Recreating a Viking Age teething toy (wooden horse)

I came up with this project for the Dragonsspine Arts & Sciences championship a couple years ago, inspired by similar wooden horses I had seen in From Viking to Crusader (1992, Roesdahl & Wilson). This book carries a hefty price tag but is well worth the investment for any serious reenactor interested in the period of 800-1200 in Scandinavia, as the book includes an extensive catalog of extant items from that period, including photos of many items and generously detailed descriptions of each. Thanks to the details given in the catalog and photos also included in this book, I was able to complete this project without having to search for other sources, as all the pertinent information was included there for my convenience.

 

What is it?

A few simple carved wooden toy horses have been found scattered across the geographical and temporal range of the Vikings, including important finds in the Faroe Islands, Trondheim (Norway), and St. Petersburg (Russia). These toys are very simplistic depictions of horses, each with their head down as if to graze. These appear to be cut, as if by a coping saw, from a narrow flat plank of fir (Roesdahl & Wilson note that the Trondheim specimen is fir but do not identify the species of the Faroe Islands specimen), and the edges of the contour are rounded, whether by age and use or by carving. The Trondheim specimen is approximately 127mm long and 58.6mm high at the withers, and the Faroe Islands specimen is approximately 132mm long and 45.6mm high at the neck. For my purposes here I have ignored the St. Petersburg specimen because it is split longitudinally, only the upper half surviving, so I have no indication of actual height of the whole piece, nor of the shape of the legs. Given the size and proportion represented by my two selected horses, as well as the wood species selection, I believe these may well have been cut from the trimmings left behind after laying the strakes on a clinker built ship. I have no direct evidence to connect these to ship building in any way, but it is known that many clinker built ships were made in Scandinavia at the time, and trimming the strakes would have left many small trimmings of narrow planks, suitable for few other uses. Natural resources such as wood were too highly valued to waste, so even the trimmings would have been made into something else.

Given the simplicity of these toy horses, I do not believe they would have held the interest of a child more than a few years old, but they with their lack of small, breakable parts, they would have been ideal for infants. Biologically speaking, child development has changed relatively little since the Viking Age; infants then, like infants now, put everything into their mouths, so I believe such a wooden horse, given to an infant, would have quickly become a favorite new teething toy. With a minimum of rounding to reduce splintering, the action of an infant’s gums on the toy would compress the wood grain and prevent splintering, so by the time the child’s teeth come in, the wood should be sufficiently compressed to prevent or minimize splintering from chewing.

 

How to make it

My method for this project started with size correcting photos of the two extant pieces, based on the absolute length measurements listed in the catalog. Then I used the edge detection filter on GIMP to reduce these to the contours and then overlaid the two to make a composite outline image. I printed this, verified the actual size, and then visually estimated a median value all the way around to produce my own outline that was half-way between the size and proportion of both pieces. This way, I know my piece is not exactly like any historical piece but that it is well within the range of sizes and proportions indicated in the archaeological record.

Once I had my contour drawn, I traced it with a #2 graphite pencil, laid it face-down on a plank of fir, and retraced the back of it with a steel ball-point stylus (available from Tandy Leather Factory) to transfer the outline onto the wood. Next, I cut out the outline using a coping saw (a jigsaw works well too, but it doesn’t take very long even with a coping saw for such a small piece). Finally, I used a simple woodcarving knife to round off the edges, always cutting downward along the grain to avoid splitting into the wood.

For educational purposes, I have included the documentation from my arts & sciences contest entry below. You may download, copy, view and print this document without any changes, but do not try to edit it in any way. This document is provided here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Please view the license for detailed terms of use.

Get the document here: Viking horse.pdf

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