Did Vikings have stained glass windows?

Window glass fragments that come from the Viking Age. © CS Andersen, Moesgaard Museum / Museum of Archeology Gottorf Castle

It was previously assumed that only firelight illuminated their dark rooms. But now a study shows that at least some stately Viking buildings were already equipped with glass windows. This is proven by a total of 61 glass fragments that were discovered at six different locations in southern Sweden, Denmark and northern Germany. Based on the material properties and the context of the finds, they could be assigned to the Viking Age from 800 to 1100 AD.

What shapes our architecture so strongly today was not common for a long time: glazing in windows was first documented in Roman times. But for a long time this equipment was reserved for exclusive housing and later church buildings were equipped with the transparent components. Until now, it was assumed that in the early Middle Ages the spread of glass windows was limited to the Christian-Roman cultural area. If the pagan Vikings had windows at all, it is assumed that they were at best covered with translucent animal skins. It was only in the later Middle Ages that stained glass windows were clearly documented in the first churches and castles in Scandinavia.

But no shards from later times

However, the new findings now contradict the gloomy image of the classic Viking Age from around 800 to 1100 AD. These are analysis results of 61 glass fragments that were discovered in recent years during excavations at six different locations that were linked to the Vikings : five in southern Scandinavia and the sixth site is the famous Viking settlement of Haithabu in Schleswig-Holstein. Based on the characteristics, they were clearly fragments of window glass. Until now, this has led to the simple assumption that they did not come from the Viking Age, but from later settlement phases.

But the research team led by the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen now wanted to know more. They subjected the glass pieces to a material analysis in order to get possible clues about their age. As they report, the investigation provided insights into the chemical characteristics of the glass and also drew conclusions about its design. By comparing them with known glass materials from the past, it was then possible to classify the fragments in terms of time. They therefore come from the period between the 9th and 11th centuries. They corresponded to glass that was used at the time in the churches and royal residences of the Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian cultures.

Viking halls in the shimmer of stained glass windows

The team concludes that it can now be assumed that the finds are shards of glass panes that were already in windows in the Viking Age. As in the rest of Europe, they probably only adorned the houses of the upper social class or ceremonial buildings among the Vikings. According to the experts, the nobles and kings could have resided in their halls in the glow of glass windows. These were apparently smaller windows with tinted glass, which allowed colorful light to enter the buildings.

The Vikings probably couldn't have produced the material themselves, say the scientists. These could therefore have been looted items from their infamous raids. The glass panes were probably acquired through trade: “We know that well-known Vikings like Harald Klak visited the south, where the Vikings had a political network and close trade connections. And of course they also knew about glass panes from the buildings of the upper classes of society,” says Mads Dengsø Jessen from the Danish National Museum. Finally, he comments on the results of the investigation: “The findings once again contradict the image of simple, barbaric warriors who swing their swords wildly. In fact, there was also a cultivated Viking elite,” says Dengsø Jessen.

Source: National Museum of Denmark, specialist article: DANISH JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGY, doi: 10.7146/dja.v12i1.131493

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