Blue Ribbon

This document originally formed part of a paper I wrote for a competition at Ice Dragon in the East Kingdom, a Society for Creative Anachronism event in 1991. Later it became part of "Textiles and Clothing in the Viking Age," a chapter I wrote in 1997 for the on-site training manual for the open-air museum staff at the site of the Viking landfall at l'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. It has been augmented and redrafted for publication here and will be updated as necessary. The most recent update concerned the identity of Yellow X (24 April 1999). Christina Krupp and Denise Engelhardt Cross both provided me with invaluable references, for which I am deeply grateful.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Colors, Dyestuffs, and Mordants of the Viking Age: An Introduction

Copyright © 1991, 1997, 1998, 1999 Carolyn Priest-Dorman

First Things First

This article is intended as an aid to people, generally re-enactors, who are engaged in experiments with natural dyestuffs. It is basically a list of which dyes and dyestuffs are known (or strongly believed by experts) to have been used in the Viking Age. It is purposely not detailed with respect to geographic information. That information can be found by consulting the sources listed at the end of the article. Also, for the purpose of this article the term "Viking Age" covers the period 800-1066 in northern Europe (i.e., not just Scandinavia but also the British Isles and the areas bordering the Baltic and North Seas). The international trade enjoyed by these areas permitted the free flow of dyestuffs, mordants, and textiles across wide distances; accordingly, textile products throughout northern Europe shared a basic set of dyestuffs in the Viking Age. Local products varied, of course; see below for more on that subject.

Through the use of modern chemical analysis it can be demonstrated that certain plants, chemical coloring agents, and classes of colorants were known and used on textiles from the Viking Age. For more specifics about the types of analysis in current use, see especially the works of Taylor, Tomlinson, and Walton listed below.

Based on chemical analyses of actual wool textiles, the following plants were more or less certainly used to dye wool textiles of the Viking Age.

Based on chemical analyses of actual imported silk textiles, the following dyestuffs were more or less certainly used to dye imported silk textiles available in the Viking Age.

The following additional plants were most likely used to dye textiles of the Viking Age. Either they sport appropriate chemical proportions of the colorants listed below, or they have been found in Viking Age archaeological contexts suggesting use as dyestuffs.

The following unidentified colorants were definitely used to dye textiles of the Viking Age.

And for the chemists among you, the following chemical colorants were definitely used to dye textiles of the Viking Age.

The following mordants are fairly certain to have been used to dye textiles of the Viking Age.

Colors on Wool

Wool, the chief textile fiber of the Viking Age, was available in white as well as many different natural shades of browns and greys. Such shades could be and often were spun and woven without ever being dyed. Wool dyes very easily, though, and many finds of wool from the Viking Age were dyed in once-bright colors. Sometimes a dyer might use a naturally pigmented wool rather than a white one.

A report on the analysis of 220 samples of Viking Age textiles mentions 90 samples which yielded evidence of dyes. The samples come from Dublin, Jorvík, and 19 sites in Norway and Denmark; the dyes mentioned are

red from madder or bedstraw; a purple derived from lichens; our mysterious yellow X [from an unidentified plant]; and a colorant identified as indigotin, almost certainly derived from woad. The insect dye kermes has also been found, and luteolin, presumably from weld, but only on imported silks. (Walton 1988b, 17)
Yellow X is still unknown. Chemical testing has eliminated 25 possible dyestuffs, including weld, broom, buckthorn, heather, chamomile, and saffron (see Walton 1988a for a complete list of dyestuffs tested).

Blended colors are also represented. Indigotin was used in conjunction with other dyes to produce several purples (with madder) and a green (with the unidentified yellow). Madder and lichen used in conjunction yielded a red-violet result (Walton 1988, 18, figure 9). Some evidence of brown from walnut shells has also been found, as well as one or two pieces that were intentionally dyed very dark brownish-black with walnut shells and iron (Hägg 1984, 289).

