After our return from Denmark, we tried our hands at crafts that would likely have been more familiar to people living through the Viking Age than they are to most people today. We began at the Blacksmith of Trenton, a workshop that has occupied the same space since it was established in 1823. Metalworking in the Viking Age was, in the words of one scholar, both a blessing and a menace—a source for both sword and plowshare. And metalworkers seem to have held a marginal role in society, if the fates of such legendary figures as Regin and Voland are a guide. Our own experience was perhaps more grounded than these mystical tales, but the feel of bending iron beneath a glancing blow retains a sense of magic all its own.

We next tried our hands with a different kind of plastic art—pottery. But while iron must be heated before it can be worked, clay can be worked only until it is heated. At the Arts Council of Princeton, we experimented building pots from coils—a common method in the Viking Age—and throwing bowls on a wheel. Although throwing pottery might seem like a tactile relief from our world of screens, in a world on the edge of subsistence, it was an activity that demanded more labor and expertise than many communities were willing to give. Some Viking Age communities answered these constraints by trading surplus supplies for thrown pots, while others raided neighboring areas to import skilled potters as slaves.

As a final workshop, we again visited the Arts Council to work with textiles. Most Viking Age textile research has focused on weaving, which in the Viking Age was done on a standing loom, typically with wool or sometimes linen. Our workshop allowed exploration of some allied crafts, including spinning thread, plying yarn into rope, tablet weaving, and knitting (a modern kin to Viking Age nålbinding). Our main focus, however, was felting a small piece of fabric and dying it with onion skins. Viking Age felting has not attracted much attention, and the archaeological evidence seems generally ambiguous. But felting was likely practiced to some degree, and it offers a quick method to learn about making fabric, just as onion skins provide a quick and ready source of vegetable dye that was likely used but would be unlikely to be preserved through an archaeological trace. On the one hand, then, this workshop allowed us to experience a wide breadth of textile work likely practiced in the Viking Age at a breakneck pace. On the other, actual textile work during the Viking Age was undoubtedly painstaking, and it would have been an unending task as one item wore out and needed to be replaced by another.

See further

Arts Council of Princeton

Blacksmith of Trenton: Daniel Lapidow

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