Their fearsome reputation as marauders notwithstanding, Vikings enjoyed a flourishing and vibrant culture of their own. More southern cultures prized Viking craftsmanship and readily traded for Anglo-Saxon weapons, armor and jewelry of bronze and gold. Recent archaeological finds such as the Visby crystals in Sweden and the Staffordshire Hoard in England showcase the Vikings’ jewelcrafting skill with a wide variety of gems and precious materials.
Amber held mystical significance for a number of ancient civilizations including the Vikings. Amber’s properties — its warmth, its scent when burned and its range of sunny colors — led the Vikings to associate it with sunlight and life. Aside from its mystical significance, amber’s beauty also made it valuable. The resinous organic substance is softer than most gems; early stone, bone and bronze tools could easily shape it. Viking burial sites that contain jewelry typically contain at least a few amber beads.
The Vikings were renowned seafarers, so these gems from the sea held special value for them. Pearls’ beauty and rarity made them valuable to other contemporaries of the Vikings as well. Modern pearl culturing techniques have robbed the pearl of the high esteem it once enjoyed, but to ancient Vikings, these naturally-formed gems were priceless.
Viking warriors and sailors believed that garnets improved the wearer’s fighting prowess. Craftsmen used the deep red stone extensively as inlays in sword pommels and on armor details. In 2009, an extensive cache of Anglo-Saxon gold, the Staffordshire Hoard, was found to contain dozens of items paved with expertly polished and fitted garnet inlays. Although gem-quality garnet is native neither to the Vikings’ original Scandinavian home nor to England, the Vikings used the stone extensively.
Gifts from the sea were especially valuable to this seafaring culture, and precious coral was no exception. The Vikings used pale red coral along with white bone and horn for bead necklaces and smaller inlays. Coral beads adorned woven wire jewelry. Artisans sometimes carved abstract patterns of lines and squares into larger pieces of coral.
Vikings apparently prized the neatly mitered facets and sparkling clarity of quartz crystal. Archaeologists uncovered a cache of crystal jewelry from the eleventh century C.E. in Gotland, Sweden that contained not only crystal beads set in silver, but also larger pieces of shaped rock crystal that may be simple lenses. Although the cache dates to late Viking culture, the crystals appear to predate the setting surrounding them.
References and ResourcesUtah Valley University: Anglo-Saxon Art and Architecture
National Museum of Natural History: Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga; Apr. 1999
Stars and Stripes; York: Meet the Ancient Viking Residents of English Village; David Hodge; Mar. 23, 2010
Kleinesdorfinschleswigholstein: The Visby Lenses; Olaf Schmidt, Karl-Heinz Wilms, Bernd Lingelbach