I actually started working on this about a year ago after some discussions online made me realize that people who I thought had a deeper understanding of the material were, in fact, relying on assumptions that just because they saw it in a museum or on a living history reenactor meant it was absolute fact, without taking time to look into it further. A recent discussion on an erratic museum display caused me to complete this post so that I can share my thoughts.
Before I share examples, I do want to note that there is no one single approach to this subject matter, but there can be good or bad approaches. I had a previous post titled “A Difference of Opinion” ( http://awanderingelf.weebly.com/blog-my-journey/difference-of-opinion ) that shows two excellent, yet wildly different, lines of thought on the Oseberg Queen’s costume. Both are very well researched, both are evidence based, and both are equally valid interpretations. The difference in items such as those and the 'less good' things I will mention below is the approach the artisans took and how they came to their conclusions.
In an effort to drive more traffic to the museum, the authorities there have employed Jim Lyngvild, a television personality and fashion designer to craft a display that would appeal to the modern eye. I highly recommend doing some reading about this celebrity's on and off screen antics, and one perhaps can see how his participating in museum displays of ancient history can be problematic.
You can see the promo photo located on the museum website (https://en.natmus.dk/museums-and-palaces/the-national-museum-of-denmark/exhibitions/danish-prehistory/ and that sets the tone for the rest). There are other images making the social media circuit now that are even further out there than this one. The point of this post is not to critique each image, but rather to provide commentary that this is not a reliable source for making accurate interpretations. There was a review this year in Antiquity that better sums up the things that have gone wrong here (and how it could have been done to make both fact and fantasy exist better in the same space). I highly recommend downloading this free PDF and reading it before looking for additional images (some of which loudly proclaim they are "The Real Vikings"). https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/A40E54491325BC2E3951F975F6452708/S0003598X19000012a.pdf/meet_the_vikingsor_meet_halfway_the_new_viking_display_at_the_national_museum_of_denmark_in_copenhagen.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3XG-4dB72apePrO7A8Liep6pl5Ha8ue7HFAVkakuVTxuIQ7Orn6PyHGxU
If you source additional images you will readily note an over-use of ragged furs, mishmash of time and place, and some very, very Hollywood style embellishments (such as ‘sexy’ slits up the leg of a woman’s dress and items that are pure reenactorisms that are not really even hinted at in graves).
This particular museum is not the only venue with issues like this. Some museums, often due to budget constraints, are displaying older recreated items that are based on information that is decades out-of-date. Sometimes artisans are employed to do reconstructions without the benefit of detailed research or access to time/materials to make a good representation of an item.
Typically, museums displays of items, such as brooches, are a good source of information. Just seeing the object can let you grasp the detail and size of the item. Sometimes things like beads, however, can be misleading. Many of the older archaeological sites cared less about certain goods (like beads or textiles), resulting in all beads being tossed in boxes to be restrung later in any fashion for display. This could result in all of the larger, ‘fancy’ beads being grouped together in one strand (and leaving out the plethora of tiny beads completely), which can lead the impression that that was the norm. And yes, sometimes items in a museum can be mislabeled (or it could be labeled with data that made sense at the time the display was erected, but that was countered later by new evidence). Even a well-crafted display needs context. If you see something that interests you in this type of professional setting, it is still advisable to look deeper and do your own research to help get the most accurate information available.
Other books are simply just not as well researched or presented. There is a now infamous drawing by Rushworth from his book (Handbook of Viking Women’s Dress) that shows the back of an aprondress with pleats covered by long vertical bands of tablet weaving. There is absolutely nothing at all in the evidence that even begins to suggest this type of costume, yet because it creates lines that are attractive to the modern eye, and because it is published in a book, it is seen as “real” by someone who has not looked deep enough at the evidence themselves.
Other books have lovely images and nice tutorials, but do not use proper citations, nor do they discuss the methodology that lead to the conclusions that are made between the covers. Without that discussion, I do not view a book as a credible resource academically. This is poor scholarship at best, and now I see other books that rely heavily on those same titles as a source, and it makes me question the credibility of the work as a whole. An example of this is the Viking Dress Code, which was just recently released in English. This book is full of lovely charts and maps and has a very nice summary of evidence, but the heavy reliance on a few less critical works (and also some of the strange conclusions that are made about certain items), make it something that I personally can find a use for and am happy to own, but it would never be something I would recommend to someone with no prior knowledge of the sources.
And then there is the case of plain old bad scholarship. She-who-shall-not-be-named is one of the best examples of this (and sadly, is also cited as a source in the Viking Dress Code book). This author seems to prefer scandalous headlines over solid academic methodology. She made a name for herself with the Boob Brooch Debacle ( https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-02/uu-vdn022508.php?fbclid=IwAR3eVe9HLWCjnzIcnhH6sMM123zo1qO6bYsv7a-X-0gEjW6hyse7YlcALsY ) and then pretty much drowned any credibility she had left with the claims that if you look at a piece of tablet weaving backwards (using a mirror) and then add extra lines to the pattern (in what reality is that even science????) that the motif spells Allah in Kufic script. ( https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/allah-viking-burial-fabrics-false-kufic-inscription-clothes-name-woven-myth-islam-uppsala-sweden-a8003881.html?fbclid=IwAR3oYiLtcyNYJDwqp5MU-i-IEjDgR7FeYKOMH7fdQXBXA1e0A_nh2tYxGSs ). This is all problematic because at the time these items made headlines, she was still affiliated with a University, was participating in study of archaeological textiles, and it was easy to assume that this was all real. (Note also, the promised papers for these items never made it to publication, and that is frequently the case with very wild theories like these.)