The chemical evidence of textiles from several different sites seems to point to a preponderance of particular colors appearing in particular areas: reds in the Danelaw, purples in Ireland, and blues and greens in Scandinavia proper (Walton 1988, 18). This seeming preference could of course be explained by any number of variables--availability of dyestuffs, the differing site climates, or the sheer vagaries of archaeological discovery. However, although it is carefully hedged, there is a hypothesis in the scientific world that this might possibly reflect regional color preferences rather than archaeochemical factors. It is pleasant to think that this sort of "Viking heraldry" might have been practiced.

Colors on Linens

Linen does not take most historic dyes readily, even when a mordant is used. Accordingly, linen was often bleached or left its natural color (grey if dew-retted, straw if water-retted). Substantive dyes such as woad, however, are fairly successful; accordingly, blue linen may have been more common than we know. There are a few examples of woad- and madder-dyed linens from Birka.

Colors on Silks

Imported silks may have gotten their colors from plants or other materials not available in northwestern Europe, such as indigo or Tyrian ("royal") purple. No further consideration is given to this issue in this article.


Duff, D.G., and R.S. Sinclair. 1988. "The Use of Aluminium in Clubmoss as a Dye Mordant." Dyes in History and Archaeology 7, pp. 25-31.
Report on controlled chemical experiments with three clubmosses and synthetic alizarin.
Geijer, Agnes. 1938. Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Birka: Untersuchungen und Studien III. Uppsala: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akadamien, 1938.
Not much on the dyestuffs, and it's usually buried in the text.
Hägg, Inga. 1984. Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bericht 20. Neumünster: Karl Wachholz Verlag.
These textiles were recycled remnants of clothing. Not much information, but a brief chemical report by Helmut Schweppe.
Hald, Margrethe. 1980. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials, trans. Jean Olsen. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark.
Brief note about some positive identifications of indigotin in the raw materials chapter, but most of this work has long since been superseded.
Hall, A.R. 1983. "Evidence of Dyeplants from Viking Age York and Medieval Beverley." Dyes on Historical and Archaeological Textiles 2, p. 25.
A concise early summary, anticipating some of his later work.
Hall, A.R.; P.R. Tomlinson, R.A. Hall, G.W. Taylor, and P. Walton. 1984. "Dyeplants from Viking York." Antiquity LVIII, no. 222 (March 1984), pp. 58-60.
Discusses the contexts of several of the finds of dyestuffs.
Hall, Allan R., and Philippa Tomlinson. 1989. "Archaeological Records of Dye Plants--An Update--With a Note on Fullers' Teasels." Dyes in History and Archaeology 8 [page numbers missing in my copy].
Adds another Anglo-Scandinavian site at York (Queen's Hotel) to the list of places that have revealed dyestuffs. Hanks of harvested broom were found there.
Heckett, Elizabeth. 1987. "Some Hiberno-Norse Headcoverings from Fishamble Street and St. John's Lane, Dublin." Textile History 18, no. 2, pp. 159-174.
Archaeological examination of the little coifs worn in Dublin in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Dye analysis turned up colors on the silk ones but no colors on the wool ones.
Hundt, Hans-Jürgen. 1981.Die Textil- und Schnurreste aus der Frühgeschichtlichen wurt Elisenhof. Studien zur Küstenarchäologie Schleswig-Holsteins, Serie A. Elisenhof: Die Ergebnisse der Ausgrabung der Frühgeschichtlichen Marschenseidlung beim Elisenhof in Eiderstedt 1957/58 und 1961/64, Band 4. Frankfurt am Main/Bern: Peter D. Lang, 1981.
Textiles from a proto-Viking Age town (6th to 8th centuries) in Schleswig, North Germany. Chemical report on the dyestuffs by Helmut Schweppe.
Ingstad, Anne Stine. 1982. "The Functional Textiles from the Oseberg Ship." Textilsymposium Neumünster: Archäologische Textilfunde, 6.5. - 8.5.1981., ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Klaus Tidow, pp. 85-96. Neumünster: Textilmuseum Neumünster.
