Swords, shields, and silver are the stuff of Viking discovery, shiny bling of warfare and plunder that bring millions of visitors to museums across Scandinavia. 

And yet they only tell half the story. While the menfolk were away engaged in battle and plunder, many of the women were at home weaving. 

Often hidden away in museum collections, unseen, unsung, and unstudied, sit thousands of fragments of textiles, equally as revealing about the Viking society that produced them.

Unpicking history

These secrets may have lain unappreciated by the wider world had Canadian anthropological archaeologist Michèle Hayeur Smith not begun to analyze, compare and contextualize samples across the North Atlantic a good decade ago.

The resulting book, The Valkyries' Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic, while eminently scholarly, is anything but a dusty academic study. 

Recently published in paperback by the University of Florida, it challenges long-held notions of how the Vikings lived. As Hayeur Smith puts it, using the same succinct, entertaining tone as her book, "Who was making the money?" 

It's a rhetorical question, for at the heart of Hayeur Smith's painstaking study that took her across Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Scotland, and Norway, is a simple concept. Using the same, simple, warp-weighted looms for well over 1,000 years, Icelandic women not only weaved coats and cloaks but currency. 

"The material was not only a form of money in Iceland," says Hayeur Smith, "but it was exported as made-to-measure cloth. The quality of this so-called vaðmál was assessed by specialized inspectors, which we know from legal records. To produce vaðmál of the wrong length or low quality was a serious offense. And who was helping inspectors determine this? Women!"

Measured by álnir or cubit, vaðmál could be bartered – a single cow cost 120 álnir – but was also used to pay import duty to Norway. When a ship from Iceland docked in the main port of Nidaros, Trondheim today, the captain would have to pay a fee in cloth to be able to unload his precious cargo. 

In this way, the role of Viking women in production, legislation, and trade helped keep the Icelandic economy afloat.

Anthropological archaeologist Michèle Hayeur Smith at work. Photo: Michèle Hayeur Smith

From tiny acorns

Hayeur Smith's own journey has been equally circuitous. With a father who worked for the UN and an anthropologist mother who collected fabrics from around the world, Hayeur Smith had a sense of textile history from an early age, although she chose to go into fine arts. She then branched out to earn a fashion degree in Paris.

While doing her Ph.D. on Viking women's dress and ornamentation through burial assemblages at the University of Glasgow, Hayeur Smith gained a taste for Iceland that led to a six-month study period in Reykjavík.

Commissioned to illustrate a new edition of Kristján Eldjárn's seminal work on Viking-era burial finds in Iceland, Kuml og haugfé, as outlined in her work Gender, Identity and Adornment in Viking-Age Iceland, Hayeur Smith was delving into an area few in the English-speaking world had addressed in its wider context.

"In histories of the Viking era, you didn't hear about the women," she says. "Particularly those written in the North Atlantic. It was a very male environment, about strategies and political machinations. Adornment and jewelry were projections of identity just the same as swords and axes." 

Sensing there was a whole side to the story being missed by traditionally male-dominated archaeology, Hayeur Smith also knew that there was also practical reason for its absence: Decomposition. While swords preserve perfectly well a millennium or more later, organic cloth deteriorates significantly. 

"These tiny scraps don't look like much, but you can still extract all kinds of information from them. Sometimes the material is actually stuck to the swords and has become metalized".

A piece of vaðmál, the cloth currency from Iceland. Photo: Courtesy of Michele Hayeur Smith

Starting with Iceland, Hayeur Smith compared weave types, thread counts, and warp numbers, usually between 4-5 and 14-15 in medieval Iceland, with the higher number of longways yarns indicating better quality cloth. The best went to the Church, and much was exported to England.

Some examples Hayeur Smith would send off for radiocarbon dating by a method called accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS), even checking the DNA, although cross-contamination made this difficult. Analysis of the wool for strontium, an earth metal also found in human bones and teeth, can point to where those particular sheep would graze.

Working through thousands of tiny pieces, Hayeur Smith compiled graphs and charts to gauge trends and patterns. Geopolitics further influenced the sample set. While Iceland offered up more than 10,000 items, the Faroes only had 142. "They were all sent to Norway," says Hayeur Smith, the direction of travel being the islanders' overlords. 

As for Greenland, sparsely settled by Icelanders, textile analysis showed a greater use of weft-heavy cloth, using sideways yarns, for extra warmth. This was particularly prevalent in the 1300s, around the onset of the Little Ice Age.

When compared to the many samples she also took in Scotland and Norway, the consistent warp-thread count in medieval Iceland pointed to its specific production as currency, Hayeur Smith backing up her premise with careful research of contemporary legal texts.

Cod not wool

The long centuries of Icelandic women constantly weaving at portable, easy-to-assemble, warp-weighted looms came to an end quite abruptly. In 1603, Denmark imposed a trade embargo, meaning that all goods had to go through there. 

In Iceland, cod fishing soon superseded cloth as the prime driver of revenue, and the age of vaðmál was over.

For around half a millennium in medieval Iceland, women had a license to print money – literally. We cannot tell for certain how this affected gender relations, but once Viking men could no longer bring home chests of silver, their days of plunder dwindling, women had the upper hand, economically at least. 

For Michèle Hayeur Smith, the textile trail still beckons: "My next project will be working with Alexandra Sanmark, a professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. We're looking at the life of Viking women, using a new method for tracking the movement of cloth".

The Valkyries' Loom: The Archaeology of Cloth Production and Female Power in the North Atlantic by Michèle Hayeur Smith. University Press of Florida, $26.95 in paperback (at the time of writing).

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