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Dragonhead found in Birka's Black Earth Harbour linked to Viking Age ship figureheads


The 'Birka dragon’ is synonymous with the famous Viking Age town of that name, an association born from 1887 discovery of a casting mould depicting a dragonhead.

Dragonhead found in Birka's Black Earth Harbour linked to Viking Age ship figureheads
Archaeologists discovered a Viking dragonhead pin made out of lead in Birka, a Viking
archaeological town in Sweden, in 2015 [Credit: Lena Holmquist; Antiquity 2018]
Recent excavations in Black Earth Harbour at Birka have yielded a dress pin that can, almost 150 year later, be directly linked to this mould. This artefact introduces a unique 'Birka style’ to the small corpus of known Viking Age dragonhead dress pins.

"Of course, as an archaeologist excavating in Birka, one is aware that you definitely will make thousands of fine finds. This find, however, once identified, blew our minds!" said study senior researcher Sven Kalmring, an archaeologist at the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, Germany, and a guest researcher in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University.

The dragonhead is tiny — just about 1.7 by 1.6 inches (4.5 by 4.2 centimeters), or smaller than a deck of cards. But it's very detailed; its gaping mouth has pointy teeth and a tongue that almost sticks out of its snout.

Dragonhead found in Birka's Black Earth Harbour linked to Viking Age ship figureheads
This is the dragonhead mould found by the farmer in 1887. It's now housed at The Swedish History Museum
[Credit: The Swedish History Museum; Arbman 1939: 123; Antiquity 2018]
This lead dragon wasn't a child's toy. Rather, it served as an ornamental head to an iron dress pin, Kalmring said. The Vikings likely chose lead because it has a low melting point and it's close in colour to silver, he noted.

"Other examples of dragonhead dress pins, mostly in bronze, are known from the major centres of the Viking world, for example, from the Viking town of Hedeby in present-day northern Germany," Kalmring told Live Science. Moreover, many dragonhead dress pins have counterparts in Viking ship figureheads, called "drekar" — Old Norse for "dragon ship."

Regarding the newfound Birka dragonhead, it appears that the figurehead of the Viking Ladby ship, which dates to about A.D. 900 and was discovered in Denmark, is the closest in style. Meanwhile, the 0.4 ounces (13.5 grams) dragon pin dates to the second half of the ninth century, or A.D 850 to 900, the researchers said.

Dragonhead found in Birka's Black Earth Harbour linked to Viking Age ship figureheads
The dragonhead pin found in Birka is similar to the Ladby ship, which was excavated from 1934 to 1937.
Note the iron curls on the decayed wooden figurehead of the boat
[Credit: Sørensen 2001: fig. 10.1; Antiquity 2018]
Since the pin appears to predate the boat, it's possible that the Ladby's figurehead was modelled after the Birka mould, said Kalmring and study co-researcher Lena Holmquist, an archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University.

Subtle differences indicate that the mold found by the Swedish farmer in 1887 isn't an exact match with the newfound pin, but the discovery of both indicates that the Vikings produced their fair share of moulds and pins. However, given that these pins are rare, it's likely that they were reserved for high-status individuals, the researchers said.

But more work is needed to say so for sure. None of these dragon pins has ever been found in a Viking grave, Kalmring said, which would have marked their importance.

Dragonhead found in Birka's Black Earth Harbour linked to Viking Age ship figureheads
This map shows where archaeologists have found dragonhead dress pins, moulds and iron curls
from ships’ figureheads [Credit: Kalmring & Holmquist, Antiquity 2018]
Even so, the finding does make one thing clear. "It confirms Birka's prime position among the major Viking-age sites in the trading network around the Baltic," Kalmring said.

The study is published in the journal Antiquity.

Author: Laura Geggel | Source: LiveScience [June 29, 2018]

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