I occasionally receive messages or read comments online from people mentioning that we know nothing about Viking-age instruments.
That is not quite true, and after some of my latest research, I decided to create this page with some of the important findings and perhaps lesser-known facts about these interesting Scandinavian instruments.
(on the pictures, top part of the instrument excavated in 2018 in Denmark) (photo 𝐛𝐲 𝐒ø𝐫𝐞𝐧 𝐒𝐢𝐧𝐝𝐛æ𝐤)
The Ribe Lyre was excavated in the old Viking village in Ribe, Denmark in 2018, and is dated to around the year 720.
(late iron-age/early Viking period) It is currently in conservation.
I got in touch with Søren Sindbæk, a professor of medieval archeology at Aarhus University and got the following update:
𝑊𝑒 𝑔𝑜𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑙𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑠𝑡 𝑢𝑝𝑑𝑎𝑡𝑒 𝑓𝑟𝑜𝑚 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑝𝑟𝑒𝑠𝑒𝑟𝑣𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑎 𝑓𝑒𝑤 𝑤𝑒𝑒𝑘𝑠 𝑎𝑔𝑜 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑦 𝑠𝑎𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑡𝑟𝑒𝑒 ℎ𝑎𝑠 𝑡𝑜 𝑏𝑒 𝑖𝑚𝑝𝑟𝑒𝑔𝑛𝑎𝑡𝑒𝑑 𝑎 𝑓𝑒𝑤 𝑚𝑜𝑛𝑡ℎ𝑠 𝑚𝑜𝑟𝑒.
𝑇ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒𝑓𝑜𝑟𝑒, 𝑡ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒 𝑖𝑠 𝑠𝑡𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑛𝑜 𝑜𝑛𝑒 𝑤ℎ𝑜 ℎ𝑎𝑠 ℎ𝑎𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑜𝑝𝑝𝑜𝑟𝑡𝑢𝑛𝑖𝑡𝑦 𝑡𝑜 𝑡𝑎𝑘𝑒 𝑎 𝑐𝑙𝑜𝑠𝑒𝑟 𝑙𝑜𝑜𝑘 𝑎𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑝𝑖𝑒𝑐𝑒 𝑦𝑒𝑡.
I’ll post an update when new information is available!
More info: (In Danish, video):
TV2 nyheder (With Sarah Qvistgaard, Archeologist and Morten Søvsø, Museum inspector)
(on the left two photos: Oseberg Lur, on the right: Oseberg reconstruction/replica and Danish Iron age Lur)
(Norway) (Viking-age) around year 800
The first find in the Nordic region registered as a wooden Lur is from a coffin in a burial chamber in Oseberg, Norway.
It is very faintly tapered with a sound piece for wind instruments, composed of a 107 cm long unknown piece of wood.
(Denmark) (late Iron-Age) Year 400-774
When excavating a well from the Viking era in Herning, in 1996, what was probably a real Wooden Lur was found.
It was a long horn, made of an approx. 80 cm long, straight piece of hazelnut, which was split, hollowed out and then assembled with strips of ash. At one end of the tube was a trumpet-shaped extension.
I recently had a dialogue with Dr. Leszek Gardela, researcher and author at The National Museum of Denmark.
Below the picture is a few quotes on his current opinions on the Oseberg Lur/Tube.
(Photos of the Oseberg Lur/Tube by Dr Leszek Gardela, featured in his book “Magic staffs” link here)
I examined the Oseberg lur/tube/staff in 2008 and I wrote about it in several of my articles and in my 2016 book “(Magic) Staffs in the Viking Age” link here. Scholarly opinions on the purpose of this curious object are still divided – some researchers think it could be a kind of magic staff, others think it is a musical instrument.There are several incisions on the surface (ca. 1cm wide), suggesting that it was originally bound with some kind of organic material (leather or textile string). Essentially, it does look like a tube/lur and could probably be used as an instrument.
I had further asked if it could have been a sort of holster for a magic staff/seidr staff, below is a quote more from Dr. Leszek:
The Oseberg grave is dendro-dated to the early 9th century, and most iron staffs (with basket handles, like the ones from Norway and Sweden) date from the 10th century. So, to my mind, it is highly unlikely that iron staffs were used in Viking Age Norway before the late 9th – 10th century – ergo, there was no such staff in Oseberg.One thing worth bearing in mind, however, is that the Oseberg lur/tube/staff was found in a chest that also contained textile implements (as you probably know, textile working has strong links with Norse magic etc.), parts of iron chains and other unusual goods with potentially ritualistic connotations. Why would someone put a musical instrument there? Maybe the lur/tube/staff played a dual purpose of a musical instrument and magic staff? This is how I interpreted it in my publications. Today, I think I am leaning more and more towards the idea that it is simply a musical instrument and nothing else… But, of course, I can be wrong.
Apart from the archeology aspect, there is also references to the instrument in Norse mythology and sagas, and it was probably one of such instrument that the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson referred to when he described how Heimdal guarded Asgard on the bridge Bifrost, and about him said:
“He owns the Lur called Gjallarhorn, and when he blows it, it is heard everywhere.”
