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Silk in the Early Medieval II. – Silk for Vikings

Mestellér János
Silk in the Early Medieval II. – Silk for Vikings
In our article series, we would like to add some points about the usage of silk textiles in the Early Medieval and in the Early Medieval reenactment. On our second article, we check some interesting things about silk fragments found in the territory of Scandinavia and the Kievan Rus.


All Viking Age silks found in Scandinavia have been found in high status contexts, in mounds and/or in graves with extensive and costly grave goods.

Majority of the silk fragments have been cut to strips (0,5-1,9 cm wide).  This was folded and sewed to other materials. From Oseberg we can identify wool and linen, to what silk was sewn.

17 fragments from Oseberg have been cut to rectangular or rounded shapes and formed into circles, leaves and arc-formed shape and V-forms. Very likely that the silk strips were used to decorations and as trimming on garments. They sewed it to the clothes not only the right but often with the reverse side turning out. From such reversed sew up, we can see that the right side has traces of hard wear, thus points us that the use of this fragment has a long history, and it was turned over after wearing it right side up for a time.

Max Gullberg in his tunic, reconstructed after a Birka grave silk fragments (Bj944)

Silk embroideries and bands

We know 12 fragments of silk embroilment from Oseberg. Pattern figures points to both west European, especially Anglo-Saxon, but also to Scandinavian ornamentation. So there is a big chance that these are locally made products.

In a few cases, tablet woven bands also consisted silk.

We could think that silk was imported to Scandinavia mainly from the Byzantium. It was the closest silk producer center to this region, and we know well about the connections of the Viking warriors and traders to Miklagard. But in reality, the majority of the silks in Scandinavian burials are from Central Asia. Of course, Byzantine silk is present, and Chinese as well.

The Rus

When one of the leaders of the Rus merchant died in the capital of the Volga Bulgar, Ibn Fadlan mentions that for his funeral, they made a mattress from Byzantine brocade, and tog the body in brocade caftan with golden buttons, and he also got a brocade cap.

Romantic style painting of Henryk Siemiradzki – Burial of a Varangian Chieftain, 1883

Staraja Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg)

From here we have a 4 cm wide, 20.5 cm long samit silk strip sewn into a linen fabric. It is a fragment of a cloth and could be dated to the
VIIIth – early IXth century. The original pattern faded, but red and blue colors are visible.


Among the textile finds, we see an underdress and an apron, woven in blue tabby linen adorned with three types of silk. 2 oval brooches are also known from this grave. It dates to the Xth century.

Marianne Vedeler notes that: „The combination of silk strips suggests that the color combination, rather than combination of pattern, had been focus when trimming was done.” The decoration of the strip were cut into pieces and sewn together without trying to complete or match the original pattern. 

One of the silks is part of the „hunter silk” family, with parallels to Oseberg, Moshchevaya Balka and several church collections in Western Europe. The closest parallel to the Pskov one is the one of the parish church of St Calais in France. These silk are likely Byzantine ones, but the motifs leading us back to Sassanian mythological scenes. These are the Bahram Gor hunter scenes.


In grave Dn 4. two lines of narrow silk stripes were found in a man’s grave, together with 24 bronze buttons. The find has been interpreted as a man’s caftan.

More interesting to us one of the woman burials. From here we know a red-gold worked silk and loose strips of silk. We have 2 oval brooches, and dirhams minted between 960-970, what possibly dates this grave to the end of Xth century.  From the caftan, really large parts preserved, more or less full cloth. We can see the closure style, pattern of the cutting, pattern of the brocade. Brocade from China, and maybe the whole caftan is an import product.


We know from a fragment from near Kiev what shows us a block printed silk pattern.

On the next article, we continue to investigate some fascinating sites and regions where from we have knowledge about the use of silk: the Caucasus and the Altai mountains.

Coming next: Silk for Nomads

The article series are an extended version of the presentation of Mestellér János: Silk in the Viking Age – Points about the usage of silk textiles in the Early Medieval and in the Early Medieval reenactment. Presented in Bratislava, III. Fórum včasného stredoveku (III. Early Medieval Forum) in 2019. II. 02.


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Christensen, A. E. – Nockert, M.: Osebergfunnet : bind iv, Tekstilene. Oslo. 2006.

Eriksen, Åse: Med silke til Valhall, En studie av mønster og vevemetoder. In: FAGFELLEVURDERT VIKING, Norsk Arkeologisk Arbok, Vol: LXXX. 2017.

Fadlán, I: Beszámoló a volgai bolgárok földjén tett utazásról. Tr: Simon, R. Budapest 2007.

Füredi, Á.: Honfoglalás kori tarsolylemez Pest megyében a Bugyi-Felsőványi 2. sír. In: Archeológiai Értesítő 137 2012.

Frankopan, P.: The Silk Roads, A new history of the world. NewYork 2017.

Ierusalimskaja, A. A.: Moshtcevaya Balka, An unusual archeological site at the North Caucasus Silk Road. St. Petersburg 2012.

Jakunina, L. J.: O triech kurgannych tkaniach. Moscow 1940.

Kubarev, G.V.: The culture of the ancient Turks of the Altai (on the basis of burials). Novosibirsk 2005.

Orfinskaya, O. V.: Парчовое платье X в. из Гнездовского некрополя. In: St. Petersburg 2012.

Orfinskaya, O. V. – Zubkova, E.A.: The results of Investigation of the Textiles from Excavation of 2006 in Pskov. In: Archeological news 16 (2009). St. Petersburg 2010.

Vedeler, Marianne: Silk finds from Oseberg. Production and distribution of high status markers across ethnic boundaries. In: An offprint from Everyday Products in the Middle Ages. Creafts, Consumption and the Individual in Northern Europe c. AC 800-1600. Ed: Hansen, G. Ashby, S. Baug, I. Oxford 2015.

Vedeler, Marianne: Silk for the Vikings. Oxford 2014.

Watt, J. C. – Wardwell, A.E.: When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles. New York 1997.

Online sources:
Firdausí: The Sháhnáma

Marya Kargashina’s Medieval Research – Novgorod to Three Mountains

Snell, M.: Silk production and Trade in Medieval Times

Labels attached to the content: Silks