When someone is new to this field, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what I call the Woulda/Coulda/Shouldas of reenacting, as well as the intricacy of "burden of proof" and where that rests. I have talked before about the former on many occasions. Being able to eliminate those things from our thought processes can really help to gain new perspective and elevate our work.
To help illustrate this type of methodology, I have pulled out two examples of excellent work by reenactors in creating well thought out, and highly documentable reconstructions of the same costume. I chose these because both artisans worked heavily with archaeological evidence, additional evidence in near by locations or cultures and within a certain frame of time (rather than a broad stretch), yet both of these skilled women produced very different items.
For background, both Astri Bryde and Sophia Helen chose to recreate the costume of the Oseberg Queen. This burial dates to about 834AD and had two women (presumed to be a queen and her attendant) in one of the most elaborate graves from the Viking Age. This grave was discovered in 1903 by a farmer and the excavation started soon after. It was a high status ship burial that included cart with incredible carvings, a bed, textiles and tools of their production, and a number of other items, ranging from functional to highly decorative.
There are some additional details to consider when looking at this grave. One is that textiles were not always treated as important at the time when this was excavated. Another item of interest is that there was no jewelry (aside from a couple of stray beads) found at this site, some thing that is very unusual for a high status female grave of the period. The condition of the textiles, possible disturbance in the grave, and the lack of jewelry leads to a great deal of speculation about the costume of these two women.
This dress conforms to the source material showing layers of red garments. Astri Bryde chose to use the silk strips found in the grave, as well as other details, to build an aprondress-based costume. There are theories that there would have indeed been jewelry in the grave and that the grave was likely robbed (not uncommon), so she chose to work with known costume elements from the period from other sites. (Photo used with permission.)
Sophia Helen opted to craft the style of dress discussed in the original textile publications on Oseberg. This garment also adheres to the textile elements found in the grave (including the silk fabric applique) and the idea of layers of red. Design styling was inspired by the costumes of foreign high-status individuals that more than a few academics believe was adopted by some of the wealthy Norse men and women of the period (there was even written an example of this by foreign author in a period text). (Photo used with permission.)
Both of these dresses are beautiful. Both conform to existing evidence, as well as sources and logical methodology. Both of these dresses were not merely possible, but very plausible for the period. We cannot really say which is correct, but what we cannot say is that either is wrong. They are both valid interpretations.
Both artisans created garments that bring to life the evidence. What they did not do, was make blind assumptions or illogical arguments for styling of these gowns.
What could have mired these fantastic interpretations? Woulda/coulda/shouldas. These can be the worst of the traps that reenactors can fall into, in my opinion (and I have done so myself on more than one occasions, especially when I was starting out). Examples are:
- I would have done it that way if I lived back then (ignoring the fact that if you lived back then that you would have a completely different mind-set than you do now).
- They could have done it because the Saxons did (while this one could well prove true for some things, you need to do the work to prove it... the burden of proof is on the person making the statement so research, sources and a good argument really have to back a statement like this).
- They should have done it because it makes sense to me (you are a modern person, they lived in a different world, and might well have had reasons, practical or not, for the things they did... again, the burden of proof is on you to show why this was an option for the person of the period).
- It is very important to remember that if we want to really dig into the past, we absolutely have to avoid logical fallacies such as the blind assumption that something is absolutely true just because it cannot be disproved. If we could do that, I could say that the red cloth in the grave was all rags and they really wore modern evenings gowns while walking around. Yes, that is completely ridiculous, but it is really not much different than making the assumption that this woman actually wore modern styled, red, bell bottom jeans, despite that literary, artistic and archaeological evidence point away from the idea of women dressing in pants, or that the pants we can see from the pre-medieval era are quire different in construction than our jeans. That is not to say that the concept is completely impossible (new evidence appears daily), but that it is not at all supported by any type of evidence that we have, and evidence, as well as a logical progression of thought surrounding it, is very key in how we can make a believable case for a period piece.
We need to make the closest connections we can with the limited evidence in the period to make sound arguments for our choices. Both of the artisans I chose have done wonderful work on many levels, and their garments speak for themselves.
If you are interested in doing more reading on the fascinating grave from Oseberg, here are some resources:
Bender Jørgensen, Lise. Prehistoric Scandinavian Textiles, (Det Kongelige Nordiske oldskriftselskab), 1986.
Bill, J., & Daly, A. (2012). The plundering of the ship graves from Oseberg and Gokstad: An example of power politics? Antiquity, 86(333), 808-824.
Christensen, Arne Emil and Nockert, Margareta. Osebergfunnet: bind iv, Tekstilene (Universitetet i Oslo), 2006. (This is part of a 4 book series that covers the ship itself, the grave goods and the textiles. The entire series is worth looking at.)
Christensen, Arne Emil; Ingstad, Anne Stine; and Myhre, Bjorn. Oseberg-Dronningens Grav (Universitetets Oldsaksampling), 1992.
Holk, Peter. "The Oseberg Ship Burial, Norway: New Thoughts On the Skeletons from the Grave Mound", European Journal of Archaeology, Volume 9, Issue 2-3, 2006.
Ingstad, Anne Stein. "The Textiles in the Oseberg Ship". http://forest.gen.nz/Medieval/articles/Oseberg/textiles/TEXTILE.HTM
Ingstad, Anne Stein. "The Functional Textiles in the Oseberg Ship", NESAT 1, 1981.
Ingstad, Anne Stein. "Textiles from Oseberg, Gotland and Kaupang", NESAT 2, 1984.
Ruffoni, Kirsten. "Viking Age Queens: The Example of Oseberg", Masters Thesis, 2011.
Stylegar, Frans-Arne and Niels Bonde. Fra Avaldsnes til Oseberg. Dendrokronologiske undersøkelser av skipsgravene fra Storhaug og Grønhaug på Karmøy.
Vedeler, Marianne. "The Textile Interior in the Oseberg Burial Chamber", A Stitch in Time: Essays im Honour of Lise Bender Jørgensen, 2014.
Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings (Oxbow Books), 2014.