The Creation of a Belt Pouch from Birka ca. 1000
By Rollo Lackbeard

 

The Plan

 

After looking through Birka I, I found a very interesting decorative technique used on a folding wallet.  I also found that many of belt pouches found in that area were of a different shape then the belt pouch that I have been wearing.  I set out to create a new belt pouch using the correct shape for my persona’s time and place.  I also planned to use the decorative technique found on the Birka wallet to accent my new belt pouch.

How it fits into my persona

 

The famous archaeological site of Birka, located on the Bjorko Island in Sweden, has yielded a number of fascinating finds over the years. These include Viking-age tools, clothing, jewelry, and other items, many of them unique. During the ninth and tenth centuries Birka was a trading town where merchants came from the East, bringing with them the riches, as well as perhaps some customs, of the Rus, Silk Road and Byzantium.  Being a young man living in Birka in the early ninth century, these graves form the basis for much of my personal inspiration.  Because most of the graves at Birka belonged to them, I believe that this belt pouch would have been worn by a merchant or middle class citizen of Birka, Sweden, during the ninth and tenth centuries.

 

Belt Pouch Shape

 

The Shape of this belt pouch can be seen in a few different places.

This metal pouch frame (left) was found in Birka, grave 949. (Arbman, Taf. 128)  It shows a pouch that has a distinctive round bottom.  This pouch was probably opened from the top using a fold over lid.  This is evident by the three buttons that were found with the frame.  A similar pouch frame was found in Gotland (right). (Thunmark-Nylen, Taf. 142)

 

This round bottom shape is found in other places at this same time period.  This 9th century Hungarian belt pouch lid (left) also sports this distinctive shape This is a gold pouch lid found on a Hungarian folk art website.  This shape is also found in a sketch from Birka (right). (Arbman, p. 224)

 

I decided to use the following two pictures as the basis of my belt pouch.  This pouch can be seen in the Viking Age exhibition at Jamtli, the Historical/Archaeological/Ethnographical museum in Östersund. It's a re-construction of a find from Rösta in Ås Parish, in the province of Jämtland (mid-western part of Sweden) (Gustafsson and Ryaboy).  Having the round bottom, and opening from the top was consistent with the other examples that I have seen.  This also shows a single belt loop, which extends into a latch.

 

Decorative Technique

 

The initial inspiration for this project were two wallets found in the graves at Birka.  The creator used a decorative technique that I thought was very striking, and I couldn’t wait to use it on something.  From the partial leather wallet you can see the holes that were cut into the leather in order to weave the metal strips.  What resulted was an attractive checker board pattern embedded in the leather.  Setting out, I planned to use this technique to decorate the lid of my belt pouch.  My reasoning was thus: if I put it on a wallet, the only people who were going to see it are friends whom I went out of the way to show, and merchants.  By putting it on the outside of the belt pouch, anyone can see it.  This will hopefully inspire people to use this technique, or at least ask questions about it.

 

Partial leather wallet, Birka, grave 904 (Arbman, Taf. 132)

Reconstruction of a leather wallet from Birka grave 750.  The leather is interwoven with what I believe is copper metal strips.

(Arbman, Taf. 130)

 

The Pattern

 

When I set out to create a pattern for the belt pouch, I found myself in a quandary.  I didn’t have a sense of scale from the most of the images I was working with.  The two metal frames here the only images with a scale indicated, but they were much smaller then I would have liked.

 

In the end my pattern size was dictated by two main factors.  The first was that I wanted it to be able to hold my keys, credit card, ID, and some money.  I also used the picture of the Rösta pouch as a guide.  I tried to use the hand as a reference for the size that the pouch would end up.  It the end I decided that the bottom of the pouch would have the same curve as a compact disk.  I used this to create a paper pattern.

 

While there is no documentation for the small pocket inside the pouch, I wanted to add this for organizational convenience. 

 

Materials and methods

 

For my pouch I started with buckskin-tanned cow hide.  I love the feel and weight of this hide, and thought it would be appropriate for the pouch.  It has the look and feel of tanned moose or elk, both of which where available at the time in Birka.  The leather color is also a color a tanner would have been able to produce at that time. The leather was cut out by hand using a knife.  All my holes were made using a blade-shaped awl.  I have heard that round awls where not commonly used at this time.  While I don’t have any firm documentation for this fact, I decided to use it anyway.

 

The leather is sewn together using waxed linen thread and needle.  This what would have been used at this time and place for many of leather pieces.  The silver woven into the leather is silver bezel purchased from a casing supply store.  Silver was chosen to replace the copper because I thought it would contrast more with the leather.  Silver is a metal found commonly found in Viking graves.

 


Future additions

 

In the future, this or future pouches like it, will probably have metal strap mounts.  This would add a very decorative touch to the pouch, and make the pouch more period.  These mounts (right) are from Birka, and are believe to have been attached to the strap of a belt pouch just like the one found in Rösta (Gustafsson and Ryaboy).  I left these out this time because I did not have time to cast them. 

 

According to Ny Bjorn Gustaffson, archaeological guide at Birka, "These belt mounts were found (in the Summer of 2002) in the garrison forge by the hill fort at Bjorko. … The current interpretation is that they originally were mounted to the 'closing strap' of an Eastern style belt pouch." (Gustafsson and Ryaboy)

 

Instead, I ran a strip of silver bezel down the strap to decorate it. 

 

In the end I believe I have created an attractive piece that I will be happy to use for many years to come.  I believe it is what my persona might have worn.  I also feel that by combing two different things, from the same area, I have held true to the spirit of SCA recreation.  I have created something that could have existed in Birka Sweden during the ninth and tenth centuries, but isn’t an exact duplicate.

Bibliography

 

Arbman, Holger, Birka I:  Die Graber (Text), Almqvist & Wiksells , 1943

Arbman, Holger, Birka I:  Die Graber (Tafeln), Almqvist & Wiksells , 1940

 

Gustafsson, Ny Bjorn and Dmitriy V. Ryaboy,  "Belt Pouch Mounts from Birka/Bjorko."  The Red Kaganate.  Ed. Norman J. Finkelshteyn.  2 Mar. 200324 Apr. 2003.  <http://www.geocities.com/normanjfin/belts/birkaplts.html>.

 

Thunmark-Nylen, Lena, Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands I & II, Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1998