Norwegian Vikings Purchased Silk from Persia and Possibly China

By Eurasia Review

November 3, 2013


The Norwegian Vikings were more orientedtowards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler,Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo inNorway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of theViking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the NorwegianVikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hithertoassumed.


The Norwegian Vikings maintained tradeconnections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from avariety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Herdetails are presented in the book “Silk for the Vikings”, to be published byOxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of herkey findings.


In the Oseberg ship, which was excavatednearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments werefound. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.


At the time when the Oseberg silk wasdiscovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. Itwas generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches andmonasteries in England and Ireland.


Lots of Viking silk


Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from theViking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. Thelast finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordlandcounty. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad inVestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfoldcounty.


The highest number of burial sitescontaining silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Upplandregion, a few miles west of Stockholm.


“Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containingsilk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has beenfound in a single burial site as in Oseberg,” says Marianne Vedeler to theresearch magazine Apollon.


In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteendifferent textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and woolbands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin stripsand used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while thetablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.


Marianne Vedeler has collected informationon silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscriptson silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantiumand Persia.


“When seeing it all in its totality, it’s more logical to assume thatmost of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from theBritish Isles,” says Vedeler.




Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age,silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and aroundConstantinople, or Miklagard, which was the Vikings’ name for present-dayIstanbul. The other large core area was Persia.


The silk may have been brought northwardsalong different routes.


One possibility is from the South throughCentral Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk cameby way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.


The Dnepr was the main route toConstantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river traderoutes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes thelaborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:


“A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they wereattacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids andcataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat.”


Persian patterns


On the basis of the silk that has beenfound, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia thanfrom Constantinople.


Large amounts of the Oseberg silk havepatterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique calledsamitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs canbe linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.


Another pattern depicts a shahrokh, a birdthat has a very specific meaning in Persian mythology; it represents a royalblessing. In the Persian myth, the shahrokh bird is the messenger that bringsthe blessing to a selected prince. In a dream, the bird visits the princeholding a tiara, a tall head adornment, in its beak. The prince then wakes upand knows that he is the chosen one. The image of the imperial bird was popularnot only in silk weaving, but also in other art forms in Persia. The motifgained widespread popularity in Persian art.


It’s an amusing paradox that silk textileswith such religious and mythological images were highly prized and used inheathen burial sites in the Nordic countries as well as in European churches.




In the Orient, silk was essential forsymbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silkqualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty.


Even though silk was a prominent statussymbol for the Vikings, they failed to get their hands on the best silk.


Most likely, the bulk of the silk importedto Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.


In Byzantium, major restrictions wereimposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. The punishment for illegal saleof silk was draconian. The Persian lands also imposed strict restrictions onthe sale and production of silk.


In Byzantium, it was illegal to buy moresilk than what could be bought for the price of a horse. A foreign trader wasallowed to buy silk for ten numismata, while the price of a horse was twelvenumismata.


However, several trade agreements that havebeen preserved show that traders from the North nevertheless had special tradeprivileges in Byzantium.


Silk was not only a trade commodity.Certain types of silk were reserved for diplomatic gifts to foreign countries,as described in Byzantine as well as Persian sources. In Europe, silk becameespecially popular for wrapping sacred relics in churches.


Some of the silk found in Norway may begifts or spoils of war, but archaeological as well as written sources indicatethat silk was traded in the Nordic countries.


So the Vikings were more honest than hasbeen assumed?


We may safely assume that the Vikingsengaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equalmeasure.


A possible example of loot found in theOseberg ship is a piece of silk with an image of a cross.


This was long before the introduction ofChristianity. The silk piece may have been sewn locally, but it is also highlylikely that it was purloined from an Irish church.


Possibly China


At Gokstad, thin strips of hammered goldwrapped around silk threads were among the findings.


“These threads are highly exclusive. We do not know their origin, butwe suspect that they may have come from even further east, in the direction ofChina,” says Vedeler, who will now travel to China to find out more.


As yet, Vedeler must draw conclusions regardingthe origin of the silk by investigating weaving technologies and patterns. Withtime, she wishes to make use of a new method which is being developed at theUniversity of Copenhagen and which will be able to reveal the geographic originof artifacts.