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A Viking Burial. Credit: Igor Igorevich / Adobe Stock

Viking King Buried With a Pillow and Fine Silk, New Study Confirms

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It’s amazing what we can learn from ancient textiles and other artifacts with scientific analysis. The Viking burial textiles in the coffins of two powerful Danish Vikings are providing us with insights that would never have been possible without modern science.

Experts have conducted a scientific analysis of the contents of the reliquaries of Canute the Holy, a Christian martyr and Viking ruler , and his brother, in Denmark, following doubts as to their authenticity. Results revealed they are indeed authentic, along with a few other surprises.  

The motive on this Viking burial textile, a pillow, found in one of the reliquaries in Denmark shows birds, probably peacocks, flanking a stylized tree or cross. It consists of several silk pieces sewn together. Source: The National Museum of Denmark

The motive on this Viking burial textile, a pillow, found in one of the reliquaries in Denmark shows birds, probably peacocks, flanking a stylized tree or cross. It consists of several silk pieces sewn together. Source: The National Museum of Denmark

The Danish reliquaries contained a number of Viking burial textiles including a remarkable pillow known as the “eagle’s pillow.” No one is exactly sure when the textiles were placed in the reliquaries or even if they are authentic. This prompted a scientific analysis of the Viking burial textiles to resolve questions about them and to understand what they could tell us about one of the last great Viking rulers.

Viking King Canute And His Brother: Murdered In Church

The textiles in the study come from two reliquaries (boxes containing historical or religious relics) located in Odense Cathedral, Denmark. These wooden caskets were once ornately decorated and contain the remains of people that were viewed as sacred individuals by the Christian Church . These reliquaries were originally part of a shrine, which has long been dismantled. The reliquaries contain the remains of the Danish king Canute the Holy and his brother Benedikt.

The hipped-lid reliquary that contained some of the Viking burial textiles. (The National Museum of Denmark)

The hipped-lid reliquary that contained some of the Viking burial textiles. ( The National Museum of Denmark )

Canute the Holy, better known as simply King Canute (1042-1086 AD) was one of the most important rulers in the Late Viking period.  He was the grandnephew of Canute the Great who created the North Sea Empire, which included Denmark, Norway, and England. Canute the Holy is best known for his failed attempt to invade England in 1085 AD. This was the last effort by the Danes to conquer England and it is often seen as the event that ended the Viking Age.

Canute the Holy wanted to establish a centralized monarchy, but this led to a rebellion by the nobility. Heritage Science Journal reports that “In July 1086 he was killed together with his brother Benedikt and 17 housecarls by an army of unsatisfied magnates.” Because he was killed on holy ground he came to be regarded as a martyr.  He was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church and his remains were put in a reliquary, by one of his successors. His brother’s remains were placed in another reliquary.

The other wooden reliquary that contained some of the Viking burial textiles, which is has “columns” along the sides of the casket. (The National Museum of Denmark)

The other wooden reliquary that contained some of the Viking burial textiles, which is has “columns” along the sides of the casket. ( The National Museum of Denmark )

The Mystery Of The Ancient Viking Burial Textiles

Danish researchers were intrigued by the Viking burial textiles they found in the two reliquaries. They were clearly very ancient, but it was not known how old they were, or if they indeed were placed there at the time of the enshrinement of Canute and his brother.  It was hoped that by carrying out tests on these textiles they would learn more about the original burial of the king and the history of the reliquaries themselves.

The Eagle Silk blanket textile, woven with a fine weaving technique developed in Persia. The original colors were dark blue, dyed with woad and indigo, and red, dyed with madder and sappanwood. (The National Museum of Denmark)

The Eagle Silk blanket textile, woven with a fine weaving technique developed in Persia. The original colors were dark blue, dyed with woad and indigo, and red, dyed with madder and sappanwood. ( The National Museum of Denmark )

The reliquaries were undisturbed until Denmark converted to the Protestant religion during the Reformation. It appears that the silver and gold that once adorned the caskets were stripped away in the 16 th century, to pay for the king’s mercenaries. The relics and reliquaries were later put on display in the 1930s.

“First, the authenticity and the dating of the textiles was investigated,” according to Heritage Science Journal . These would have been very valuable, and they were in remarkable condition. Eureka Alert quotes Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark: “that the king's precious textiles have been stolen at some point after AD 1582.” The specialists confirmed that the silks found in the Canute reliquary were originally from the reliquary of his brother and were placed there at a later date. Rasmussen told Eureka Alert that the textiles “are exquisite and beautiful, but King Canute's textiles must have been even more exquisite.”

Silks From The Byzantine Empire

The Danish researchers conducted carbon dating analysis on samples from nine silk textiles found in the reliquaries and this allowed them to date the ancient textiles. They also conducted a series of chemical analysis tests on the samples. Eureka Alert reports that they “conclude that they are of the same age and that their age fit with 1086 AD when the two brothers were enshrined.” This confirms that the textiles are authentic, which was doubted by some experts.

The findings are a surprise because they show that Denmark had connections with the Byzantine Empire, which was the only place in the Western world where silk weaving existed. The Byzantines had learned the secrets of sericulture (silk production) from Tang China. According to the researchers “the luxurious silks may have been sent from South Italy to the shrines in Denmark by King Canute's widow, Edel, possibly brought home by Canute's half-brother, King Erik,” reports Eureka Alert .

These Ancient Reliquaries And Their Rare Textiles Need Care

The researchers also examined the state of conservation of the silks and the wooden reliquaries. What they found was worrying. According to the Heritage Science Journal “The wood continuously releases organic acids, the soaring concentrations of which are potentially harmful to the 11th Century textiles and probably also to the bones.” Therefore, it may be necessary to change the environment in which the remains and textiles are held to preserve them for prosperity.

Top image: A Viking Burial. Credit: Igor Igorevich / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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