A piece of textile fabric from a grave, dated to the Viking Age, has been found in southern Norway, dated to 850-950 AD.

The grave of a woman was uncovered at Hestnes in southern Trøndelag county, during a spate of excavations in 2020, along with textile tools and a wool comb. The evidence suggests she was a textile worker. The dull brown 1000-year-old wool Viking embroidery fabric was found preserved on top of a turtle brooch.

“Those of us who work with textiles are happy if we find a piece of fabric that’s one cm by one cm. In this case we have an almost 11 cm textile remnant. Unearthing embroidery in addition is completely unique. Embroidered textiles from the Viking Age are something we know only from a few opulent graves, like Oseberg and Mammengraven in Denmark,” said archaeologist Ruth Iren Øien.

Examining the Grave Goods and Assessing the Deceased

The grave of the deceased woman was found in a wooden burial chamber, called a chamber grave . The grave was below a long mound, which was rather unusual for central Norway, according to the Heritage Daily . “Chamber graves are mainly widespread in Birka in Sweden and in former Danish areas – Denmark including Scania (today’s Skåne), south-eastern parts of Norway, and Hedeby in today’s Germany,” said Raymond Sauvage, archaeologist and project manager for the excavation.

The brooch with the Viking embroidery textiles on top of it was found in a woman's grave at Hestnes in southern Trøndelag county during excavations in 2020. The grave has been dated to approximately 850-950 AD, which is the middle of the Viking Age.

The grave goods included textile tools , a three-lobed brooch (most commonly found in Denmark), and several hundred miniature pearls. Miniature pearls have only been found previously in a handful of Norwegian graves. “The pearls were concentrated over her right shoulder, but we don’t know if they were a pearl necklace or something else. A find from Hedeby with similar pearls has been interpreted as being pearl embroidery in one form or another, and it’s plausible that the same is the case here,” said Sauvage.

The assumption that she’s a textile worker came from the specificity of the find, which included six woolen fabrics and two linen fabrics. This also points to an ancient life of making textiles by hand. Without mass production textile tech, it was common for clothes to be handed down and re-used.

The fact that she was buried with so many textiles layered one on top of the other indicates that she was an important woman in her tribe and that she had a higher social status than most. After all, the amount of cloth required to clothe an entire family for a year required a full year’s work! This is important in understanding the complexity and cumbersome nature of making clothing by hand with basic tools.

Viking Textile Workers: Beyond Warrior Clothing and Symbols

The “stacked” textiles found in the Viking woman’s grave also points to the fact that Scandinavian countries are very, very cold.

The value of the textiles found in the Viking “textile worker’s” grave was likely higher than all her other grave goods. Insights into female attire were also revealed in this particular grave as most previous research has been focused on Viking warrior clothing and embroidery symbols.

Numerous and varied textile tools accompanied the woman into the grave, including these wool combs. The artifacts indicate that she most likely worked in the manufacture of textiles. 

“We imagine that the woman was wearing a pinafore dress, which was fastened with turtle brooches. Under the dress she probably had on a sark or shirt of linen or fine wool. Over her shoulders she was likely wearing a cape with embroidered decorative elements. The cape appears to have been lined with a fine wool fabric and along the edge we can see remnants of narrow braiding. This braid might have been made to strengthen the edge, but it also had a decorative function,” said Øien.

The reconstruction of the Viking embroidery textile colors is highly daunting task as these textiles were dyed with plant-based dyes , without any chemicals. This has caused most of the color, that can be discerned by the naked eye, to seep into the ground. On the bright side, modern technology allows for reconstruction of historical artifacts and events in a way that surpasses what a trained human eye can see. A microscope can reveal that some embroidery threads were dyed with different colors than the base fabric.

Fortunately, the Viking embroidery textile found in this Norwegian grave is well preserved. So, finding where the wool may have come from is possible with these textiles. The archaeologists hope to achieve this with an isotope analysis of the fibers. This could tell them whether the wool came from local sheep or was imported from elsewhere.

And Then There’s Denmark’s Amazing Viking Embroidery Find

A now-famous Viking era grave dug up in Bjerringhøj, Denmark in 1868, yielded a wooden coffin sealed airtight with clay. The deceased was found to be dressed in “garments of wool, decorated in threads of silver, silk and gold.”

When the grave site was re-examined a century later, traces of organic materials, textile fragments, down feathers and a 10-millimeter-long gold thread were found, as reported by Haaretz. This was an error in archaeological preservation, as the grave scene had been left open to survey and plunder by the local populace.