The weekend before last (22-23rd February) was the culmination of the Jollablot Viking Festival in York. Due to the large amount of re-enactors present and the various battles that went on, there are quite a few photo-sets doing the rounds on facebook, flickr and so on. As I didn’t go I decided to have a glance through some of the galleries just to see what I missed. Fortunately one of the things I missed was boar tusk necklaces – one photo has a large mailed warrior with a pair mounted in bronze and dangling at his neck, another has a trader behind his stall with a silver mounted one, another warrior combines the two and has a pair mounted in silver rather than nasty bronze.
Why is it fortunate for me that I missed this? Well, as someone who is
slightly obsessive about all things boney and historical (particularly of a Viking/Saxon kind), boar tusk necklaces feature quite highly on my “ARGHH!!!! NO-NO-NO-NO-NO!!!!” list. Somewhere in the dim and distant past of re-enactment, someone decided they looked “cool” and “manly” and that idea has stuck. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence to back this up.
“Poppycock!” I hear warriors shout from all over the internet, “of course they had boar tusks!”. Alas, it is not so, and as this is not meant entirely as a rant but also as an educational post, I will show the (lack of) evidence for boar tusk necklaces during the Viking and Saxon period.
If you don’t want to read the whole post (chicken!), jump to “Conclusions“
Before the Saxons
Prior to the pagan Saxons arriving in Britain, the general culture of England was an amalgamation of remaining pre-Roman traditions, imported Roman culture and in certain places elements of other European cultures that had been brought here by auxiliaries and so on with the Romans.
During this period, it would not be entirely uncommon for boar’s tusks to be found as ornaments, singly or in pairs, and either mounted in metal or simply perforated. Examples from Britain include (but not limited to);
- Scole – A roughly trimmed and perforated boar tusk, dated 3rd-4th century (Wade-Martins 1977, 203-204).
- Richborough – a pair of boar tusk mounts, each originally comprising two tusks held together by a central bronze mount (Bushe-fox 1949, 141-2, pi. XLVI, 173-4).
- North Wraxall – A pair of boar tusks found in a similar mount to those from Richborough. Dated 1st-4th century AD (Chadwick-Hawkes 1961, p29)
These traditions were a reflection of the rest of Europe, and similar mounts are known from the same period, particularly used by Germanic mercenaries (MacGregor 1985, p109) and have been variously interpreted as mounts for shields or helmets, or even horse fittings (Meaney 1981, p133).
Use of boar tusks, and boar imagery, continued into the early pagan Saxon period and is probably an import of the traditions of the Germanic peoples themselves rather than an adoption of pre-existing beliefs. As early use of such amulets appears in the Eastern Mediterranean and then is adopted by the Romans, it has been suggested that the Germanic peoples in turn adopted the practise from the Romans (Meaney 1981, p133).
The boar features both in literature and wargear of the time. The early Saxon helmets from Benty Grange and Wollaston (“Pioneer” helmet) both feature boar crests, the Sutton Hoo helmet also has boar figures, and the epic poem Beowulf (set in the 6th-7th C) describes “….. the boar-sign that stands on the helmet” and the boar image on a banner. Clearly the boar remained an important symbol of the warrior and battle.
However, while the boar as a symbol was apparently widely used by warriors, physical elements of the boar do not appear to have been treated in the same way.
There are a number of boar’s tusks found in pagan Saxon graves and there are a few features common to all of them;
- They are found in graves dating to the 5th-7th centuries.
- They are usually found singly (sometimes more than one in a grave, but not as mounted pair in the way the Roman examples were)
- They are never mounted in precious metal (they have either a simple perforation or a bronze mount).
A further point that needs to be made, is that with the exception of two very early examples, the graves are also exclusively female (as in the image above) or those of children . The two burials that are the exception are Stowting in Kent, and Kemp Town in Sussex. Both were excavated during the 19th century and as was the way of many excavations then, the “report” for each is little more than a brief list of roughly what was found, and less a serious and detailed account of the excavation, additionally skeletal identification was sometimes rather hazy (hence reports of men with big brooches i.e. tortoise brooches).
Stowting is the site of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery that was dug by various individuals during the 19th century. One particular report from 1883 describes a male burial that contained a spear and a langsaex along with a comb and “a piece of a boar’s tusk worked” (Brent 1883, p85). The position of the remains however suggested to the excavator that the body had been seated and then as it decayed it collapsed or slumped. This means that the tusk was found in the vicinity of the skeleton but there is no evidence to suggest how it was used by the individual.
Kemp Town is an Anglo-Saxon barrow that was excavated in 1837. The report describes a male burial that was found with a sword, spearhead and a boar tusk ,as well as some horse bones (Meaney 1964, p251). However, as with Stowting there is a lack of information regarding the exact find spot and it is not assumed to be amuletic (Wilson 1992, p108-109).
Stowting and Kemp Town have both been given a date of the 6th century, implying that the burials within represent either the first wave of settlers or first generation children of those settlers – either way they still have very strong ties with the Germanic culture of the Late Roman period. Also, both Kent and Sussex are within the area of England that shows most evidence of influence (or settlement) by the occupants of the Near Continent and so are most likely to have connections with such customs (Meaney 1981, p133).
