A Work Shelter or Awning for Viking Re-enactmnet

Though there is a lack of evidence the requirements of living history, especially public shows, and other Historical re-enactment activities in the sun and weather showed that some sort of suitable shelter was required by the club. We previously did have a striped awning used as a kitchen tent that was lost in the Winmalee bushfires of 2013 along with some of our members house. The earlier awning did have many historical short comings but came in very useful at a multitude of events. We wanted to improve upon the accuracy but have found very little evidence for structures of this type.
Unfortunately no archaeological or pictorial evidence survives for these and their form is unknown. Part of the problem is the people of the early middle ages did not see the need to go out in the wild camping for fun as we do.

Perhaps the closest parallel to modern camping is the Icelandic booths used at the Thing meetings at sites such as Thingvellor and regional meeting sites. These were a temporary structure covered when in use with fabric. However archaeology shows these were large structures, with walls of sod and the frames rivalling those of houses, and thus were not appropriate for us to use as a basis to recreate an open shelter.

Image of excavations of an Icelandic booth showing the solid walls and extensive frame.

The Scandinavians did use temporary another type of structure known as Shielings. These were summer structures built away from the main farmsteads due to the lack of year round pasturage near Viking age settlements. As these were nigh complete buildings they were also not a suitable basis to reconstruct a tent on. The original buildings rivalled many small modern reconstructed structures.

Another option was the Oseberg house tent, which is a series of interpreted as a raised A-frame structure 221cm wide and 345 long and made mostly of Ash. Though the interpretation of the pieces is very conjectural, this is quite a good reference for a moderately large tent. Reconstructions have found with the addition of guy ropes it is quite a stable structure.

The laths from the Oseberg Ship reconstructed as a 'house tent'. Click here for a description of the pieces.

Bell tents are shown quite early in medieval manuscripts, there are quite a few images of entertaining and games inside bell tents. It is possible they can be used without the sidewalls, leaving them as an open shelter and some examples are certainly large enough for communal gathering. Though they are not regarded as a Viking period style of tent they are shown as early as the 10th century in European art, and were well known in the east in Byzantium.

Bell Tents in the Chronicle of Petrus de Eboli. ca. 1190-1197AD.

Bell tents shown in the 11th century Skylitzes manuscript.

Given the mobile nature of Viking traders, some sort of merchant booths may have existed but I have found nothing in the way of merchant booths from the early middle ages. The earliest depictions seem to be from the 14th century, though the Icelandic sagas do mention Viking merchants coming ashore and setting up their tents.

15th century merchant booth from Chroniques et Conquetes de Charlemagne.

Academically there are suggestions that Vikings used the sails of their ships as tents both at sea and on land, perhaps over a simple frame of oars which became the famous Viking A-frame tents, as known from the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials. This seems a plausible idea as the style of fabric suitable for a sail would be appropriate for a tent, such as the woolen cloth found on the Gokstad ship which has been interpreted as either the tent covering or the sail. However the view of sailors is consistently adamant that a sail would not be treated this way, it being too important to the ships operation. So we theorised that a similar fabric to Viking sail cloth may be appropriate, it is unlikely the sails themselves would have been used for tent structures.

Work shelters are shown in the 9th century Utrecht Psalter (folio 5r and 84r) and the Eadwine Psalter, which is a 12th century copy of the Utrecht Psalter. These are most likely to be open light structures rather than tents, but was the first evidence we found of an open aired outdoor shelter. They are also noticeably different to the many other small structures depicted in the Utrecht Psalter.

Work shelters shown in the Utrecht Psalter (f.5r and F.84r)

and also in F.15v and F.263r of the Eadwine Psalter.

There is a possible outdoor shelter in the Bayeux tapestry shown in the feasting scene. It shows William, Odo and Robert. Though the structures in the Bayeux tapestry are very impressionistic and seemingly based on period architecture, This structure is noticably simpla and depicts an event on campaign in England so may depict an open outdoor structure.

Feasting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Another light structure shown in the the Utrecht and Eadwine Psalters illustrates psalms 127. This is probably intending to represent a poorly made building, as psalm 127 reads "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain."

A hay shelter or shoddly build structure in the Utrecht and Eadwine Psalters.

Our Awning

Due to lack of evidence we decided a simple pattern was the best option. The structure needed to be big enough to fit a large number of the club members and allow the display tables to be setup lengthwise or public displays. The sides needed to be open to allow either the public to approach the tables or for our various outdoor activities. However it remains a largely conjectural structure with no solid evidence for style or construction. even though we have taken cues for various features from other Viking age sources such as tents, and ships tackle.

The awning interpretation.

We have tried to include other period features, later medieval tents often show crenulated edges, these were not included as there is nothing indicating that sort of decoration in the Viking age and it is not the sort of structure that was suited to the heraldic display of later tournaments. The red colour was used following references to Viking sails. Sails of various colours are mentioned in the sagas. Bright striped sails are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. Viking art also seems to show sails being striped, checkered and diamond patterned, which may represent reenforcing or seams of different panels of fabric. Many modern tent interpretations use modern metal eyelets which we wanted to avoid. So ours has fabric loops sewn on, though using a spike to make a eyelet without tearing the threads is another option.

The guy ropes are made of hemp. The ropes were a difficult decision, there is little evidence of them being used. They are very rareley shown in period art and do not seem to have been required for most period style tents. However they are an intergral part of this structure and we decided it was not too much of a leap for a seafaring people. The pegs we use are reconstructed from images from the Eadwine and Harley 603 Psalters. They are in fact very similar to modern tent pegs. we have also used wooden stakes as pegs, but have found the metal pegs far more suitable for use with the guy ropes. Other similar pegs are also visible in some of the images on this page.

Simple tent pegs in the Eadwine Psalter. Folio. 268r.

We have also experimented with period rope tensioners such as used on Viking ships and those found in the Oseberg ship burial.

Oseberg tent pegs or rope tensioners. Photo source: http://dougleen.com/ontheroad/2014/03/23/oslo-norway

Other Awning Ideas

We have previously reconstructed a large geteld style tent, with one side left open that allows us to use it as an open shelter, with the extra storage and shelter at the tent end. However there is also no evidence for this practice

The open-sided geteld awning.

Some people have tried a similar arrangement with A-frame tents.

A Viking A-frame tent with an open side, some of these have been developed into complex arrangements similar to latter merchant booth, however as with the above interpretations, there is no evidence for these additions. Image source pintrest, credited to 23rd spiral on flickr.


Assemblies in Iceland 850-1950

The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition

Tents: Architecture of the Nomads
Faegre, Torvald (1979)

History of Tents by Steve Wyley

Merchants' Booths

The Viking-Ship Discovered at Gokstad in Norway.
Nicolaysen, N. (1882)

On the Road Blog :Oseberg tent pegs

Pavilion Resources

Shieling :Scandinavian Farming Technology
Hirst, K. Kris

Surviving Medieval Pictures of Tents and Pavilions

Tent Emporium Source Page

Utrecht Psalter online

The Viking Age compendium Tents and Work Shelters

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