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What did the Vikings look like?

Appearance
A Viking ear pick. The Vikings used ear picks to clean out their ears, in a similar way to how we use cotton buds today.

Picture a Viking. Do you see a young, strong, red- or blonde-haired man in front of you? Perhaps there is something in this. The Arabic author Ibn Fadlan described the Vikings as follows: ”I have never seen people with a more perfect body build. They are like date palms and their skin is reddish".

The most important knowledge about the physical appearance of the Vikings comes from  archaeological finds of skeletons from the period. Up until now, around 500 Viking skeletons have been found in Denmark. However, here the picture of the big, strong Viking fades a little. The bones show a population that suffered from tooth problems and aching joints, for instance.

[Translate to English:] Film om højden på en viking

[Translate to English:] Vikingerne var i gennemsnit 8-10 cm lavere, end vi er i dag. De skeletter, arkæologer har fundet, afslører, at mændene målte omkring 172 cm, mens voksne kvinder i gennemsnit skød omkring 160 cm i vejret.   

Velhavende mænd og kvinder var en del højere end gennemsnittet som følge af bedre levevis. Dette ses tydeligt i en dobbeltgrav på Langeland. I den lå to voksne mænd. Den ene, der var gravlagt med sit spyd, var over gennemsnittet, nemlig 177 cm høj. Den anden – halshugget og bundet på fødderne – var kun 171 cm høj. Graven tolkes som en herre, hvis træl måtte følge ham i døden.

Big strong Vikings?

The physical build of the Vikings was much like our own. But we can assume that they must have been more muscular than we are today, because of the hard physical work that they did.

Masculine women and feminine men

Masculine women and feminine men
The fine decoration on the Oseberg Ship from Norway shows what the Vikings looked like. Photo: Annie Dalbéra.

The faces of men and women in the Viking Age were more alike than they are today. The women’s faces were more masculine than women’s today, with prominent brow ridges. On the other hand, the Viking man’s appearance was more feminine than that of men today, with a less prominent jaw and brow ridges.

These ambiguous facial features mean that it is difficult to decide upon a Viking skeleton’s sex based on the skull alone. Therefore, other traits need to be studied in order to identify the sex of skeletons. Pelvis width can be very useful in this respect.

Red- or blonde-haired Vikings?

Genetic research has shown that the Vikings in West Scandinavia, and therefore in Denmark, were mostly red-haired. However, in North Scandinavia, in the area around Stockholm, blonde hair was dominant.

Hygiene and beauty

Hygiene and beauty
Combs of wood or bone are amongst the most common finds from the Viking period. The Vikings often kept such combs in boxes to protect them, so they were obviously important items. The photograph also shows a pair of tweezers and an ear pick, which were regularly used by the Vikings.

Archaeological finds of ”beauty items” from the Viking period show that such equipment has not significantly changed over the years. If we examine “the toilet bags” of the Vikings we find beautiful patterned combs, ear picks and tweezers. Wear marks on teeth also indicate that tooth picks were used. 

Make-up can also be added to the list of beauty items. A Spanish Arab who visited Hedeby around the year 1000 described how both men and women in the town wore make-up to look younger and more attractive.

In England Viking men reportedly had great success with the local women. The Viking males were apparently clean and pleasant smelling, as they took a bath on Saturdays, combed their hair and were well dressed. 

[Translate to English:] Sandt eller falsk om vikingernes hygiejne

In 922 AD the traveller and writer Ibn Fadlan met a group of Viking traders on the Volga River. Ibn Fadlan describes how a slave woman came every morning with a bowl of water for her master, who washed his hands, hair and face in the water, then blew his nose and spat into it. When he had finished the slave took the bowl of water round to the others, who did the same thing. Ibn Fadlan looked upon this washing ritual with disgust. He came from a culture in which personal hygiene had a high priority. As a Muslim he was used to washing himself five times a day before prayers. He therefore described the Vikings as “dirty”.

Even if the Vikings did not live up to Muslim standards of cleanliness, they were not dirty or unhygienic in a Northern European context. They were actually quite well groomed by the standards of the time.

English sources describe the Vikings as immensely attractive in the eyes of English noble women. According to the monk and chronicler John of Wallingford, their attractiveness could be partially attributed to the fact that they took a bath every Saturday. This may have been true, because the Danish word for Saturday “lørdag” comes from the old Nordic word ”laugardagur”, which means washday. 

Haircut and beard

Haircut and beard
Figure with hair attractively tied up in the neck.

The hair and beard were of major importance to the Viking man. This can be seen in royal bynames like Sweyn Forkbeard, whose beard was probably divided in two, and Harald Fairhair, who must have had a fine head of hair. The numerous finds of combs show that people combed their hair regularly.

Certain sources emphasise this, such as an anonymous letter written in Old English. In this a man advises his brother to stick with the prevailing Anglo-Saxon style and not enter into the “Danish fashion”, which is described as a reverse “mullet” hairstyle, with long hair on top of the head and short hair at the back.   

Beards were also well groomed. This can be seen, for example, on a carved male head found at the Oseberg ship burial in Norway. The male has a long elegant moustache and beard.

The Viking women’s hair was also well kept. It was typically long and could be attractively styled. We can see this on small silver and bronze figures.

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