings cast further afield, and Viking artists and craftsmen drew inspiration from the art and objects traded and looted from elsewhere. This style can be clearly seen, for example, on this Gotlandic brooch at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, as well as the ‘Academicians Head’ animal carving within the Oseberg Ship burial itself.
However, something very different can be seen on some of the pieces in the Oseberg Ship burial. Whilst we can still see the gripping beast motifs, the ribbon animals have been fundamentally altered by the Scandinavian artists. Instead of distinct heads, bodies and limbs, they have been fully abstracted, broken down into their material constituents, and employed in a fashion approaching geometry: it resembles nothing so much as Picasso, breaking down objects into their geometric components and rearranging them to create patterns rather than images. There is no longer the clear distinction between one animal and the next; rather they have become one synthesised pattern. Two of the carved animal heads in the Oseberg burial known as the ‘Baroque Heads’ appear to be covered in geometric patterns, but upon closer inspection their patterns are made entirely from decontextualised animal limbs and body shapes. Even the ship itself has carving of this type: the beasts carved into the keel of the ship at the bows flow into one another, never resolving into distinct individuals, forming a beautiful and terrible aspect. Historians of Scandinavian art place this as the direct predecessor of the wholly-geometric patterns of intricately interwoven knots that characterise the next phases of Viking art, which make up what we today think of as ‘Celtic’ style. Our Oseberg Viking Pendant typifies this style: the body of the dragon on the Norse pendant loses its contiguous coherence, collapsing and merging into tendrils and limbs decontextualised and merged to create a beautiful naturalistic geometry.
(Curiosity) Dragons in Norse Mythology
Norse dragons are far from the somewhat prosaic chubby winged beasts of Welsh and Celtic mythology. Norse dragons are serpentlike, rarely winged, and are marked by a cunning and evil intelligence. Many of them feature in the sagas and the Eddas which make up the matter of Nordic mythology – often they conform to the Norse mythological trope of the ‘bound beast’, a monster of world-destroying power who is imprisoned until the end of the world, when they will break free with catastrophic consequences. According to the Prose Edda, the fell dragon Jörmungandr lies banished in the endless seas, encircling the entire world with its tail in its mouth – and when the world begins to end, Thor himself will be fatally poisoned by the beast’s deadly venom. Another awful beast, Níðhǫggr, is coiled around the very roots of the world tree Yggdrasil, feeding on the dead and gnawing at the roots of the world. We likely get the image of a dragon guarding a hoard of gold from Viking mythology, after the tale of the Dwarf Fáfnir who killed his own brother so he could keep all of their gold for himself, and who so transformed into a jealous serpent atop his hoard. Dragons were fearful and powerful symbols for the Vikings, who used them in art sparingly. They were often carved into the figureheads of their war-longships – but, when approaching a new land in peace, they would remove them so as not to scare the local spirits! Use your Oseberg Viking Pendant wisely…
- Style: Norse/Viking
- Symbolism: Dragon
- Material: .925 Sterling Silver