in connection with historical reconstruction of the viking age
When we are talking about the reconstruction of a character from the viking age, by making the basic gear for him- or herself, every reenactor wants these things first: a tunic or a caftan, trousers or stockings, a good pair of shoes or boots, a cap and a belt. Many of the reconstructors want a richly mounted belt, but more realist starters first would like to start with a simple belt. A simple belt with only a simple buckle. Maybe that buckle could be from iron, but the better if it is from bronze. It is cheap. For 3-10 euro everybody could buy even a fancy looking bronze buckle from the goldsmith’s bazar in a medieval market. Just need to add a leather strip and a few holes to it and reconstruction is done. Simple, isn’t it?
We could think that everybody had a simple belt with a buckle in the medieval era if he wasn’t a poor beggar or a slave. It is not so difficult to make, and raw material costs are also not high. In the head of the modern man there is this picture of the belt: leather strip with a buckle. Following this idea, we could easily think that storages of the museums are filled with buckles, because tens of thousands of graves were excavated and even a simple and not too wealthy man could afford a belt.
But if we start to search after these buckles there comes the first wall. We hardly find any. This problem occurred to me when I started the reenactment and wanted to build a simple character. I am interested in the building of a Magyar character on the Carpathian Basin, focusing on the Northeastern region of the territory. Investigating the graves, I found simple iron buckles, but after checking their contexts revealed to me that majority of them were part of the horse gear.
Lack of evidence = evidence of lack?
My main focus points are the cemeteries of Karos. These people who were buried here seems to be the most elite warriors of the Magyar Conquest period, archeologist suppose that they were the „drujina“ of the main Magyar tribe leader. Checking these graves, we found that there are many elite belt sets with dozens of silver mounts. But there are the graves of the more common folks. Majority of them do not had buckles around their waist lines. There are warriors buried with weapons –axe, saber, bow and arrows – but do not have buckle on their waist. There are the grave II/41, a warrior buried with lots of items. Sabre, arrows and horse gear, even with a richly mounted pouch, but no buckle. And this tendency not only true for Karos, but in the whole Carpathian Basin we could hardly find buckles.
But what about the vikings? (They found it in Birka – or not….)
My focus point is on the Magyars and the steppe people of the period, but I suspected that this was not only a tendency in the Carpathian Basin, but this could be the same in other places in these ages, so I asked a favor from a fellow reeanctor who is more informed in the viking topic. Batu Szilvási checked the viking graves, looking for buckles. He found that the tendency is quite similar. Among the Birka graves buckles aren’t as often that a simple reenactor suspects. We found examples about simpler graves (Bj 958) where were little tools (knife, fibula) but no buckle, to warrior graves (Bj 886, Bj 832) where were swords, shield bosses, but no buckle, even graves buried with tremendous objects (Bj 944) but without buckle.
This is not a scientific and well established data, but after a quick look Batu Szilvás told me that around the half of the viking male warrior graves doesn’t consist buckles. (He checked not only Birka.) And there is the horse gear factor, what we doesn’t checked in connection with these graves. (And of course the gender-shieldmaiden factor, and the cremation burial factor where the items intermingle.)
I would like to repeat that my knowledge is scratchy about the viking topic. I would like to maintain the right to be wrong.
What do we know about belts?
Leather fragments are very rare in the steppe region because of the climatic circumstances. But in some exceptional cases fragments of belts remained to us thanks to the conservation effects of the silver mounts. There were leather belts from one leather strip with mounts, but there is another type of belt, what often occurs on our poor number of fragments. Here there are two strips sewn together with thread, and mounted after this process. But we know examples where the leather was folded to its back and sewed there. And we even know a unique exception where the main material of the belt were not leather but birch bark covered with silk, and mounted after this procedure (Bugyi, Hungary).
What do we know about suspensions?
Among the mounts, we could often find pierced mounts. Archeologists call these suspension mounts. They say steppe people suspended their small objects into these mounts. But the holes are so tiny, we could hardly imagine how could we suspend anything into these, reenactors nearly never use them as archeologist suggests.
About suspensions, we usually wear knives and pouches on our belts which strips were sewn to their body, we could put them on the belt if we loosen the belt and crisscross it from the loosen end. But there were another solution of suspending items, maybe a more convenient one.
A fragment of a thin suspension could be found on an Alan belt fragment stitched into a suspension mount. And right next to it according to the drawing another suspension without a suspension mount, just in a punched hole in the belt’s body. We have another example (Éjada, Tambov region, Russia) show us an interesting thing. On a pierced suspension mount the leather is punched trough but only in a little hole. The original piercing on the mount allows a much larger piercing, but the owner of the belt was satisfied with a much smaller hole.
What could be the solution of the lack of buckles?
Organic material artifacts are rare – undamaged, non fragments are even rarer. But we have one exceptional artifact from Mojtsevaja Balka: A simple belt without buckle. Here we can see how it was connected. One end was cut into half, and in the other end it was accompanied into two holes. Interesting that it was exhibited to a caftan what consisted of silk parts. Here we can also see different suspensions, where holes were punched into the body of the belt and objects linked to them with thin leather straps.
Another example from the State Historical Museum of Moscow: A belt fragment with several objects linked with the similar kind of method. The cabinet didn’t consist buckle. I made the picture and if I am correct it is dated to the XI-XIIIth century.
Some later examples
Some may say that examples from later ages aren’t so relevant talking about viking age topics, but I think in this case we could achieve some good hints if we investigate a few High Middle Ages pictorial sources from Western-Europe. Here we can see belts of warriors, among them fully armored knights, the elite of their period. And they wear simple leather weapon belts without buckles. We even see a king with this kind of belt type.
Just a piece of leather?
So if we still think, with our XXIth century way of thinking, that a piece of leather isn’t fancy enough for our brave warrior character, maybe we should start thinking a little bit different from how a person in a consumer society thinks.
The pouch plate of Tiszabezdéd (Hungary) is a very exceptional kind of artifact in two aspects. First, it is the only decorated plate where the base material wasn’t silver, but copper, and the gilding isn’t partial, but full.
But for our case, the other thing is more interesting about it. It is our only pouch where the leather parts fully survived. And after it was separated from the plate, the archeologist observed something very astonishing. On the surface of the leather cover there were several holes and molds – traces of formal mounts. The pouch before the plate held moths – it was originally a mounted pouch. After some time, the owner separated the mounts and put a new plate to his pouch. And do not throw the leather away. Recycled it.
With my points, I suspect that in the viking age simple leather belts without buckles were much more common as we thought. Also, different kind of suspensions for smaller items and holes for these in our belts would be subservient. For our reenactment activity, we should use more of these items for gain and show a more punctual and authentic overall picture of the attire of the age.
The of usage of simple leather belts without metallic buckles is just one theory about the explanation for the question of what the large number of the absence of the buckles opens for us.
Further investigations and doubts in the topic are always welcome!
Presentation for Fórum včasného stredoveku (FVS)
Early Medieval Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia
2018. February 3.
chairman of the Foedus Orientalis Cultural Association
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