Post updated May 2015, May 2016, and April 2017 with additional pictures
I have been thinking about head covering options for female Norse re-enactors quite a bit recently, and I have also seen several questions come up in various on-line conversations. Because there is very little concrete evidence in this area, there are a lot of gaps that need to be filled with conjecture. These are my conclusions, but I would love to hear the views of other people who have studied this topic!
First of all, did Viking Age women wear a head covering? There is not enough evidence to give a conclusive answer to this question, and the answer might also vary based on social class, formality of event, weather, or other factors that we haven’t considered.
I don’t think that pagan Scandinavian women necessarily had religious pressure to cover their hair, but I feel that the evidence points toward styled hair and/or a head covering of some type. Styling the hair and wearing some type of head covering would have been practical; wearing hair up keeps it out of the way and covering it helps to keep in clean. I think that the available evidence supports the idea that loose, uncovered hair isn’t very likely in a Viking Age context.
Some pre-Viking Age archaeological finds provide support for the idea of head wear in general; bog bodies from Arden Mose and Haraldskjaer both include sprang caps. These finds indicate that head coverings did not arrive in Northern Europe with Christianity, so religious pressure is clearly not the only reason the women wore head coverings. There is also archaeological evidence of head-coverings during the Viking Age (headbands, scarves and caps from Dublin, cap from Jorvik, tablet woven headbands with evidence of a veil underneath from Birka), although the archeological record gives very little information about how these items were worn.
Most pre-Viking and Viking Age depictions of women show a knot with streamers at the back of the head. Many of the representations are difficult to interpret, but there are a few cases in which it is clear that the knot is hair (others could also be a scarf or veil wrapped around the head). This is often used as evidence that Norse women didn’t wear any type of head covering, but it is important to consider that these figurines are generally thought to represent goddesses and the knotted hairstyle might have had social or religious significance. There is no archeological evidence for the knotted hairstyle, but there is pre-Viking Age evidence for elaborate hairstyles – Arden woman’s hair was worn twisted and wound around the head (under the sprang cap) and Elling woman’s hair was arranged in an elaborate braid which was tied in a knot.
There are many discussions of women’s head coverings in various sagas and in the poem RígsÞula. In general I think this supports the idea that most women wore some type of head covering, although it is important to remember that this evidence is not conclusive since these stories were not written down until several hundred years after the Viking Age.
Taking all this evidence in to account, I feel the there are several different options for women doing Norse re-enactment, including styled hair and various head covering options. I do not see any evidence for long hair worn loose.
1. Styled hair – several Valkyrie figurines are depicted with long hair worn in a knotted ponytail, and one Iron Age figurine seems to show a women with buns on each side of her head. There is also the possibility of hairstyles inspired by Arden woman or Elling women.
2. Knotted scarf – some Valkyrie figurines look like they could be wearing a knotted scarf around the head. There is also saga evidence of a twisted or knotted scarf (for example, in Viglundar saga a linen bandage wound around the head is compared to a woman’s head cloth). Because this style would be unlikely to leave any archaeological trace, it is difficult to tie to a particular location.
3. Draped scarf or veil – This style is similar to the depiction of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells and some Anglo-Saxon women, so I suggest this option particularly for re-enactors depicting the British Isles.
3. Headband – headbands of silk and wool have been found at Dublin, and several graves from Birka have remains of metal-brocaded tablet weaving around the head. Evidence from Birka indicates that the headband could be worn horizontally around the head, along the hairline, or around the crown of the head.
4. Cap – extant examples from the British Isles only (Dublin and Jorvik), so this style is also primarily for re-enactors depicting women from the British Isles.
5. Headband and scarf – there is evidence from Birka of a scarf or veil worn under a tablet woven headband. In the extant examples the headbands are brocaded with metal threads, however it is possible that tablet woven headbands without metal brocading were also worn in this fashion. Headbands and scarfs of silk and wool fabric were found at Dublin, so it is possible that this style worn in various areas of the Viking world. Depending on how the scarf is worn, this style also has parallels with contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Rus women’s costume.
Some resources on this topic include:
Hägg, Inga “Die Tracht.” Birka. Untersuchungen und Studien. II:2. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde. (Ed. G. Arwidsson). 1986, 51-72. (discussion of brocaded headbands from Birka)
Heckett, Elizabeth Wincott. Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin. Royal Irish Academy, 2003. (caps. headbands and scarves from Dublin)