To the Western eye, red is the colour of passion; white indicates a surrender; and black symbolises the fearful unknown.
Enabling visual consistency and differentiation, colour has always carried meaning for humans. But with so many pigments being lost to time, deep research is required to identify the palettes used by past societies.
The pigments of pillage
Regarding the Vikings, research has been relatively sparse. We know they used bold colours to be seen from a distance, and they would produce these colour pigments from numerous sources, including ochre and charcoal. These would have been blended together along with a binding agent (such as milk products, egg, or linseed oil), to allow the colour to adhere to the material.
Now, after the publication of a new chemical analysis on Viking objects, we know more about the Viking use of colour than ever before.
No sailing under false colours
With the help of specialist teams of chemists, archaeologists have been able to study colour used in the Viking Age. Chemical analyses of pigments from objects have allowed them to stipulate what could have been the Vikings’ symbolic colour palette.
Co-author of the paper and conservator from the National Museum of Denmark, Line Bregnhøi, says that the Viking Age was probably more visually vibrant that we may have first assumed.
She says: “When we’ve previously excavated finds from the Viking Age among others, we weren’t so interested in colours. Partly because we didn’t have the techniques to study pigments, but also because we assumed that the colours appeared more or less as they were found.”
However, she has now worked with colleague Lars Holten, director of the Centre for Historical and Archaeological Research and Communication, to create the colour palette used in the reconstructed version of The Royal Hall, Denmark’s largest Viking building.
In the reconstruction, which sits at the Centre for Historical and Archaeological Research and Communication in Denmark, the team has worked with the same type of paint that would have been used by those in the upper echelons of Viking society.
The Royal Hall has been decorated with linseed oil paint, as it would have been the most durable binding agent available to Viking painters. For authenticity’s sake, the hall has not been entirely covered in paint, as sheer expense means that this would have been unlikely.
A study in scarlet
As has been true throughout the history of paint, some colours were rarer and thus more expensive than others. Imbued with symbolism, they indicated a separate social standing.
Lars Holten comments: “We know that the symbolism of colour is enormously important in all cultures. Red, white, and black are some of the most common and have similar symbolism among numerous cultures.”
Henriette Syrach Lyngstrøm, an archaeologist from the University of Copenhagen’s Saxo Institute, says: “it’s an important study because it presents the chemical analyses that form the basis for the very subjective ideas that archaeologist have on Viking Age colour.”
Although not involved in the new study herself, she says it’s one of the most essential reports we have on the Viking’s use of colour.
She continues: “On the rare occasion that we excavate a piece of painted wood, the colour looks nothing like the original. Here, chemists and conservators analyse the pigments and help us to further our interpretations.”