Colors of the Viking Age

We have little evidence for the colors of the Viking Age. Most people would have lived in a world of colors that drew on and deviated from the natural world—split wood, smelted metal, smoked meat, dyed wool. Few of these things preserve their colors through long years in the archaeological record. Wood decays to dirt, metal corrodes to rust, meats reduce to bone, and what wool survives has often changed into the reddish hues of the earth where it was buried. Only glass beads retain their colors and are in fact protected by the dirt which shelters them from the sun.

But bead researchers have often neglected to appreciate just how precious the colors of their artifacts truly are. Most researchers seem to have been daunted by the beads’ varieties as well as by the difficulties of describing colors which are, after all, a very subjective thing. Each person understands and describes colors differently, filtered through eyeballs that are as unique as an individual’s DNA, and conceived of in a language unique to each person’s experience of the world.

Viking Age Scandinavians had more colors than your average crayon box. But while glass preserves these colors remarkably well, the ways in which we perceive and understand color have changed. How would a viking sort these beads? Which beads belong together? (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

Nevertheless, I’ve been using the Munsell Color System to help me describe the colors that I see. Basically, this means referencing a book full of color chips representing the array of colors that most people can see and differentiate. Munsell in collaboration with the Society of Bead Researchers has helpfully published a slim volume of the 176 colors most commonly found in premodern glass. It’s kind of like selecting a paint chip at the hardware store. And although a color chip might not exactly match the object I’m looking at, and although it might be affected by the light of the sun or the warmth of a light bulb, these chips can still serve as a useful reference point that most people will recognize and agree upon.

The Munsell Color System, with hues wrapped around the equator, black on the bottom, white on the top, and moving from gray at the center toward purer colors on the surface. (Image courtesy of Munsell Color. Used with permission.)

Perhaps most importantly, by using the Munsell system to describe colors rather than resorting to vague and overlapping terms like blue, teal, and turquoise, I can quantify what I see. Munsell colors indicate not only hue (think: red, green, blue) but also value (light or dark) and chroma (pure and bright versus dun and gray). These three values can be plotted onto a 3D map, which lets me look at how the colors of the Viking Age cluster into groups. Right now, I’m using a model which places gray at the center and radiates into purer colors at the surface, with richer colors fading to black in the south and brighter colors shading to white in the north. This is the basic Munsell model that’s been used and tested by thousands of researchers for well over a hundred years.

So while observers today might be tempted to describe the colors of the Viking Age in terms of red-green-blue (a color model meant to stimulate the yellow-green-violet receptors in the human eye) or cyan-magenta-yellow (absorbent colors that can mask unwanted wavelengths from background whites in our computer screens and on printer paper), people in the Viking Age seem to have sorted their colors differently. Here’s a quick map of all the colors that commonly appear in premodern glass. If a dot appears darker, it’s because it actually represents a range of values (shades of light and dark) which are nevertheless the same hue and intensity. For example, tomato red and brick red lie on top of each other, because both can be made from the same base color with the addition of either white or black. The dark dot at the center actually represents both white and black, but without any additional color shading added.

The chart on the right shows how the Munsell system organizes all the hues of the rainbow. The dots on the left indicate all the hues likely to appear in premodern glass. Darker dots mean that these hues occur in varying brightnesses. (Munsell Hues image courtesy of Munsell Color. Used with permission.)

And here’s the colors of 1,429 beads that I’ve looked at. This represents only a subset of my data, selected from beads that were most likely made locally in Scandinavia. The glass itself would have been made and mixed in the Middle East—Egypt, Syria, and Iran were the early medieval centers for glass production—but the colors here represent the bits of glass selected by traders who traveled routes north between about 700 and 900 AD. The beads plotted here thus represent color choices made by several generations of people living between the Near East and Northern Europe.

