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Festive Food: A Viking Feast for Yuletide

With 10 days to go until the big day, we asked our Viking expert, Dr Steve Ashby, what a midwinter celebration might have looked like during the Viking period (8th – 11th centuries).

Dr Ashby currently directs the AHRC-funded project Melting Pot: Food and Identity in the Age of Vikings, which aims to deepen our understanding of material culture in cuisine, culinary change and innovation, the link between food and migration, and the relationship between food and local politics.


Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm Steve Ashby, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. I work on the everyday life of people in the Viking Age, with particular focus on various crafts and technologies (including cooking), as well as personal adornment and long-distance movement.

How long have you been studying Vikings?

Since my PhD, which I began in 2002 - so it will soon be 15 years.

What got you interested in the Vikings?

I always said that it wasn't part of a plan: during my MSc degree, I got interested in a question about finding migration and culture contact in artefacts, and it just happened to relate to the Viking Age; that led to my (AHRB-funded) PhD. But really, it was always at the back of my mind. I was a member of the Jorvik Club as a child, and one of my childhood friends likes to remind me that we were obsessed with the subject. He now has Viking-themed tattoos. I guess I just never grew out of it.

What are the key materials you work/have worked with?

I am trained as a zooarchaeologist (specialist in the archaeology of animal remains), but I am most well-known for my work with bone artefacts, most particularly Viking-Age hair combs. Over the last decade I have used these objects to tell us about population movement and culture contact, craft and industry, the interface between personal appearance and social structure - even the chronology and causes of the Viking Age itself.

I have also worked for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), where I became experienced in working with metal objects of all periods, particularly those collected by metal detectorists. I still work with the PAS; we co-supervise an AHRC-CDA-funded student, Rob Webley, and I am working on a project that will draw together metal-detected items from across Britain, Scandinavia and the Low Countries into a single analysis of human travel and mobility.

I am currently leading Melting Pot: Food and Identity in the Age of Vikings, which seeks to bring together food remains and material culture in order to better understand production, preparation, and consumption of food as a technology. We aim to determine how it was influenced by migration, urbanisation, technological change, and economic expansion. The idea is to recover Viking-Age food as an element of cultural practice. In some ways this is a departure for me, as it focuses on the biomolecular analysis of pottery, but it is closely aligned with my long-term interests in artefacts, technology, and culture contact, and also takes me back to my days of working with animal bones as food remains.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve discovered?

Many of my interesting discoveries come out of the laboratory. One exciting finding that came out of some analyses we did on combs was the realisation that there was a long, pre-Viking history of contact between the arctic and the towns of southern Scandinavia, but that this activity suddenly spiked around the traditional start date for the Viking Age (AD 793, the infamous raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne). It seems that long-distance trade within Scandinavia was the precursor to the more violent expansion of the Vikings.

Did the Vikings have Christmas?

Well, at the start of the Viking Age, most Scandinavians would have been pagan, and many may have celebrated Yule. By the close of the Viking Age in the 11th century, many more had converted to Christianity: particularly those now settled in Britain and Ireland.  What any Christmas celebration might have looked like is unclear.

What would be an appropriate celebratory meal for a winter festival?

Food would have been largely locally sourced, so that will depend very much on where you were. However, preserved foods would have been vital in the winter, and these could have been exported over great distances. One of the great successes of the Viking Age was the growth in the trade of stockfish: preserved deep water fish such as cod which could be processed, barrelled up, shipped out and then stored for long periods of time.

For festive gatherings, whole animal carcasses might have been cooked in a pit; one can imagine that this would have been a welcome variation on the usual theme of porridges and broths, stockfish and boiled meat, flavoured with onions, leeks, and brassicas. The meats eaten would have come from cows, sheep, and pigs, but also (at least before conversion) horse. Good use of fruits and berries would also have been made, as well as bread. We should not assume that it was a bland or unappetising cuisine.

What kinds of clothes might you wear?

Men would have worn a tunic and cloak over smock and trousers of a sort. Colours might have been quite bright, with shiny flourishes in the form of belt fittings, cloak pins, and buckles. Women would have women a smock and over apron, secured at the shoulder by a pair of oval brooches, which could be quite ostentatious, often with a string of brightly coloured glass beads between them. No doubt the attendees of a winter feast in arctic Norway would have dressed and behaved very differently to the member of an Anglo-Scandinavian community in 10th-century York. It is this cultural complexity that makes the period so interesting.

Interested in knowing more?

You can follow the project on Twitter @foodAD1000, or visit www.meltingpot.site

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