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Senior Researcher at the National Museum of Denmark Mads Dengso Jessen holds a Viking Age window glass fragment. Source: John Fhær Engedal Nissen / National Museum of Denmark

Study Finds Out Those Barbaric Vikings Had…Stained Glass Windows?!

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It is no secret that the portrayal of Vikings in popular culture has done more than its fair share to distort our ideas of what and who the Vikings were. This distortion extends across various domains, including clothing, language, culinary choices and even habitation, to name but a few. Now, another myth-busting study, dating fragments of windows from Scandinavia, shows us that Viking Age windows were created using stained glass as the 9th century, contrary to popular belief that stained-glass windows only emerged during the construction of medieval churches and castles in Denmark.

Viking Age window glass fragments discovered in Haithabu in Germany. (C.S. Andersen,  Moesgaard  Museum / Museum  für Archäologie Schloss Gottorf / Torben Sode et al.)

Viking Age window glass fragments discovered in Haithabu in Germany. (C.S. Andersen,  Moesgaard  Museum / Museum  für Archäologie Schloss Gottorf / Torben Sode et al.)

Fragments of Glass: Uncovering the Truth About Viking Age Windows

In a new study published in the Danish Journal of Archaeology, a conservation expert from the National Museum of Denmark and their research team arrived at this conclusion after conducting a thorough re-examination of 61 glass fragments recovered from six different Viking-age sites. This means that Norse dignitaries likely sat in rooms lit up by Viking Age windows with colored glass, and adds another nail in the coffin of a “savage” or “barbaric” Viking who swings his sword around.

These Viking Age windows were not the large, transparent windows we are accustomed to today. Instead, they likely consisted of smaller panes in various shades of green and brown, not meant for viewing the outside world but for infusing the interior of their buildings with colorful light.

“Several fragments of glass windows found at important Viking Age sites in South Scandinavia, made us wonder if it was just a mere coincidence that they were there,” stated Torben Sode, the study’s lead author who first noticed the unique nature of the Viking Age windows. “They can be dated to the Vikings Age and most likely must have been in use in that time-period as well.

What makes this discovery even more remarkable is that these glass fragments, collected over the last 25 years, originate from six separate excavation sites. Five of these are located in southern Scandinavia, with the sixth being in Hedeby, situated in northern Germany. These areas include Viking noblemen's farms, pre-Christian temples and early urban environments, all spaces occupied by the Viking elite.

The glass shards were subjected to chemical isotope analysis, which disclosed their composition. The glass was determined to be either soda glass, which historically originated in Egypt and the Near East, or potash glass produced in Germany, dating back to the period between 800 and 1150.

Map of the Viking sites where the Viking Age window glass fragments were discovered. (National Museum of Denmark)

Map of the Viking sites where the Viking Age window glass fragments were discovered. (National Museum of Denmark)

Pleasures and Pursuits of the Viking Elite: Reversing Hollywood Caricatures

“In fact, we are talking about a cultivated Viking elite with royal power that equaled that, for example, of Charlemagne, king of the Franks. This is something that is often omitted in the simplistic Hollywood portraits of Vikings,” explained National Museum’s senior researcher Mads Dengsø Jessen, as quoted by The Medievalists.

The notion of Viking Age window glass had been largely overlooked in earlier assessments. It was commonly associated with the Middle Ages, leading to assumptions that the glass must have been a later addition.

The glass utilized by the Vikings is believed to have been acquired through trade, as there's no evidence suggesting they were manufacturing it themselves. They took this inspiration from the continent and wanted attractive lighting, which would mean that their interior spaces were not bleak and dark as has been shown in simplistic Hollywood portrayals. There is an alternative theory that says that these windows were perhaps acquired through Viking raids, but there is little evidence to back these claims.

Viking Age window glass fragments from various Viking sites. (National Museum of Denmark)

Viking Age window glass fragments from various Viking sites. (National Museum of Denmark)

Were Colored Viking Age Windows a Pre-Christian Feature?

Some of these glass panes were used in pre-Christian religious sites. This has led the researchers to ask questions about pagan architecture used by the Vikings.

“The glass in the church windows was perceived as a special, magical material, which could let in the sunlight and illuminate the room, whilst also keeping the cold, wind, and rain out, whereas windows in  aulas would underline the well-connected and exclusive character of the royalty residing there,” wrote the researchers in the Danish Journal of Archaeology when discussing Viking Age windows.

“This suggests that there possibly were one or more small windows with glass panes in the pagan cult buildings, like in the stave churches and the early stone churches in Jutland, just as the hall-buildings would be illuminated through glassed windows as were the  aulas of the continental palaces.”

Though remembered primarily as raiders and looters, Viking society was much more complex than previously believed. With Viking myth overload occupying television and streaming platforms, historians have their jobs cut out in the quest for the truth. Studies like this, however, point us in the right direction.

Top image: Senior Researcher at the National Museum of Denmark Mads Dengso Jessen holds a Viking Age window glass fragment. Source: John Fhær Engedal Nissen / National Museum of Denmark

By Sahir Pandey

References

Ritzau. 2023. “'Hollywood image' of Denmark’s Vikings shattered by windows” in The Local DK. Available at: https://www.thelocal.dk/20231005/hollywood-image-of-denmarks-vikings-shattered-by-windows.

Olsen, J.M. 2023. “Vikings had windows, another shift away from their image as barbaric Norsemen, Danish museum says” in  The Associated Press. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/viking-windows-glass-norsemen-danish-researchers-72b53296dd3c0786340f5ac59c240dfc.

Sode, T., et al. 2023. “Viking Age Windows” in Danish Journal of Archeology, 12. Available at: https://doi.org/10.7146/dja.v12i1.131493.

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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