What did the Vikings look like?

The VikingsContemporary writings give us few clues about what the people of the Viking world actually looked like. Recent progress in science has allowed us to find out more about skeletons from this period, to discover the sex of individuals and their age at death, and to identify any traces of disease, diet, wounds and traumas. Science can now even tell us where they spent their childhood.

Famously in ‘King Harold’s Saga’, King Harold of England offered the Viking King Harald Hardraada of Norway ‘seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men’. As the Anglo Saxon King rode off Hardraada commented ‘what a little man he was; but he stood proudly in his stirrups!’ The height and appearance of the two kings is not known, but the average height for males at this time was about 1.73m (5ft 8 inches), and for women about 1.57m (5ft 2 inches). These heights are not dramatically different from the average stature today.

In terms of life expectancy, the modern observer would see very few of what we would consider elderly people in a Viking settlement. Life expectancy, even for warriors not cut down in their prime, was relatively short and unpredictable. Anglo-Saxon kings in the 10th century, for example, mostly died in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Infant mortality must have been high, and women faced death in childbirth. Acute illness had no surgical remedy and chronic conditions such as arthritis took their toll.

The most common image of a Viking is one in full battle dress with armour and weaponry. A Viking warrior was a well-armed and formidable opponent, but although there was a basic uniformity to their weaponry, Vikings did not wear any particular uniform. Protective gear might have included a leather body-protector, for those who could afford it, and additional protection from the knees to the neck was available in the form of a shirt of mail, sometimes called a brynie.

It is possible that hard leather skull caps were worn by some Vikings, although such things have not been recovered archaeologically. Iron helmets, either hemispherical or conical in shape, and with some form of simple bar projecting down from the forehead to protect the nose, are very rarely found, and are more likely to have been worn by the rich and powerful or the hardened Viking than by an occasional fighter.

A large round shield, averaging about 1m (3ft 3 in) in diameter and made from parallel wooden boards, provided protection for most of the warrior’s body. An iron grip was held fast in the left hand, protected by a hemispherical iron boss that protruded from the outer face. Because the boss is usually the only part to survive, we know little about how often the shields were strengthened by a leather cover, or about coloured decorative designs and devices, fragmentary traces of which adorn a few surviving examples.

The ordinary folk of the time wore clothes not dissimilar to the basic garments of the warrior. Men would wear a pair of trousers, most likely be made from wool. The tunic they wore would be long sleeved and quite long, perhaps down to the knees. This would be fastened at the neck by a brooch, and tied at the waist with a leather belt. In colder weather a wool or oiled leather cloak might be added to this ensemble.

Ladies would wear an under-dress, made from linen, long in the sleeve and extending down to the floor. Over this would be a linen, or woollen over-dress. Again, in colder weather a cloak could be added. Brooches would be worn at the throat, and necklaces of glass beads were popular. Children would be dressed in a similar fashion to the adults.

Clothing was cared for and patched when necessary. The colours of the clothing ranged from muted beiges and browns for poorer folk, to the vibrant reds, yellows and blues of the wealthy. Shoes would be made from leather.

There have been no life-like portraits of the inhabitants of Jorvik until now. Today we can reconstruct the likely appearance of any person whose skull has survived. Just five intricate steps bring us face to face with one of Jorvik’s Vikings:

Step 1: Complete a detailed study of the bones to reveal age, sex and cause of death
Step 2: Examine the structure of the skull by scanning it using a laser linked to a powerful computer. Detailed knowledge of anatomy allows a structure to be built over the bones.
Step 3: Scan a modern “control face”. Someone of a similar build and age and the same sex as the Viking-Age person will be chosen
Step 4: Superimpose the two scanned images using the computer to create the most likely face for the skull.
Step 5: A professional sculptor uses the computer-generated images and their knowledge of anatomy to sculpt a three-dimensional face.