In response to a very well written blog post by Heather about color perception in archaeology, I would like to take the subject a step further and apply it to color representation in historical and archaeological settings. There is something very appealing to displaying past cultures in ways that our modern societies can relate to and interpret very quickly. As per the theme of this blog, to illustrate my point I will use the Vikings as a case study.
By now almost everyone has either heard of or watched the History Channel’s Vikings. While it is ironic that the History Channel should be showing something that is not an accurate representation of history, it is of course not uncommon now. Now, research was certainly done in order to create this TV series, as many things are displayed correctly (as the archaeology shows the culture to be), but it falls short in many aspects with color. First of all, lets examine Ragnar Lothbrok.
Mainstream culture loves to picture Vikings in dirty leathers, chainmail, furs, and more often than not, that color pallet sits in the earthy browns and blacks. To us, in 2015 AD western society, this coincides with what we like to think Viking culture was – barbaric. Think Conan – furs, leathers, muscle, and aggression. Unfortunately for our delicate range of cultural education, this representation simply falls short of what Viking men actually dressed like and fails to represent the actual culture correctly. Now, while the History Channel may have got some aspects of Ragnar’s clothing right (the cut of his tunics or his boots), lets examine what can be reconstructed based off of archaeological, historical, and artistic finds.
Certainly a few things should be noted here: real pants… not really something that was common – and they were made out of woven cloth – not patches of leather stitched together. Another note on the pants – it heavily dictates which Vikings are from where. Harem like pants were most likely to be from Sweden or the Baltic, as trade interaction with the Middle East was more frequent for Swedish Vikings who sailed east. Chainmail: As much as we love it – it was an extremely expensive commodity. Therefore, Viking raiders would have only regularly had the coif protecting their neck, not a full tunic. Full tunics were for the wealthy and were considerably rare. But lets examine all that COLOR! Brightly woven woolens, linens, and flax were extremely popular during the Viking Age – not dark and dirty furs and leathers. Fantastic embroidery and tablet woven trims and belts were also common – again a use of gaudy colors and contrasting patterns. However, this does not translate well to a mainstream audience. We want the villains and barbarians as we know them: in leathers, furs, dark colors, and immediately recognizable as someone who is not a knight in shining armor. However, this does not depict what would have been the cultural norm for ‘barbaric’ during this period in history. It is what OUR culture perceives it as.
It is a simple method used by artists the world over – whether they be film directors, painters, or authors. There’s a reason Tolkien’s Ring Wraiths are not wearing nicely embroidered and brightly colored tunics. Just imagine how that would look. They certainly would not have been as terrifying as they were.
So why is it that we have a hard time recreating history accurately? Why is it that we love to refine our color pallets into our western sociological understandings? After all, if the TV show Vikings had Ragnar Lothbrok in a brightly colored tunic with fantastic embroidery – would that not help to educate the world in how Scandinavia REALLY was during the Viking Age? Or is it that after all this time, we really prefer not to learn, but to be entertained?
Interested in seeing some historically and archaeologically inspired crafts (along with some nerdy stuff)? Check out this etsy page.
Woven into the Earth by Else Østergård
Viking Clothing by Thor Ewing
Viking: Dress Clothing Garment by Nille Glaesel