In popular culture, the Vikings are generally portrayed as ravenous and violent raiders that terrorized their neighbors and reveled in war and bloodshed. But a closer look at what we actually know about the Vikings reveals a rich culture that prized exploration, composed sophisticated skaldic verses, and fostered great craftsmen, who built their longships, forged their weapons and created a rich and diverse range of jewelry.
Just like people today, the Vikings liked to look good. This is why they wore eye kohl and prized exotic silks imported from the East. Rings, bracelets, and necklaces were another way for the Vikings to embellish themselves. Brooches were both attractive and played an important role in securing Viking clothes. Notably, the Vikings don’t seem to have worn earrings, though they would have known about them from their contact with other cultures.
The Vikings created their Norse Vikings jewelry using the lost wax method. This involved making a wax mold of the desired piece and pouring melted metal into the mold. Once cool, the wax mold was broken, and the metal buffed until it shone.
But more than being simple trinkets, jewelry also played an important role in Viking society.
Warriors that banded together to raid and conquer, alliances between lords, and between lords and warriors, were of paramount importance. One way that the Vikings showed loyalty was through the exchange of rings. Wealthy lords would often gift rings of precious metals to warriors to ensure their allegiance. Lords, in general, did not hoard their wealth, but redistributed it within the community. This ensured strong bonds of mutual interest and loyalty.
Viking jewelry, worn by both men and women, was mostly made from bronze or silver, though the very wealthy also wore gold. Notably, Viking jewelry rarely included inset stones or gems, though separate pieces were made from these materials. As well as being adornments, the precious metal jewelry worn by the Vikings was also used as currency.
While coins existed, they were not a currency in that the coin itself did not demark a particular value like modern paper currency. Coins were prized for their weight in silver or gold. For this reason, Viking society should be described as a bullion economy, where it is the weight and purity of the metal that matters, rather than the form it takes. As such, pieces of precious metal were often hacked off large pieces of jewelry to make up the exact weight of the precious metal, normally silver, required for the transaction. Traders generally carried small scales with them for this specific purpose.
Considering the monetary value of jewelry, it is no surprise that a Viking’s jewelry was also a symbol of their wealth and status. They literally wore their wealth. For similar reasons Viking warriors often adorned their weapons, which were themselves expensive to produce, with precious metals.
There are surviving examples of imported coins made from precious metal being melted down to their raw metal to create arm-rings, neck-rings and brooches. There are even examples of coins being mounted as jewelry.
Some Viking jewelry also probably had a religious significance. A small number of pendants survive in the form of religious symbols such as Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer and by far the most popular pendant design), Valknuts and Yggdrasil (the Tree of Life). These pendants only survive from a few graves, which suggests that they were either not regularly worn, of that these were important religious symbols retained within families and not included among grave goods. Vikings were often buried with jewelry as it was believed that they would need wealth to live comfortably in the afterlife.