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What Did Vikings Look Like? The Answer May Surprise You

What did vikings look like

We certainly can find an abundance of myths and legends about the appearance and the physical shape of the Vikings and, more generally, of the Norse people dedicated to raids and pillages.

There are those who believe, mistakenly, that they were dirty and sloppy, who instead after perhaps having seen TV series about these people, that they were so strong as to resemble much to modern bodybuilders, blond with long hair often gathered in braids and thick beards. While these stereotypes hold some truththey are far from an accurate portrayal of what Vikings looked like. Find out what Vikings were really like by reading on.

BANNER VIKING JEWELRY

Viking Facial Features

If we talk about the appearance of the faces of the Vikings centuries ago, unfortunately, we can only make assumptions, as there are no documents (the Vikings handed down everything orally) and there are no reliable documents or artifacts where they are described in detail except for a few rare examples. However, we can make some suppositions thanks to the numerous skulls found so far in archaeological excavations. From the studies on these skulls has however emerged that: the male and female faces were much more similar to each other than they are today. “It’s difficult to determine the sex of a skeleton dating back to the Viking era,” says Lise Lock Harvig of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

“The skulls of men and women were different than we see today, with men’s skulls being slightly more feminine (had softer jaws) and women’s being more masculine with a more pronounced structure in the superciliary arch. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all skeletons from the period, but in general, it is difficult to determine gender.”

facial reconstruction of a viking woman

Facial reconstruction of Viking woman ( found in the English city of York) pic. from history.com

Did Vikings wear makeup?

In TV series we have often seen the Vikings paint their faces in order to intimidate the enemy in battle. But is it true? In the various sagas, this is not mentioned, but has been found evidence from reliable sources that the Vikings used a kind of eyeliner, which is nothing but kohl a cosmetic used mainly in the Middle East this is also confirmed by what was described by an Arab emissary named Ibrahim Al-Tartushi, who saw the Vikings and observed that both sexes wore a dark and permanent makeup around their eyes, his words in describing it were: “And with it is a made-up eyeliner that if they apply it, it will never go away and the beauty of men and women increases” It should be noted that the word kuḥl has been translated for simplicity as eyeliner, but in fact in Arabic means kohl the cosmetic used mainly in the Middle East and Mediterranean, mentioned above.

Eyeliner of Lagertha Viking Shieldmaiden from Vikings TV series

Eyeliner of Lagertha Viking Shieldmaiden from Vikings TV series

Vikings are often imagined as very fair-skinned individuals with blond or red hair and light-colored eyes. But is it really so? Even in this case, we are helped by science and what has emerged may leave some people stunned.

In fact, according to the latest DNA study conducted on approximately 442 Viking skeletons by the scientific journal Nature in 2020, it was discovered that most Vikings did not have blond hair and blue eyes as legend and popular culture have led us to believe, but rather reveals that there was much more genetic diversity than previously thought about the so-called Nordic peoples. The Vikings were people who traveled by sea not only to conquer but also to trade and explore. So not only many of the Vikings studied turned out not to be blond or red-haired or blue-eyed (however, blonde hair was highly prized, and many darker-haired Vikings bleached their hair blonde using lye soap), but their genetic sequence shows that the Vikings were not a homogeneous group of people, but many of them were “mixed individuals”. from the remains analyzed have emerged genetic traits of indigenous peoples of Scandinavia such as the Sami and also those of populations of southern Europe and Asia. See also our article “Were There Black Vikings? Get The Truth

So after this important study, we should begin to think of the Vikings as a people with somatic traits sometimes very different from each other, because being a Viking was as much a concept and a culture as it was a question of genetic inheritance

Viking clothing

As with many aspects of the Viking Age, our knowledge regarding the clothing used is very fragmentary. Most of what we know about them comes from archaeological findings and some literary sources. The fabrics found were part of the funerary equipment, and unfortunately, the fabric does not preserve very well with the passage of time, especially if buried. However, remains of clothing have been found in other places. The worn clothes were sometimes reused in various ways, sometimes after being coated with pitch, were used to seal cracks in boats or were used to create flashlights never lit and found still intact. Viking-era clothing was comfortable, practical, and surprisingly warm and able to adapt to climate change and temperature ranges.

All stages of making clothes were performed by the women of the family who were responsible for spinning, weaving, cutting and sewing. Since the process was long and laborious, the clothes made were highly valued and carefully maintained.