Unlike the migrations of Germanic settlers to Britain that appear to have brought some of their customs with them, Scandinavia never saw such a movement of people. Instead, it would appear that the burial practises there remained stable from approximately 200AD – 1000AD (Kovárová 2011, p83) and that unlike England, boar tooth pendants appear to be lacking in Migration period and Viking Scandinavian burials.
Recently two studies have been carried out: one on amulets of the Viking age (Jensen 2010) and the other on the significance of the Boar/pig in Old Norse culture (Kovárová 2011). It is telling that in neither of these are boar tusk pendants really discussed in depth. Indeed, when discussing finds from graves, Kovárová has to resort to Stowting and Kemp Town in order to cite examples from male burials of pendants as Scandinavian deposits appear to to be of skeletal elements rather than teeth (p83-85).
However, there is one burial from England that is repeatedly cited by re-enactors as proving that Viking warriors wore boar tusks – Repton. A few of oft quoted facts about Repton are true; it is a Viking warrior grave, it does date to mid-late 9th century, there was a boar tusk found there. The main “fact” that I get told however is totally made up – that the boar tusk was a necklace. In the image below, the position of the boar tusk in the grave is shown by the red circle.
As can be seen, the tusk was actually found between his legs and nowhere near his neck, and while components of necklaces do migrate slightly in graves as the body decays, they end up in the chest cavity or above the shoulders rather than between the legs. Further telling aspects of this tusk are the fact that the tusk is actually broken (possibly when removed from the jaw) and shows fire damage, and that it has no sign of a mount or suspension hole. Additionally, the man died violently, with a blow to the head, followed by a slashing cut to the inner left thigh and possible disembowelment (Hadley 2008, p274). The thigh cut would have also have removed the genitals and it is presumed that the tusk is seen as replacement for burial so the warrior can be sent on his way intact (Richards 2003, p386, Hadley 2008, p274, Jenson 2010, p175-176). There is no indication or suggestion that this is part of the man’s necklace, the primary component of which would probably have been the silver Thor’s Hammer also found in the grave.
Boar tusk pendants and mounts are known from antiquity. However, in Western Europe, they are restricted to the Roman period and very early Post-Roman/Pagan Saxon period.
Beyond the 6th century, all known examples are found in female or children’s graves, and they are simple affairs of a single tooth, either perforated or with a bronze mount. The twin mounted boar tusks, or clad in silver etc are either an appropriation of earlier, Roman examples or are a totally made up re-enactorism.
I have been unable to find any examples of boar tusk necklaces associated with warriors from anywhere in the Viking world throughout the so-called “Viking Age”, and given the large numbers of other pendants known e.g. Thor’s hammers are found in over 250 graves or cremations, it seems exceptionally unlikely that tusks were ever worn by Vikings of either gender, let alone male warriors.
In light of the fact that many people sell these as “Viking”, and it is possible that I could have missed a known example, I contacted every trader I could find who sells boar tusk pendants/mounts and asked for provenance.
Without fail I either got no response whatsoever or was told it was “based on” something – usually a bracelet from a hoard and the trader had simply made a Roman style mount and decorated it with Viking style decoration. In short, not one could provide an actual find site from anywhere in Europe for Viking boar tooth pendants.
Brent, C., 1883, Notes of Anglo-Saxon discoveries at Stowting.
Bushe-Fox, J. P., 1949, Fourth report on the excavations of the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent, Oxford: The University Press; London: The Society of Antiquaries, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 16,
Chadwick-Hawkes, S., 1961, Soldiers and Settlers in Britain, Fourth to Fifth Century. Medieval Archaeology, 5 (1961): 1–70
Hadley, D.M., 2008, Warriors, Heroes and Companions; Negotiating Masculinity in Viking-Age England. in Crawford, S. & Hamerow, H., (ed) “Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 15”. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
Jensen, B., 2010, Viking Age Amulets in Scandinavia and Western Europe. Oxford: B.A.R. International Series.
Kovárová, L., 2011, The Swine in Old Nordic Religion and Worldview. Unpublished MA thesis
MacGregor, A., 1985, Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials since the Roman Period. London, Croom Helm.
Meaney, A. L., 1964. A gazetteer of early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.
Meaney, A. L., 1981. Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones. Oxford: B.A.R..
Richards, J.D., 2003. Pagans and Christians at the frontier: Viking burial in the Danelaw. In: Carver, M.O.H., (ed). “The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300”. York Medieval Press in association with Boydell & Brewer, York/Woodbridge, pp. 383-395.
Wade-Martins, P. (1977). East Anglian archaeology. Report no.5, Report no.5. Gressenhall, Norfolk Archaeological Unit (for) the Scole Committee for Archaeology in East Anglia.
Wilson, D. R., 1992. Anglo-Saxon Paganism. s.l.:London, Routledge.
*if you haven’t figured it out by now, the title is nothing more than a bit of silliness based on the fact that as a male Viking era re-enactor wearing a boar tusk necklace (particularly a double tusk one) you may be an out of time horse or female Saxon but you certainly are not a manly Viking warrior. Certainly gets peoples attention when you say it to them! 😀