Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


On the Swedish Island of Björkö, that today lies in Lake Mälaren, is the Viking Age (eighth-tenth century) town of Birka. Between 1871 and 1895 Hjalmar Stolpe excavated approximately 1100 graves in the vast grave-fields lying outside the walls of this town. Stolpe's excavations provided not only one of the richest quarries for the archaeological interpretation of the Viking Age but revealed the diversity of the approximately 600-900 inhabitants who lived in this international trading town. Among these approximately 1100 graves, were a group of male graves that contained a various array of splendid silk textiles, embroideries and trimmings in gold and silver, bronze and lead buttons, bronze belt mounts, and gold and silver brocaded tabletwoven bands. The confusion surrounding the bulk of these extant textiles and their accessories is their possible Near and Far Eastern provenance. Because of these exotic finds, Birka is known as the Silk Road of the North. My most recent research has been focused on the brocaded tabletwoven bands from the male graves. An examination of these tabletwoven bands and their comparison to other Scandinavian and Western brocaded bands will be the purpose of this paper.

I will begin with some cursory background information on the known trade and travel of the Eastern Vikings; that is, those Vikings living in Sweden and Russia who were known as the Rus'. This will help to explain the wide variety of possibilities for the provenance of these items. I will then introduce the tabletwoven bands, explore their unique materials, and finally, compare them to other extant bands through warp threads, ground weft threads, metallic brocade weft threads, and motifs in an effort to discover their possible provenance. I have recently examined the majority of the brocaded tabletwoven bands from both male and female graves that are now conserved at the Statens Historiska Museum in Stockholm. This examination confirmed materials and patterns. I have yet to compare the quality of the weave structures between Groups I and II.

The Sources

There are several Arab accounts that note particulars about the trade, travel, and physical appearance of the Eastern Vikings. Ibn Khordadhbeh, in c. 885 CE, writes about Vikings sailing down the Caspian Sea and exiting at "Djordjân." He explains that they would then pack their merchandise on camels and using eunuchs as interpreters, would make their way to Baghdad. Perhaps the most famous account of the Vikings comes to us from Ibn Fadlan who describes his meeting with the Rus' at a Northern Bulgar settlement on the Volga in 922 CE. His famous description of a chieftain's funeral includes details about his attire and available textiles. The dead chief wore pants, slippers, ankle-length boots, a tunic, a brocaded caftan with gold buttons, and a brocaded hat trimmed in Marten fur. He was carried out to a pavilion built in his ship and placed on a Byzantine brocade-covered couch. These accounts clearly indicate that Vikings had access to foreign merchandise.

Another contemporary course comes from Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, a learned Byzantine Emperor who ruled from 905-959 CE. He wrote De administrando imperio in c. 944CE . In this book he includes an account of the trade route the Rus' used to get from Novgorod, Smolensk, Teliutza, Chernigov, and Vyshegrad, to Byzantium along the Dnieper river. This information confirms the use of at least this one route from the North to the Mediterranean and includes details of ship building, portaging, and travel time.