Old Norse Tents

Many years ago now, I began studying the Viking Age. One of the first things I became interested in was tents. Information at that time was scant, or at least hard to access, and all I came up with was an artist's rendition of a tent from the Oseberg ship showing little detail. Since that time many new books on the Norse have been written, and old material has become more accessible, and as a result a bit more information on Norse tents has become available to me. Some information such as the detailed reports of the Oseberg and Gokstad excavations remain apparently inaccessible for one reason or another.

The Old Norse word for tent is tjald. Parts of tents include:

Types of tents mentioned in writings include: I've seen langtjald, long-tent, mentioned as a Norse term but have so far not found it in any period source.

At the moment the only examples of Norse tents come from the Oseberg and Gokstad ship burials. There are a few minor differences between the two sets. The Gokstad ship is sometimes pictured with a tent stretched over the center. This however is a modern addition based on saga descriptions. As Brøgger and Shetelig say: "there is no sign of any fittings for stretching a tent over the ship itself." These saga references probably are later anachronisms reflecting the post-Viking Age practices that led to fore- and stern-castles. Note that the terms stafntjald and lyptingartjald appear to refer to tents at the fore and aft, not amidships. (I know of a later picture of a 15th C Venetian Galley with an aft tent for instance.) On the other hand lypting could be refering to a viða (a high deck or platform raised as a shelter supposedly amidships). There are supposed to be other saga references to stretching a tent over the whole ship, but I think this is likely also an anachronism.

Tent Frame The two intact Oseberg frames consist of a rigid frame of nine pieces of ashwood: three ground/ridge-poles (tjaldáss ?), 4 gables (tjaldsperra ?) and 2 base boards (?). One of the tents is17' 2 3/4" (5.25 m.) long, 14' 7 3/4" (4.45 m.) wide, and 11' 4 3/4" (3.45 m.) high. The other tent is slightly shorter (though an alternate source says 5.30 m. as well) and narrower (alternate source says 4.15 m.) and is 8' 9 1/2" (2.67 m.) high. (The metric measures in Brøgger and Shetelig are rounded off apparently).

The three ground/ridge-poles appear to have been square in section with round tenons extending through two overlapping end boards each (with round motises) and secured by an external peg (tjaldnagli?).

Large Oseberg Tent Frame On the large tent from Oseberg, I had heard that the difference in length of the ground poles and ridge pole was more on the order of 2" (7 cm) rather than the approximately 1' 6" indicated here. Perhaps the ridge pole is missing its tenons or otherwise damaged and would otherwise be longer. Note that a shorter ridge pole causes the gable ends to slant and the frame to become rigid fore and aft, without the ropes some recreators use. *An allowance for shrinkage particularly in thickness should perhaps also be made. Tenon holes are 5 7/8" (15 cm) from lower ends. The two gables I have figures for have upper tenon holes between 1' 8 1/16" and 1' 8 7/8" (51-53 cm) from the upper ends. The various tenon holes vary from 1 15/16 " to 2 3/16" (5-5.6 cm) in diameter. Some of this variance may be due to damage and shrinkage. The peg holes are about 3/4" (2 cm).

Small Oseberg Tent In the the small tent, I don't think the ridge-pole or the ground poles are round despite the diameter reference. Note again the shorter ridge pole. Tenon holes are 5 7/8" (15 cm) from each end of the baseboards. Tenon holes on the gables are 7 7/8" (20 cm) from lower ends and for the wide board 1' 3 3/4" (40 cm) from the upper end while two of the remaining three are 1' 2 3/16" (36 cm) and 1' 1 3/8" (34 cm) from the upper ends. The various tenon holes vary as above as are the peg holes.

Gokstad Head There is a diagram of one of the Oseberg tent frames in Brøgger and Shetelig on p. 98. There is a small drawing of the upper ends of the Gokstad ship tent-poles in Bibby on p. 348. Plate XVIII of Wilson and Klindt-Jensen is a photo of one of the heads on the end of one of the Gokstad ship tent-poles. There is a drawing of one of the Oseberg tent-frames with a closeup drawing of one of the heads on p. 135 of Oxenstierna and a drawing of one of the Gokstad heads on the far right of the drawing on p. 129. Figure 55 on p. 84 of Simpson shows a drawing of the tent-frame from Gokstad.

