The Viking Age offers many designs and art work that make for excellent tattoos, runestone designs, interlaced knotwork and other decorations can look very striking when inked on skin. In this blog post we look at the historical evidence that the Vikings wore tattoos.
Modern Viking style tattoos (source: National Museum of Denmark)
Whilst very little was written down by the Viking during the Age, we have accounts from Muslim scholars and travellers that give us a good description of the men and women of the time. One in particular, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a scholar from Baghdad who was on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the middle Volga area of Russia. Fadlan described a Viking funeral, but also spoke a lot about the Volga Vikings traders.
Viking Style Modern Tattoos (source: Wikipedia)
In his descriptions, Fadlan mentioned that all the Viking men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks. He said that the tattoos were dark green figures of trees and symbols. It may be the case that the tattoos were probably actually dark blue, a colour that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin and something seen on many archaeological finds of tattooed skin. While Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, it could have been the Vikings trademark gripping beast or other knotwork patterns of which the Vikings were fond in their artwork. To him they resembled the women’s neck rings of gold and silver.
Runic tattoo design being inked
Unfortunately, we have no actual archaeological evidence of tattoos from the Viking Age, this is because skin rarely survives in the ground unless, for example, it is in extremely arid conditions, like a desert, or frozen under ice. However, there are plenty of examples of tattoos in history, from ancient Egypt, Bronze Age bog bodies and Otzi the Ice Man from the Italian/Austrian Alps. All of these finds show that tattoos where known and used throughout history. Tattoos appear to be as commonplace as they are today so, for the Vikings things were probably the same and it is safe to assume that they had plenty of tattoos!
Pazyryk Princess burial from the 5th Century BC showing tattooed arms (source: Wikipedia)