Perfected Designs 1000 Years Ago? The Mastermyr Chest and the Timelessness of Everyday Tools
In archaeology, the most enduring and ubiquitous artifacts are often everyday items such as pots and simple tools. These items also tend to be used for the longest period of time. Even though the culture that first invented the tools might fade, the tools themselves may continue to be used for centuries or even millennia. A non-physical example of this would be the division of time into 60 minute hours and 60 second minutes. This was first done in ancient Sumer. Sumerian civilization ended 4000 years ago, but that custom of dividing time still lives on today. Another more concrete example of this would be the Mastermyr chest. The Mastermyr chest was found on the island of Gotland and contains a variety of tools, some of which are still used today in more or less the same form, though not always with the same function. It also contains tools that are very similar to Roman tools from the 3rd century AD, showing how Scandinavia was connected to Rome through trade.
Discovering the Mastermyr Chest
The chest was left in the mire of a lake around 1000 AD. The lake was drained between 1902 and 1910 and farmland was planted over it. In October 1936, the chest was found by a farmer named Hugo Kraft when his plow hit something hard. The chest is 89 cm (35.04 inches) long, 26 cm (10.24 inches) wide, and 24 cm (9.45 inches) high. It is locked with a chain and a padlock - which is described as surprisingly modern in appearance. Inside the chest, there is an assortment of tools, hammer heads, tongs, adzes, drawknives, keys, and locks. The locks and keys bear a resemblance to those of Roman design.
Mastermyr chest, part of the documentation of the Swedish Viking Age. ( Public Domain )
The chest is difficult to date with certainty, though archaeologists generally date it to the Viking Age (800-1100 AD). It is possible, however, that it may have been made earlier or later. The man who owned this chest was probably a traveling craftsman who would stay in a town or village for as much as a year or two before moving on to the next town to seek more employment.
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What Were the Tools Found in the Mastermyr Chest Used For?
One possible use of the tools was for building and repairing ships. Seafaring was an important aspect of Scandinavian culture during this time period. Ships were used for raiding and trading. The raiding was important because it was a chance for young men to prove themselves as brave warriors. Many of the tools, the adzes, drawknives, and hammer heads in particular, would all have been used for woodworking. It is thus plausible that these tools were used for the construction, maintenance and repair of wooden ships, but they could have also been used for more mundane tasks such as making furniture or building houses - which were also generally made of wood.
Back and side of the Mastermyr chest. ( Public Domain )
Roman Influence on the Mastermyr Chest’s Tools
One thing that is striking about the tools is how similar they are to modern tools used in Scandinavia today, though the modern tools are not always used for the same purpose as their ancient counterparts. This suggests that there is something about the design of the tools which resulted in them needing little improvement over the centuries.
The similarity of the locks and keys in the Mastermyr chest to those found at the Roman fort in Saalburg suggests that the design of these tools was influenced by Roman tools. The Saalburg fort was abandoned in 260 AD, meaning that there may have been contact between the Romans and the ancient Norse at least in the 3rd century. However, the Romans were already aware of Scandinavia much earlier.
The Porta Praetoria (Main Gate) of the Saalburg Roman fort. ( Public Domain ) Locks and keys found at this fort are similar to ones inside the Mastermyr chest.
It is mentioned by Roman geographers and historians such as Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder. Pomponius Mela, who wrote in 43 AD, described a bay north of the Elbe with numerous islands of various sizes with narrow river-like sea ways between them. In this passage, he seems to be describing the Wadden Sea. Pliny the Elder, who wrote after the Roman invasion of Britain and actually served as a Roman officer in Germania, had a more detailed understanding of Scandinavia and described modern day Denmark and southern Sweden and Norway.
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As the Roman Empire expanded, reaching its greatest extant under the rule of Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 AD), trade with the wider world outside the Roman Empire also increased. Although the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 447 AD, long before the dawn of the Viking Age, trade between Scandinavia and regions of Europe which had been a part of the Roman Empire for centuries continued. It is likely that among the things traded were tools like those found in the Mastermyr chest as well as ideas for the basic design of such tools.
Front view of the original Mastermyr chest. (Stephen Francis Wyley / angelfire)
Many of the tools found in the Mastermyr chest are still used to day, and some of the Mastermyr tools themselves are based on older tools used by the ancient Romans a thousand years earlier. Many things in life change from age to age, but some do not.
Top image: The Mastermyr Chest. ( wildrosewoodcraft.blogspot)
By Caleb Strom
“Beskrivning av kistan.” Historical Locks. Available at: http://www.historicallocks.com/sv/site/historical-locks/Sakerhetsskap/Mastermyr-och-Oseberg/Beskrivning-av-kistan/
“Looking inside a Viking Tool Chest” by Kathryne Doyle (2012). Popular Mechanics. Available at: http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/tools/reviews/g1024/whats-inside-a-viking-tool-chest/?slide=6
Grane, Thomas. "Did the Romans really know (or care) about South Scandinavia? –An archaeological perspective." Analecta Romana Instituti Danici . Quasar, 2007.