Viking clothes male

The male outer upper garment was the Kyrtill, a kind of overtunic, usually made of wool, which was constructed using incredibly complex patterns with many pieces of fabric cut and sewn together. The top of the garment was relatively tight-fitting, but the sleeves were sewn in to allow movement and were usually long enough to cover the wrists and part of the hand. The skirt varied in length from thigh to knee depending on the wealth of the person wearing the garment. A poorer man would not waste material that was not needed, while a richer man to highlight his position would use more material than necessary. The tunic was put on and taken off by passing it over the head. A keyhole neckline was the most common and those on men’s garments were usually shallow compared to those on women’s garments. The front of the opening of the neck was sometimes closed, there were two ways to do it: with a pin or with a ring of thread in which a “button” was inserted. Usually, the tunics were decorated with colored wool braids applied on the neckline and the cuffs for the poorest, while the richest could afford to decorate even the edge of the “skirt”.

Kyrtill viking clothes male

Underneath the kyrtill, men wore a linen under-tunic. Linen underwear was more expensive than wool, but more comfortable against the skin. The construction of the under-tunic was similar to that of the kyrtill. The difference was in the length of the sleeves and the “skirt” which were longer than the kyrtill to show.

Men wore pants, it seems that in the Nordic lands there were various styles, some were narrow, others were wide, some were sewn in a simple way, others in a complex way with portions of fabric positioned in the groin area to allow more movement. They had neither pockets nor an opening on the front, in the absence of which, to slip on and off the garment was, therefore, necessary that the upper part was wide enough to pass through the hips. Around the waist were sewn loops in which was inserted a belt or a cord to ensure that the pants did not fall once worn.

Viking belts were made of leather and had elaborate buckles. There were no loops on the tunics so that various types of belts of different lengths could be used. The extra part was knotted around the buckle and used in a decorative way.

Two essentials were usually hung from the belt: a small knife and a leather or cloth pouch. In the absence of pockets, everyday items (coins, a piece of clean cloth for cleaning hands and face, fire starter kit, etc.) were carried around in this manner. They usually wore around their necks a small bag that performed the same function. Smaller weapons were also sometimes hung from the belt.

There is evidence of the use of long strips of woolen fabric that wrapped around the leg starting from the knee and going down to the foot covering it. Because of the way these bands were wrapped, there was no need to use pins to hold them in place. These wraps around the lower leg, for example, provided significant protection when crossing the dense birch forests of Iceland. They also helped keep the legs and pants warm and dry when walking through snow.

As for underwear, there is little evidence of underwear, according to sources they were built on the same model as the pants and were knee-length.

The cloak was simply a large rectangular piece of more or less thick wool. It provided more or less protection depending on the heaviness of the fabric from cold, wind and rain. They were usually worn leaving the armed arm uncovered and therefore the opening was not in the middle of the body but on the side. The cloaks were held in place by a pin placed on the right shoulder. The brooches could be bone pins or elaborate jewels, the most used materials were horn, wood, iron, bronze and gold for the richest. The cloaks could be embroidered or decorated with braids.

Hats were made of wool, leather or fur. They were usually made of four or more triangular pieces sewn together and sometimes had earmuffs to keep warm. Other headgears similar to hoods were the höttr which covered the head and shoulders and were used as protection in bad weather. The socks were made of wool and were made with the use of a single large needle that was used to knot the woolen thread. This technique allowed the creation of almost indestructible garments because even if one of the threads was broken or worn out, the others would not fray because they were knotted together.

Shoes were generally made in a simple way. The uppers were sewn to the sole (see picture) with the finished side inside (blue), and the untreated side outside (red). Once sewn they were turned around so that the seam was on the inside of the shoe where it was less subject to wear. This type of footwear probably lasted from a few months to a year and a half, which is why worn-out shoes are very common findings in the garbage pits of the Viking era. The wear and tear was especially visible on the sole. With this type of footwear, wearing wool socks really made a difference: even if your feet were wet, at least they would stay warm.

Viking clothes female

Women’s clothing was made from the same materials as men’s clothing. The woman wore an ankle-length linen tunic with a keyhole neckline fastened with a pin in the front.

Over the tunic, she would wear a woolen dress called a hangerock that was shorter than the tunic. This outer garment was sewn into a tube and held on by two suspenders fastened with pins. Sometimes instead of the hangerock over the tunic, another shorter, woolen tunic was worn. Some findings suggest that above the hangerock hanging from the side pins was inserted a panel of fabric probably used with the function of apron to keep the dress clean or decorative function or perhaps for both reasons.

viking clothes female

Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala University Image credit: Annika Larsson

Between the two pins on the chest (which held the hangerock) were made to pass threads of glass beads or amber and pendants of various kinds.