- Just because something is well-crafted (look at Lygvild’s photos, these items are pretty and well made and professionally photographed to display them at their best) doesn’t mean it is a representation of proper research or reconstruction.
- Just because a reenacting group (especially one in Europe) is doing it, doesn’t make it real. I have seen individuals designing costumes after those worn by the positively incredible group Wulfheodenas, including the use of full pelts draped over the shoulders. One of the members stated this about the practice online, “As a member of Wulfheodenas whom initially wore wolf pelts for a number of differing reasons, a number of us have moved away from them, again for a number of reasons, I'll hold my hand up and say to a degree we may have have been instrumental in the popularisation of such pelt wearing by emulation because it is visually striking. But like all things many of us have revisted this and for a number of years no longer wear the pelts.” I highly recommend looking them up because they are an incredible inspiration - https://www.facebook.com/Wulfheodenas/, but it is also important to understand context… they are pre-Viking age and Saxon, so using them as a foundation for Viking is already off base even before you get to the furs ;-)
- I also want to point out that some living history groups are years ahead of others in terms of research and presentation. Some also might have a focus on one sphere, such as historic agriculture, and their research is keyed to that end and the costuming might be secondary. If possible, reach out to your historic inspirations and try to ascertain the “why” behind their decisions. And in some cases, the reenactors are poorly paid employees or volunteers of the museum or venue, so the facility often takes whoever is willing to do the job for free or cheaply.
- Just because someone is a Laurel in the SCA does not mean that everything they do is “correct”. It is entirely possible that their Laurel is in cooking or music, not costuming, and someone else made their garb or they made it using an older handout from a Viking 101 class. It is entirely possible that they are a Laurel in Viking costume, but they are wearing an older garment (made early in their research) because it is Pennisc and they need to use everything they have to make it through a two week event. It is also possible that someone stopped their research (or just switched focus) after a time, and while their clothing might represent the best available knowledge in the 90s, it does not stand up to the vast amount of research we have today on the subject.
I am going to finish this rant with a power passage from Lise Bender Jørgensen (one of the top Viking Age textile researchers) about the role of proper reconstruction and the public eye. The article it is from is in NESAT 5 and is titled “Ancient Costumes Reconstructed: A new field of research”:
One of the points I intend to make is that reconstructing an ancient costume is a research project, just like any other type of research. Further, that a costume is a form of publication that is ,,read" by a much larger audience than any traditional, written publication. l feel that it is very necessary that we face these fact fully, and start acting accordingly. If we don't, costume replicas shall remain an obscure, unscientific feature of museum exhibitions, contaminated by a bad smell of courting the public.
How to meet the challenge of turning ,,copies" into proper research? The most important step towards this goal is to start writing reports and papers on why and how. Especially why. Why is the cut of the garments like that, why have those particular colours been chosen, why have the details been made that way. Why the costume looks like it does is much more important than how it looks, and how it was made. Costume reconstruction entails a vast amount of decision making . Those of you who have tried to make one, know exactly what I mean. There is nothing new in that, but we have rarely tried to write reconstruction reports on which decisions were made, and why they were made. We must start doing that in order to make our work scientific in the eyes of others. And - let's face it - in our own too!
There is a strong demand from the public for reconstructions. The questions of what did the people look like? and how were they dressed? are almost as old as archaeology. For as long, archaeologists have tried to answer them. We - the textile archaeologist - are the people who ought to be able to do the answering, if we can summon the courage to do so. There is no doubt, that we can supply the know how and the craftsmanship. There is also no doubt that costumes like King Canute's and the Lønne Hede woman's are of a standard that is way beyond that of earlier efforts. Museums tend to treat them almost on par with original ancient artefacts, to the point of supplying them with museum numbers and taking measures for conservation.
Some problems, however, are still to be faced. One of these is the test of time. Are these exquisite pieces going to look just as ridiculous in 20 year 's time as the well-known photo of the Egtved Maiden of the 1930s (fig. 3 )? Can we prevent them from doing that? Or maybe we shouldn't? In my opinion, each reconstruction should be seen as a step on the ladder towards understanding and knowledge. After a while, even the best eff orts will be overtaken and replaced by a fresh costume. The main thing is to keep up a high standard both scientifically and in craftsmanship. It is not going to be an easy task, but that should not hold us back.
lf we don't do it, one thing is·certain: somebody else will be trying. There are several examples of that, such as the many,”Viking groups" that in recent years have been popping up like mushrooms in many parts of Northern Europe. They make their own Viking ships, Viking weapons, Viking crafts, and Viking clothes. They are appearing at the Viking markets that are being arranged by a growing number of museums. That almost makes them the official archaeological truth - but do we agree with that? I think not, but they do their best, and they usually have studied our books thoroughly while making their costumes. They take us seriously, and that is a very good reason for us to take them seriously too.