The garments, sails, and bedclothes from Oseberg, sketchily catalogued and discussed. Very rare information, very useful.
Pritchard, Frances. 1983. "Evidence of Dyeing Practices from a Group of Late Saxon Textiles from London." Dyes on Historical and Archaeological Textiles 2, pp. 22-24.
Notable for proposing an identity for lichen purple--Ochrolechia tartarea.
-----. 1984. "Late Saxon Textiles from the City of London." Medieval Archaeology 28 (1984), pp. 46-76.
Some interesting conclusions about when in the textile process the dyeing occurred. Backs away from a definitive identity for lichen purple.
Pritchard, Frances. 1992. "Aspects of the Wool Textiles from Viking Age Dublin." Archaeological Textiles in Northern Europe: Report from the 4th NESAT Symposium 1.-5.May 1990 in Copenhagen, ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Elisabeth Munksgaard, pp. 93-104. Tidens Tand 5. Copenhagen: Udgivet af Konservatorskolen Kulturhistorisk Linie/Det Kongelige Dansk Kunstakademi.
Summarizes types of extant wool textiles from tenth- to twelfth-century Dublin. Lists dyestuffs identified.
Taylor, G.W. 1983. "Detection and Identification of Dyes on Anglo-Scandinavian Textiles." Studies in Conservation 28, pp. 153-160.
Technical. Discussion is confined to finds of blue and red dyes due to limitations of the technology. Plenty of discussion about red dyes.
-----. 1990. "On the nature of dyeings with madder and related dyestuffs." Dyes in History and Archaeology 9, pp. 23-26.
Focuses on the problem of identifying sources of the colorant pseudopurpurin. Recounts an interesting experiment: several red dyestuffs are used at different temperatures and their thin-layer chromatography results compared. Also summarizes the results of an earlier madder experiment by Su Grierson.
Tomlinson, Philippa. 1985. "Use of Vegetative Remains in the Identification of Dyeplants from Waterlogged 9th-10th century AD Deposits at York." Journal of Archaeological Science 12, pp. 269-283.
Heavily botanical approach, focusing on the identification process for each set of plant specimens.
Tomlinson, Philippa, and Allan Hall. 1984. "Progress in Palaeobotanical Studies of Dye Plants 1983/4." Dyes on Historical and Archaeological Textiles 3, pp. 28-29.
Suggests that remains of heather (Calluna vulgaris) found at Anglo-Scandinavian York served as a dyestuff.
Walton, Penelope. 1988a. "Dyes and Wools in Iron Age Textiles from Norway and Denmark." Journal of Danish Archaeology 7, pp. 144-158.
A report of a 1985 project: laboratory analysis of over 50 textile samples for fleece type and dyestuff content. Includes several samples from the Viking Age, many of them from lesser-known sites. Text includes many graphs and a complete catalogue of findings in table format.
Walton, Penelope. 1988b. "Dyes of the Viking Age: A Summary of Recent Work." Dyes in History and Archaeology 7, pp. 14-19.
Although kind of technical, the best few-page summary out there. Contains information on spectrochemical analysis as well as botanical information for various Viking Age dyes.
Walton, Penelope. 1989. Textiles, Cordage and Fiber from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York, Vol. 17: The Small Finds, Fascicule 5. Dorchester: The Council for British Archaeology and The Dorset Press.
Careful, detailed archaeological analysis of the textiles found from the late ninth- through early eleventh-century period of the Anglo-Scandinavian site of Jorvik. Helpful discussion on the colors, especially with respect to lichen purple.
Walton, Penelope. 1991. "Dyes and wools in textiles from Mammen (Bjerringhøj), Denmark." Mammen: Grav, kunst og samfund i vikingetid, ed. Mette Iversen, Ulf Näsman, and Jens Vellev, pp. 139-43. Viborg, Denmark: Viborg Stiftsmuseums raekke bind 1. Jysk Arkaeologisk Selskabs Skrifter 28.
A technical report on results of several tested textile samples from Mammen; includes fleece types, fiber sizes, and some good in-depth information on red plant dyes.

This page was created on 8 December 1998 and last updated on 24 April 1999.

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