As mentioned above the Lur is mentioned in several different sources.
The first description of the Vikings straight lur stems from the Icelandic saga writer “Snorri Sturluson” royal sagas
from the middle of the 13th century – in the Olav Trygvesons saga, quote:
When Biskop Sigurd got to Red’s farm, his big dragon floated there on the water. King Olav immediately went up to the courtyard with his people, and attacked the loft where Red was sleeping; they broke it up and the men ran in there. Red was seized and bound; the other men who were in there were killed – some detained. Then the kings went to the house where Red’s husband slept; some were killed, some tied up and some beaten down. The king led Red, and commanded him to be baptized: “Then will I,” said the king, “not take your possessions; I’d rather be your friend if you can appreciate it. ”Red cried out, saying he would never believe in Christ, and he mocked God roughly; then the king became angry and said that Red should suffer the worst death. The king bound him with his back to a pole and put a gag between his teeth, thus opening his mouth; the king then tried to put a snake in his mouth, but the snake would not enter his mouth and twisted away because Red breathed against it. Then the king took a hollow quantum stalk and put it in Red’s mouth – some say that the king put his Lur in his mouth; the snake was then put in there, followed by a glowing iron rod. The snake twisted into Red’s mouth and then down his throat, where it cut out through his side; which resulted in the death of Red.
There is also a mention, With the attacking of Danish Vikings on Paris in 886/7, where the monk Abbo (Cernuus) says
† c. 923 in “De bellis Parisiacae Urbis” twice that the Danes used wind instruments in connection with attacks on the city.
Special thanks to Dr. Leszek Gardela.
(The Jawharp can be found in the book “Vikingernes Aros” page 111, published at Moesgaard Museum)
It is currently at “Museum Østjylland” with the catalog numbers: (x197) from EBM 408
The Jawharp is known in most of Europe and Asia and dates back to approx. 3000 years back.
In Scandinavia, we have found many of them, from around the year 1200.
But the oldest dated Jawharp in the North comes from “Gammeltoft” at the foot of “Ellemandsbjerget”,
the highest point in Helgenæs (Denmark)
The mouth harp was found in a soil fill from one of the nine pit houses dating to the Viking Age.
Special thanks to:
Susanne Benita Clemmensen (Head Inspector at Museum Østjylland)
Lars Krants Larsen (Head inspector at Moesgaard Museum)
In a wall trench for a large hall from the Viking era, a bone object dating from the 6th to 7th century was found,
which can hardly be anything but a tuning screw for a stringed instrument.
It has a flat grip at one end so that it could be tuned with pointing and thumb like a modern-day violin;
both sides are beautifully decorated, one side with a beaked head and the other with a reminiscent face with stylized beard.
The tuning screw has most likely been a small instrument, perhaps a small lyre or bowed lyre.
This tuning peg is not very wide, which corresponds with the tight fittings of a lyre/tagelharpa instrument, which is therefore the most likely candidate.
The tuning peg is called “Yrsas stemmenøgle” or by Danish archeologists: Tissø stemmeskruen
More (Danish only): Natmus.dk
It’s most likely that the Vikings both used plucked and bowed lyres/tagelharpa’s.
Further possible evidence of bowed instruments in the Viking age can be found on the stone sculpture at
the Nidaros cathedral (built from 1070–1300 CE) in Trondheim, Norway.
The figure depicts a musician playing a 3 stringed wooden instrument.
(Photo: A History of Norwegian Music, p. 14.)
(on the left picture the excavated cow horn from Västerby, on the right a reconstruction of it)
In 1936, Västerby, Sweden, a cow horn was found with 4 finger holes.
By using pollen analysis it was dated to the 9th century.
In Sweden, a bone flute was found in Björkö. The flute is 14.4 centimeters long, has 3 drilled holes and is made from animal bone.
The flute is dated to the Viking period. Objects catalog number: 107529
The playing method in the Viking-age must have been quite experimental since we know virtually nothing about the way they played and sang.
(although we might get some idea from “Drømte mig en drøm i nat” written around 1300.
Which is the oldest Nordic music notations with lyrics, that has survived through time from Scandinavia,
and was discovered on the very last page of the Scanian Lawbook (Danish: Skånske lov) from the 14th century.
– it might give us an insight into the notes that were played in early Scandinavian or Danish history. But since it was from a much later period, we can’t be sure that it was inspired by earlier works, or if it was something completely new.
There is also a few stories and saga’s mentioning Viking-age music and instruments as well:
At “King Ingild” in Lejre (Denmark), the queen seeks to ease his anger over the well-covered table,
by letting a flute-playing (musician) practice his art for him.
“Stærkodder” (A Nordic legend and “Skjald”) then throws a chewed-up bone at the head of the whistleblower,
resulting in his inflated cheeks collapsing, and air violently bursting out from his mouth.
There is a similar story from, circa 1184
At the court of the Norwegian king Magnus Erlingsson.
Where he says, look how silly the musician looks when he blows his instrument with a twisted mouth and inflated cheeks.
I have attached images so you can take a look at the findings, I’ll also update this page as new information becomes available.