The chart on the left shows the colors observed for 1,429 Viking Age glass beads. Note how this represents only a small selection of the possibilities for premodern glass shown in the chart above. There are very few reds or yellows, few pure greens, and almost no purples or oranges. But dark dots show the popularity of colors near the center spanning from yellow to blue, with an especially wide variety of blue colors.

I think this chart is interesting in itself, since it shows some of the selections being made by glass makers, traders, and consumers during the Viking Age. This is important because pretty much anyone who could get glass did, and they showed it off to those who couldn’t both in their daily dress and in their public ceremonies. Glass was among the most modest and most valued of goods, and in many of the graves for individuals who merited few gifts, a glass bead or two is all that survives. But where this data gets really exciting is when we start grouping the colors. This is a pretty straightforward statistical analysis that looks for concentrations of data points and then tries to draw lines around the looser sets of data that surround them. Here’s what the color chart looks like when I broke it into five clusters.

This is one of several cluster analyses I ran on my dataset of ancient glass beads. Although the results varied and my methods need to be refined, this particular clustering shows just how different Viking Age perceptions of color might have been from our own.

I must preface my comments by saying that I’m still learning how to choose and run statistical analyses, so my conclusions are by no means final. But what we can see here is really exciting. The blue dots represent the smallest variety of colors but the largest group of beads. These are dark blues that range from a purplish navy blue to a deep aqua green. But the red dots represent a broader range of colors that are blues pure and bright. The green dots represent lighter blues, overlapping with greenish colors like teal and turquoise and shading into even more yellowish colors like mustard and olive.

At the other end of the spectrum, the black dots represent a range of deep reds, browns, and oranges. I’m personally impressed by how closely these colors cluster around the colors of natural amber—there were lots of amber beads in my study but I excluded them from this analysis of purely glass beads. The light blue dots, however, represent a really loose cluster of bright reds and yellows. These were rarer colors during the Viking Age, so neither of them showed up in enough of a concentration to be modeled as a group of its own.

All this suggests that the Norse traders who plied Russian rivers might have perceived both dandelion yellow and fire engine red similarly as bright variants of a more fundamental amber hue. The vikings raiders who traversed the North Sea might meanwhile have seen more difference in light and dark shades of blue than in diverging hues of yellow, green, and purple. The Scandinavians who made, traded, or wore these beads all seem to have been people preoccupied with the intensity and depth of colors, rather than on our more recent interests of shade and hue.

This necklace has fewer beads of dark blue than I’ve found in most necklaces I’ve looked at, but it captures better than most the rainbow of colors evident in the larger data set, with few reds and yellows but a greater sensitivity towards blues and blue-greens. From a burial on Bornholm ca. 775. (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

To offer credit where credit is due, Munsell Color has taken an interest in my research and even helped me access some of the materials that make it possible. They’ve recently published a brief article I wrote about classifying ancient colored glass. Plotting Munsell Colors is, however, a remarkably new method of analysis. I’m especially indebted to foregoing research by Roy G. D’Andrade and A. Kimball Romney on the relationship between Munsell Colors and human color perception, and by Lana Ruck and Clifford T. Brown on the application of Munsell Color mapping to archaeological contexts.



3 thoughts on “Colors of the Viking Age

  1. Andrew Lowerre

    Just a suggestion, but perhaps in your output plots from the cluster analyses, represent the different clusters using different shaped dots, some filled and some hollow, rather than colours. Because the different clusters are of different (actual) colours, referring to the clusters by the (plotted) colours could be slightly confusing.

    Out of curiosity, what software are you using for the cluster analyses?

    Regardless, very interesting research!


    1. Yes! I’m using R, which has been highly recommended to me as a robust open source freeware language for statistical analysis. I’m still learning all the ins and outs of the language, and I’m still working to select the most appropriate analytic options for my data. The chart above shows a simple k-means clustering at default plot settings, but R has a lot of great options for data visualization. I’ll definitely look into using shapes as a marker as well, which will also help make my research more readable for the colorblind. Thanks for the recommendation!


  2. Pingback: Central Places in the Viking Age – text and trowel

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