Blog March 20th 2015

The hidden ones in Viking-Age artefacts - they appeared everywhere..

This week's blog is a guest blog, written by David Mullaly from the U.S.

Now retired, his recent and long-term buying and selling experience has allowed him to see close up some remarkable Viking Age artefacts, a few of which are discussed here.

The hidden face motif.

Vikings loved gold and silver because they could buy power, and because wearing items made from those precious metals suggested high status for warriors or their women. However, archaeologists and collectors also understand that the Scandinavians and those influenced by them were delighted by visual stimulation. At its simplest, Vikings loved glitter or bling:  light reflected off of irregular surfaces. That might help to explain why Viking decoration frequently involved a myriad of punches and elaborate etching. However, there was clearly an appetite as well for decorative items which encouraged the observer to see different objects or faces. This is sometimes called the “hidden faces” motif.

Viking brooch with hidden face motifs

Animals and a helmeted man..

The first example, illustrated in Benet’s Artefacts of England and the United Kingdom (p.317) is an extremely rare and fairly abstract form of Viking bronze brooch, found in Suffolk, which seems to show a dragon’s or horse’s head and arched neck, a bird’s head, and if you look carefully, a helmeted man’s head—the man seems to be laughing. Clearly, the brooch was intended to simultaneously offer multiple things, depending on how the piece was viewed.

Viking brooch hidden face of Odin

Odin in disguise

The second example, at first glance, appears to be a strange man’s head, facing to the right, although it looks almost as much like a duck as a man. Found in Lincolnshire, this wonderful brooch doesn’t allow you to accept that view without looking further. At some point, you realize that there is another head, this one facing to the left, which has the lower part of the face hidden by long, flowing hair. You see a floppy hat, then an eye and an empty eye socket peering at you, and finally you realize that you are looking at the face of the one-eyed god Odin. The brooch offers you first a cartoon-like face, and then an obscured portrait of the most powerful Viking god.

Finally, you need to look at the picture of a “hidden faces” object which was actually never intended to disguise anything.

Viking gaming piece part

This item, found on the shore of Lough Neagh, a large lake in Northern Ireland, was offered for sale using a picture like this, and the seller suggested it was Viking and showed “a fish of some sort.”  However, the tab at the top of the picture reveals something very different. Clearly, the shape of it indicates that it was intended to be permanently imbedded in some material, and not removed, so let us invert the picture.

viking gaming piece

The King piece ?

Now, one can see a profile head with the long lines of hair obscuring the bottom of the face—like the previous brooch. Is that a helmet with a crest on top, or a crown? The same hand etched design is on both sides of the piece, which indicates that this was a game piece, presumably a “king piece” (the only specially marked piece) for a Viking Hnefatafl game. The base was probably a simple lump of lead, which was lost centuries ago. See the final picture.

viking gaming piece ornament placed on clay

There are very few definite examples of Hnefatafl king pieces to be found anywhere, so this is an extraordinary understated little find. Many rounded pieces of lead have been found with low profile items—coins, bits of gilded and chip-carved bronze, pieces of glass—and Viking collectors have wanted to believe that these were Hnefatafl “king pieces.” They may be correct, but that is still conjectural; many were probably decorated trade weights. This piece seems to be the real thing.

Link to blog March 13th 2015