New project: Viking Age red paint

Hnefatafl is mentioned several times in medieval Icelandic literature, and it is known to have existed throughout Norden during the Viking Age, even later in some places like Lapland and Wales. Many of these mentions of hnefatafl in the sagas indicate that some of the playing pieces were colored red, others white. Archaeological evidence tells us that the most common source material for these pieces was walrus ivory, though other gaming counters of the era were made of bone, antler, stone, wood, glass, amber and bronze. Making white game counters from walrus ivory is no great mystery, but how were the red pieces colored? Some of these materials (including glass, amber and bronze) had their own color and were unlikely to have been painted. Glass in the period was available in a wide range of colors, and raw amber too ranges in color from a milky whitish yellow to a clear golden “honey” color, to a deep red “cherry” color, to a dark, nearly black color. Really, all that is required is that pieces of similar size be divisible into two distinct colors. Yet the sagas tell of húnnar, or hnefatafl counters, as jorpu or jarpur (chestnut, or red-brown) and fegri (fair). Were the Icelandic hnefatafl counters made of lathe-turned or carved ivory and then some of them painted a reddish color?

By comparison, while traveling in the “north” (central, really, but they call it north) of Sweden, I was in awe of all the red houses and barns and how striking the brick red color of their paint was against the verdant landscape. Could there be a missing link somewhere? Could this be the same paint that reddened the hunns in hnefatafl a millenium ago? That dark red barn paint is called Falu Rödfärg, named for the town in Dalarna that is the site of stora kopparberget, a copper mine that dates back to at least the 16th century, if not the 10th century. More research is needed here, and is underway. Watch for a post in the future about the history of the copper mine at Falun, once I get some more information. What is known is that the leavings of the copper mine were rich in iron ore and contained a combination of hematite, ocher, red lead, copper and other minerals that could be roasted, crushed into a fine powder, mixed with linseed oil, and used to paint and seal wood in a way that would stand up to several severe Nordic winters without much maintenance. Back in the early 12th century, Theophilus wrote of using red minerals like minium (red lead) or cinnabar (mercury sulfite) mixed with linseed oil to redden doors. He also wrote of using ocher (iron oxide) as a red pigment. Could Falu rödfärg have a history much longer than the 16th century, perhaps reaching back into the Viking Age? Could this blend of iron oxide, hematite, red lead and copper be the very same paint described in the sagas as jarpur hnefatafl counters that are “with iron girded”?

I want to know what some of these red pigments, known to medieval Scandinavians (and possibly known to Viking Age Scandinavians), would look like mixed with linseed oil and brushed onto some of the materials I listed above. I found some of each available on eBay. I have some wood, antler and stone in my shop, and I could get some bone easily enough. I should have some answers (and some pictures) by next spring.


One response to “New project: Viking Age red paint

  1. Pingback: History of Stora Kopparberget and Falu red paint | wilhelmszabel·

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