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What did Vikings look like?

Posted by Sons Of Vikings on


The stereotype of Vikings as tall, jacked people with blonde or red hair and piercing blue eyes was probably true for many of them, but not true for all of them. Science (and common sense) tells us that Vikings came in a wide range of hair colors, eye colors, builds, complexions, and other physical characteristics.


Size
Numerous eyewitness accounts describe the Vikings as tall. To this day, Denmark and Norway host some of the tallest people in the world based on hundreds of country comparisons. Overall, our ancestors were generally shorter than us today. However, this fact pertains to the High Middle Ages through the 19th century, when social, economic, and adverse climate conditions made it difficult for dense populations to attain proper nutrition. The Vikings thrived earlier from all this, and a lower population density and more freedom meant more available food. This better nutrition meant larger people.

A study of over 6000 Northern European skeletons from the Early Middle Ages reveals that the average male height was about 5'8" and the average female height was about 5'2". That is not much less (but certainly no more) than people today. Scandinavian skeletons matched these average numbers. So, while there were taller or shorter individuals, the average Viking Age Norse man or woman was about the same height as their contemporaries in Britain, France, Ireland, or Germany.

Skeletons found buried with weapons in Early Medieval graves tend to be an inch or two taller than skeletons in graves that do not contain weapons. This is probably because the individuals buried with weapons were high-status (and thus better fed). Or it could be because individuals with greater height and other athletic gifts self-selected the warrior professions. In either case, it is possible that the Byzantine diplomats, Arab travelers, and monastic scribes who described Vikings as "tall and strongly-built" were noticing a lot of tall individuals. Still, objectively there was little size difference between the general populations.

Side note: Most of these size assumptions are based on skeletons found in Europe. A fair theory would tell us that the most aggressive and adventurous Vikings were the ones who eventually founded and settled in Iceland. And with that in mind, it is interesting how many of today's strongest (and largest) men in the world come from Iceland.

Height is just one of the dimensions that makes someone "big," however. Evidence suggests that Vikings had more mass than many of their enemies. Vikings were described as “well-formed” or “powerfully-built.” A significant reason for this increased mass was the amount and the type of physical activity the Vikings regularly did. Vikings spent hours rowing at the oars, walked or ran for miles, swam competitively with each other, dragged their hunted quarry out of the forests, and labored in their fields. They practiced warrior arts (armed and unarmed) since childhood. They also ate an extremely high protein-rich diet to support all this activity (more on this later).


Clothing and Appearance
The idea that Vikings dressed entirely in fur and leather is a Hollywood trope based on Ancient Roman propaganda describing completely different people. That being said, Vikings had a thriving fur trade and were fond of fur lining (of cloaks or hats, for example) to deal with their cold northern climates. In addition, there are some limited saga references to wearing fur pelts and leather when needed or for personal presentation. Still, not much of this has survived in archaeology

It is a myth that Vikings wore horned helmets. Instead, Viking helmets were rounded or conical metal caps, sometimes with nose guards or face guards (called "spectacled helmets") and sometimes with veils of chain mail. Surprisingly few Viking helmets have survived, suggesting that they were highly valued and passed on.

Each Viking armored themselves, so there was no standardization amongst Viking warriors. Chain mail hauberks or byrnies (long shirts weighing 20-30 pounds) was the best armor of the day, but only the wealthiest or luckiest Vikings had this. Most simply relied on their round shields for protection and probably layered clothing to reduce injuries. There are some references to Vikings fighting "bare-armed and bare-backed." Berserkers may have also fought shirtless (“berserker” means “bear shirt” or “bare shirt” with the play on words perhaps being intentional, according to some scholars).

Vikings wore loose-fitting clothing predominantly woven from wool or linen. Men wore a tunic, pants, leather shoes or boots, and a belt. Men’s pants started out fairly close-fitting, but in time styles of baggy, pleated pants inspired by Eastern contacts became very popular. According to one Arab traveler, the Vikings took this fashion trend too far and wore pants of many folds of fabric. Hats and cloaks were typical. Arab travelers mention the Vikings would wear their cloak over one side of the body to leave their sword arm free. Arab accounts and sagas agree that Vikings usually walked around armed.

Viking women wore dresses of linen or wool. They usually wore a full-length inner dress with a heavier "apron dress" over it. Women often had a belt around their waist (and also carried a knife for utility or defense). They often wore caps or bonnets, some surviving examples of which are of exceptional quality.

The sagas mention that Viking shield maidens (women warriors) often dressed the same as men while raiding or at war but reverted to typical Viking women's clothing while at home.

Vikings were part of an honor culture where personal presentation was crucial. Thus, Vikings cared a lot about cleanliness and grooming. Clothing was considered very valuable. Brightly colored clothing or expensive imported fabrics (such as silk) was used by anyone who could afford it. Viking men and women both wore jewelry, such as broaches, torcs, arm rings, finger rings, necklaces (including amulets), and so forth. Vikings may have had tattoos (read more about this controversy here). Up to 10% of males practiced dental modifications like grooved (and sometimes possibly painted) teeth.

Read more about Viking clothing here.
Read more about Viking hairstyles here.
Read more about Viking grooming and personal presentation here.

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