Yet the archaeological evidence found in Viking settlements shows them as skilled craftsmen and women who wore jewelry regularly. Much of this jewelry uncovered was not only beautifully crafted but was endowed with a rich level of cultural, religious, and social symbolling, meaning, and quality.

Viking jewelry had dual functions, was made commonly, and had foreign influences

Like all peoples throughout history, the Vikings dressed themselves according to gender, status, prestige, and power. Often jewelry in Viking societies had two functions – to show off social status but also their religious belief. The so-called "Viking Age" spanned hundreds of years, multiple countries, cultures, and peoples, so any use of the term "Viking jewelry" is rather misleading.

It should also be noted that Vikings – as can be imagined – were skillful metalworkers and blacksmiths. One only has to look at any Viking sword, ax, or hammer to understand the many people in Viking societies had a sophisticated level of working and forging with different base metals and alloys. In almost every Viking village, there was a blacksmith who would, no doubt, make some form of jewelry when he (as a blacksmith was regarded as a "man’s job") wasn’t banging out new swords or axes for war.

Aside from metals and alloys, jewelry could also be made from wood, glass, or amber. Animal motifs – often "gripping beasts" or animal heads – were a common design for jewelry, as well as geometric shapes and interweaving bands.

The influence of Byzantium on Viking jewelry

Many Viking societies were heavily influenced by the most "sophisticated" civilization in Europe at the time, the Byzantine Empire. The level and sophistication of jewelry worn by the Byzantine court were perhaps the biggest trendsetters of the day. As Viking peoples began to have more contact with the Empire – through raiding and trading – more and more Byzantine influence was to be found in the jewelry produced in Viking societies.

Perhaps the most famous contact between the Vikings and the Byzantine Empire was the "Varangian Guard" established by Byzantine Emperor Basil II in 986 CE. This was an elite unit of the army, from the 10th to 14th centuries CE, comprised mainly of Norsemen from Scandinavia. The future King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, was a member during his young adulthood. As the Byzantine Empire, fashions recruited more and more Viking men, especially more sophisticated jewelry, soon began to flow back to Scandinavia.

The Byzantines had a monopoly on the fabrication and trade of silk, so jewelry was often the most decorative and practical sign of wealth that Vikings could acquire. 

Archaeologists throughout Europe have uncovered jewelry dating from the Viking Age. Photo: Historical Museum at Lund University

Some famous examples

Archaeologists throughout Europe have uncovered jewelry dating from this time and from these Viking societies showing a wealth of sophistication and craftsmanship not often associated with medieval history’s favorite pirates and raiders. Some of the most famous finds include:

Thor Hammer Pendant – this was discovered on Købelev, a Danish island in Lolland. The pendant dates back almost 1,100 years to the late 10th century CE and even has a runic inscription.

Viking brooch pin -  is a decorative item that can be attached to garments. There has been a multitude of brooches found, but one of the more stunning was found in Fyn in Demark. This pin depicts two ravens – Hugin and Munin – flying with Odin as his constant companions.

Arm ring – according to scholars, many Viking men used an arm ring as a sort of proto-purse / wallet. Often when purchasing food or goods, they would hack off a bit of the arm ring to trade. Furthermore, an arm ring also has a spiritual purpose. When a Viking boy came of age, he and his peers would meet the local chieftain to pledge their fidelity and loyalty. The chieftain would, in return, give them each an arm ring as a sign of the vow. One of the best-known examples was found on the Swedish island of Götland, from the 9th century CE, depicting a wolf’s head.

Did Vikings wear earrings?

Vikings, according to Denmark’s National Museum, did not actually wear earrings. It is true that Viking men and women were fond of wearing jewelry, but it appears that none had their ears pierced. 

The Slavic peoples were among the first peoples that the Vikings made contact with in the Baltic region and further afield in Eastern Europe. Many Slavic tribes and societies wore earrings, and the Vikings must have encountered them. However, this was one custom/tradition that Viking societies did not adopt from those that they dominated either economically or politically.

Many peoples in Viking societies, nonetheless, wore a variety of jewelry. From brooches, belt buckles, pendants, arm rings, bead necklaces to rings, from simple jewelry witted out of animal bones to elaborate golden and silver creations, the Vikings loved a bit of "bling." 

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