The women’s belt had the same function as the men’s, or give the possibility to hang a knife and a leather or fabric bag in which to carry everyday items such as shears, needles, keys, a rag for cleaning hands and face etc..

Women wore cloaks (identical to those of men), shawls and coats.

The coats were made in the same way as the tunics, the only difference being the vertical opening on the front of the garment. Three-lobed pins were often used to secure the neck opening.

The headgear usually consisted in a handkerchief knotted on the head and in cold periods in the höttr.

Women’s shoes were identical to men’s shoes, the same goes for socks.

How tall were the Vikings?

In 1958, Jon Steffanson composed an essay entitled “Stature as a criterion of the nutritional level of the Icelanders of the Viking Age” and analyzed the bones of about 86 individuals who lived in Iceland around the X century.

Thanks to modern technology and the countless artifacts found today we can know many things about the height of the Vikings and build. Let’s start by saying that the Vikings were not as tall as many TV series have made us know, if you were to meet a Viking today it would seem rather low.In 1958, Jon Steffanson composed an essay entitled “Stature as a criterion of the nutritional level of the Icelanders of the Viking Age” and analyzed the bones of about eighty individuals who lived in Iceland around the x century and came to the conclusion that the average height of men was about 173 cm while for women was about 159 cm, these data were also confirmed with other skeletons found in Denmark.

Vikings are described by the people they came in contact with as tall.

The Arab diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan in 921 AD was visiting the Volga Bulgars, who were converting to Islam. He came across a group of ‘Rus’ or Vikings, who permitted him to witness the funeral of one of the leaders.

He described them as follows:

“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment, which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.”

A similar observation was made by European observers. The Annals of Fulda record that in 884, the Franks defeated a party of attacking Vikings in a battle in Saxony, mentioning the size of their army. They were also described as follows:

“Quales numquam antea in gente Francorum visi fuissent, in pulchritudine videlicet ac proceritate corporum.”

Which translated means: “Such as had never before been seen in the nation of the Franks, in beauty and stature of bodies”

Regarding their constitution we can assert that it was more robust than ours, being accustomed to performing regular work in the fields. There is good reason to believe they were more muscular than we are today, but their appearance was also a result of hard work.

It should also be added that sport was quite popular on a large scale: javelin throwing, wrestling (which the Vikings called Glima), boxing, stone-lifting, swimming and climbing were real sports among the Norse, who valued agility and strength. Skiing was not only a sport but also a relatively common method of transportation during the winter and in more northern regions.

The diet of the Vikings was varied due to their access to various trade routes that brought a fair amount of food from distant lands to Northern Europe.

Despite this, their diet is considered poor compared to the modern one: children grew more slowly and did not reach the levels of development recorded in modern times, the same diet prevented them from reaching in adulthood the heights observed today among Scandinavian peoples.

Average lifespan of a Viking 

The Viking age was definitely not an easy time to live in, infectious diseases were many and on the agenda, the environment in which the Vikings lived was undoubtedly dirtier than it is now. Living in poor hygienic conditions certainly favored the proliferation of parasites, as also demonstrated by a 2014 Danish study in which intestinal worms were found by analyzing Viking feces. Being infected with these parasites led to a weakened immune system that if not properly treated could lead to serious damage to certain organs such as the liver. Children had a reduced life expectancy and only a 50% percentage exceeded 7 years of life, women were at risk of dying during childbirth while men if not affected by disease often died in battle. From this picture, it should come as no surprise that the Vikings had a life expectancy of 35-50 years. It was very rare for someone to live to 50 years or more, but there are also examples, especially of upper-class Vikings, who lived longer, one of these was Harald Fairhair, King of Norway, who lived for more than 60 years.

These data seem to confirm those collected in Jorvik on life expectancy during the Viking Age, which was found to be as follows: 50% percent of adult men died between the ages of 21 and 30. For women, the risks were in pregnancy and childbirth, and 35% of them did not survive past age 30. Those 31 to 40 years old were the “middle-aged” people of the Viking Age and 50 years old would be considered “old”.Women seem to have had a particularly high mortality rate in the 41 to 50 age group compared to men, but this is because about eight out of ten of the adult men had already died at an earlier age. It was exceptional for someone to reach what we would call ‘old age’ today. Below is a facial reconstruction done on a skeleton found at Coppergate in York over 30 years ago, the skull was laser scanned and with a special program was recreated a 3D digital image

What did vikings look like

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