Only the gable boards survived in the Gokstad ship. They are made of oak. These are between the two sets from the Oseberg ship in size. Another source indicates they are approximately 11' 8 3/16" (3.56 m.) long. (No one seems to know which direction the heads should face.) Their maximum width is 15 in. (38 cm). Another source indicates they are 11 7/16-13/16" (29-30 cm) wide at the head to 6 5/16" (16 cm) at the foot. 11/16-3/4" (1.8-2 cm) thick. "Animal head carving is 46cm from tip of ear to end of nose." One of my sources indicates the ground poles rested in notches, but I think this is a misinterpretation of damage to the bottoms of the gables. The damage does not appear to be even as I recall. "Diameter of Ridge Pole hole and notches ca. 6cm." You can see two tent poles from Gokstad on the wall at the Viking Ship museum in Norway. (The guide book indicates there's another set in another room.) (Or at least they were. I've heard they were doing some renovating so things may have been moved.) The gable boards on all the tents had carvings of animal heads. The Gokstad heads had accents in yellow and black (like the shields on the ship) and the Oseberg boards had religious symbols painted on (in red?).

I still have a number of questions, some of which are not yet answerable.

  1. What was the nature of the fabric parts of the tent? There was no surviving linen (presumably what the sails and tents were made of) in either Oseberg or Gokstad, and the rest of the textiles were too damaged to reconstruct except for short sections of borði ("tapestry").
    1. Did it have tent flaps for a door?
    2. Was one end closed up or were there entrances at both ends?
    3. Did the canvas go over the gables-boards, so that the only bits of woodwork visible from the outside were the animal heads? Brøgger and Shetelig's quote from Flateybók: "The heads stretching up from the land-tent were overlayed with gold." is hardly definitive despite their assertion to the contrary. I personally incline that way, but a better argument is needed. Most recreators I've known put the fabric inside. This has advantages and disadvantages. Moisture tends to build up on the wood when the fabric covers it and this eliminates that problem. Having the fabric inside however makes it difficult to keep the fabric stretched out properly.
    4. Was the fabric pegged to the ground or was it somehow attached to the ground-poles? I built my first attempt at one of these tents more than two decades ago, and have tried all of the methods of attaching the fabric over the frame that have come to mind.
      • The problem with tubes around the ground-poles is getting the fabric tight.
      • The string method (lacing through the edge of the tent, which is wrapped partially around the ground-pole, and over the top of the ridge pole and down to the other edge and so back and forth) is slow and time consuming and all that string is difficult to handle. Perhaps this might work if you used only a couple of attachment points or almost doubled up on the fabric so as to use less string.
      • The weighting it down method runs into trouble the first time it blows hard or a drunk trips beside the tent.
      • Other methods include pegging it down (I haven't heard that they found any pegs on either ship, but I believe there was a lot of debris that was unidentifiable), and attaching some sort of strip to the bottom of the fabric to allow easier attachment.
      This last makes me wonder about the terms tjaldskör, tent-shoe and langskör, long-shoe, but I'm not yet ready to speculate. None of them seem quite right. As for using the sail, as I've seen some people suggest, this means you can't have both a camp and mobile ships (except for oars) at the same time. I find this unlikely. Someone pointed out to me that they could have/should have spare sails so it's possible.
    5. What sort of fastenings were used, particularly for the door(s)? Lacing, ties, pins, and leather and loop systems are all possibilities.

*A number of these measurements come from a post by one Andrea Willett on a list whose name I no longer appear to have (it isn't indicated on the text copy of the archive page). The measurements are, for the most part, consistent with my own studies and I consider them reasonably reliable. She has had correspondence with museum personnel. I hope she does not mind my paraphrasing her here.

Langskibet fra Gokstad, 1882.

Bibby, Geoffrey. Testimony of the Spade . New York: New American Library, 1974.

Brogger, A. W. and Haakon Shetelig. The Viking Ships. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971. (ISBN 82 09 00030 6)

Cleasby, Richard, and Gudbrand Vigfusson. Icelandic-English Dictionary. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1957 (2nd edition) (ISBN 0-19-86103-0)

Oxenstierna, Eric Graf. Die Wikinger. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1959.

Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York: Dorset Press, 1967. (ISBN 0-88029-146-X)

Wilson, David M. and Ole Klindt-Jensen. Viking Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. (ISBN 0-8166-0977-2)

© copyright 1983, 2001, 2007 Gary R.D. Walker

Last updated 16/4/07.

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