I have been looking for information about the history of the copper mine (Stora Kopparberget) at Falu, Sweden, which produces that distinctive red barn paint (Falu rödfärg) which is seen all over Sweden (as well as copper, of course). The reason for my interest is that I believe the red paint produced from the byproducts of the copper mining operation, or at least something very similar to it, may have been used to paint hnefatafl counters red. The only problem is that the official Falu Rödfärg web site does not mention any mining history in Falu prior to 1500 CE. Comparing Theophilus‘s advice on red pigments to the mineral content of Falu Rödfärg, however, I found a striking similarity between what is known of red paints c. 1100 CE and what is in that red Swedish barn paint. I began to suspect that copper mining – and quite possibly red paint production – at Falu went much farther back in history than the 16th century. I wondered if it might go all the way back to the Viking Age, as suggested on an old page on the Dalarna web site (though the current version of that page no longer mentions the year 1000 in the history of the mine).
Today, my suspicion was confirmed. The copper mine has its own web site, www.falugruva.se. This web site has a few pages detailing the history of the mine, stating that this history can be traced all the way back to the 8th century, and suggests copper may have been mined there even earlier! They must be relying on a machine translation, because I found the Swedish version easier to read than the English version, but for purposes of my research, I just need the information, it doesn’t have to be in English. The oldest preserved document regarding the mine is a charter written in 1288 granting partial ownership of the mine to Bishop Peter of Västerås. Still, they state with certainty that copper mining there is known to have occurred in the 8th century.
The great thing about this paint, with its blend of iron oxide, hematite, red lead, other metals and minerals, and linseed oil, is that it penetrates and stains as it seals, affording it a greater versatility than other paints that may flake off or have trouble adhering to some surfaces. I think virtually any material that was used for making game counters during the Viking Age (ivory, bone, antler, wood, stone, etc.) could have been painted with this (except glass, amber and bronze, which were never painted with anything but imparted their own colors). Now I just need to find a sample of the Falu Rödfärg powder so I can compare it to other medieval sources of red mineral pigments.