by: AElina Vesterlundr- Drafn Arts and Science Officer
When you walk around Estrella War, Spring War, or even at Pennsic War, the Viking encampments stand out among the rest of the period encampments because of the unique A-frame tents. What we all know as Viking “A-frames” are modeled from the Gokstad and Oseberg finds that can be viewed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. Currently, these two finds are the only physical examples of Viking A-frame tents. At the Reykjavik, Iceland’s Saga Museum similar A-frame tents were used in combination with turf and stone. There is no physical evidence of these tents but the Icelandic Sagas talk about setting up tents at the All-Thing for the merchants, farmers, priests and lawyers during their yearly Thing.
In Old Norse, there are two different words for “tents” or tjalds: there is the landtjald which was set up on the ground and the stafntjald which was set up on the deck of a ship. The Gokstad and Oseberg tents are the landtjald. The only other evidence of Viking using tents are in the Sagas. The Sagas have other words for parts of tents:
• tjaldviðir, tent frame (viðir, wood);
• tjaldáss, tjaldstöng, tjaldstuðill, tent-pole (áss, pole, often horizontal (particularly the main pole); stöng pole, often upright; and stuðill, stud, prop, etc, usually upright);
• tjaldsperra, tent spar (sperra, spar, rafter);
• tjalddyrr, tent doors;
• tjaldskör, langskör, edge border of tent;
• tjaldsnagli, tent-peg;
• tjaldkúla, the knob on tent-pegs;
• tjaldstokkr, tent-block(?) (possibly the two lower side poles of the tent);
• tjald með gráu vaðm‡li, a tent with grey fabric;
• steintjald, a coloured tent; and
• líntjald, a linen tent.
What did the Oseberg and the Gokstad tents look like? It was originally assumed that the Vikings took down their sails every night and draped them over wooden frames, possibly their oars. There was an advantage to this idea since it required fewer materials to be carried on board ship. But, after it was discovered that replacing the sail every morning was extremely difficult, other theories were developed. The average woolen sail plus rigging weighed in over half a ton and with nothing more then a simple pulley system this wasn’t practical. The archaeological team at Oseberg found a “bundle of woolen cloth of yellowish color, thought to be originally white with stripes of white sewn on.” This bundle is assumed to be tent because within the bundle there were pieces of thin hemp rope to fasten to the tilt. Surprisingly, the tent was made of wool, but also was decorated with appliquéd stripes. Boards were also discovered near the bundle the tent cover was stretched over. In both the Oseberg and Gokstad finds, the wooden frame-work was made of ash wood. The Gokstad frame works are described as “two pair of angled upright boards (verge boards) and were connected by a ridge pole which inserted like a mortise and tenon joint in to the holes near the tops of the verge boards.” Stabilizing the ridge pole with its two pairs of verge boards were still boards or poles along the ground with also tenoned through the lower end of the verge boards. It was over this wedge shaped frame that the tent was stretched over so that the decorated heads of the verge boards were visible. These decorated heads on the verge boards are distinctive features on Viking tents. These verge boards are elaborately carved and decorated heads. The heads on the Gokstad tent is painted with black, red and yellow. The most common carved animal motif on the verge boards were dragons. Possibly to ward of evil spirits and protect the sleepers inside?
Part II More Viking Tents