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The Golden Hall #TheGreatVikingHoliday Part I

The next stop on our Viking Adventure was the Midgard Vikingsenter at Borre, which gave it's name to the Borre Art Style which flourished from the late 800s to the late 900s.

Like the rest of the Viking Age Art Styles, it didn't necessarily originate in the place it's named after - it's just that the art style was first recognised on some harness mounts (left) discovered in one of the Borre Burial Mounds, excavated in 1852.

Still, with examples of Borre Art in Irish Sea Zone, like the Ballinderry Gaming Board from Ireland, the Kirk Michael Cross on the Isle of Man, not to mention the Gosforth Cross in my native Cumbria, it would have been the height of bad manners not to drop in!

As well as some superb visual displays and excellent reproductions, the Vikingsenter had some stunning artefacts, including a silver 'Thistle' Brooch, a type of cloak pin common in the Irish Sea Zone and Northern Scotland, notably Skaill Bay on Orkney, Flusco Pike and Penrith in Cumbria and Ballaquayle on the Isle of Man. A fair number have been found in Norway too, which reminds us that despite settling in Britain, the Viking Diaspora maintained links with their homeland.

The brooches are almost always made of silver, and a characterised by an extremely long pin, with thistle head shaped terminals, which often feature motifs of Irish Sea origin. Why the pins are so long is not known, but the wearer would certainly stand out in a crowd and medieval Irish Law Codes had clauses specifying how these should be worn to avoid injury!

Once we'd finished looking around the Vikingsenter we went for a walk around the Borre Park, the site of a cemetery which was in use from around 600-900 AD.

One of the Borre Mounds

One of the Borre Cairns

The cemetery originally comprised of 9 great mounds, around the same size as the one at Gokstad, 3 large piles of stones (known in Scotland as cairns) and around 30 other lesser burial mounds. DNA tests have shown that the burials may relate to several families, and that the re-use of the site over the centuries was intended to "cash-in" on the legitimacy of the older burials.

This is a theme we see in Scotland and other parts of the Irish Sea Zone, where Viking Age settlers buried their dead near ancient sites, perhaps trying to legitimise their land-taking and lordship over their new subjects.

On Orkney and in the Western Isles in particular, Iron Age and Stone Age sites were often reused in the Viking Age, a good example being Ballinaby on Islay, where three individuals were interred in what might have been a boat burial. The interesting thing about Ballinaby, apart from the range of burial goods, is that the mound the Vikings re-used wasn't a old burial, but a Stone Age midden!

At Borre, only one of the mounds has been excavated and that was before modern Archaeological Techniques were developed, so a lot of detail has been lost. However, what remains from 1852 excavation and what has been discovered at similar sites elsewhere indicate that this must have been a very important site before and at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Over the last 20 years traces of a great hall and other buildings have been discovered at the site, and as a massive Lord of the Rings fan this conjured up images of the burial mounds of the Kings of Rohan and Theoden's golden hall, Meduseld!

The Reproduction of a Kingly Hall at Borre

One of Govan "Hogbacks"

This reproduction of a Viking Age Hall was opened to the public in 2013, and I'm sure you'll agree it's absolutely stunning!

The first thing that struck me, apart from it's sheer scale, was how much it reminded me of the Hogback Stones found over North Britain, notably in the Northwest of England and Govan in Scotland. They'll be covered in detail in a future post, but for now notice they both have a distinctive bowed ridge and the stone has decoration similar to the shingles on the roof of the hall!

Detail of the Shingles

Shingles are kind of like roof tiles and are usually made of timber, Although they are about between 10-20 cm wide, shingles are often about a metre long, and like modern tiles overlap in such a way that rainwater can run down the roof, avoiding joins to keep the inside of the hall nice and dry.

Thatched roofs are what normally springs to mind when you think about Viking Age buildings, and turf roofs were likely common in the Northern & Western Isles of Scotland, but shingles are also known in Britain, with examples discovered at Coppergate in York,

A view from the middle of the hall

If the outside of the hall was impressive, the inside did not disappoint!

At either end of the building there were separate rooms with additional floors above, and in the main hall benches skirted the walls and ran down the centre of the room.

Mighty pillars held up the roof, and were covered with decorative carvings using the various art-styles from different periods in the Viking Age, although this might bother some people, I thought they looked impressive and were skilfully carved!

They were painted in contrasting colours, and evidence for the use of paint on decorative woodwork is known from the Oseberg Ship Burial. None-the-less, making paint is not easy and the resources required are often valuable, so imagine how it might have felt for more lowly members of society walking into a building like this!

In the centre of hall a fire blazed in the hearth. Such a fire may have been used for cooking communal feasts as well as for warmth.

These feasts are well attested in literature, from Icelandic Sagas to the Old English Beowulf (again!), not to mention Northern British poetry like Y Gododdin, and are an essential feature of the 'gift economy' common to all European Early Medieval cultures. That a good lord will be open handed with his followers, giving them feasts and gifts, is a theme that we read of time and again. This was a reciprocal relationship, and in many ways the feasting hall was the glue that held ruling elites together.

Behind the hearth lay the head table, and if this was the hall of a King, that is where he and his family and closest followers sat. There has always been a lot of protocol regarding seating at formal occasions, from modern weddings through to King's courts: the closer you are allowed to sit to the top table, the more intimate your relationship is to the people sitting there.

Imagine you usually sit closer to the doors where there's more of a draft and the food is cold by the time it gets to you. You run a small farm and are occasionally called to take up arms for your lord and one day you do something brave and he sees you. At the next feast you are called forward, given a gift and a place at the bench closer to the fire, which is much nicer! Afterwards, one of the people you normally sit with asks you to put in a good word for them with your lord at a legal case and they end up winning, and before long people who were your equals are now looking up to you. This goes both ways, as your lord relies on loyalty to maintain his position, and your new status relies on his position!

Thinking about that example I looked up and really appreciated the scale of this structure, the skill of craftsmen who reproduced it and the effort and resources building something like this would have taken during the Viking Age.

This would have been the product of a well organised society: as well as access to managed woodland for the raw materials, surplus farming would be needed to support the specialised craftsmen who built the hall, decorated the woodwork and made the furniture.

And that's just the wood, when you take everything else into account, it's a far cry from the disorganised rabble Vikings are often depicted as in popular culture!

In closing I want to contrast this site with Gokstad once more. Here, at Borre, we have evidence of a grand feasting hall and a great monumental cemetery that was in use for 300 years - the lordship may have changed hands a few times over the centuries, but the site had stayed in use. Further to the south at Gokstad, a lone mound was built close to a market place to bury a wealthy man and his ship. Two very different sites with their own stories playing out at a time when Norway was becoming more centralised. I can't help wondering if the men buried in these mounds at the start of the 900s were involved in the power struggle which saw the foundation of Norway, and whether they were on the side of victors who succeeded and became Kings, or the losers who sought new lands to control across the whale-road.

Sorry, that was a bit too dramatic even for me! But work will continue at Borre, and perhaps one day we can understand this remarkable a little better.

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