This is a matter of great controversy. I don’t think it should be. Fact is that we don’t have evidence for tattoos being part of Norse culture. The often referred-to ibn Fadlan, who described men from Russia as covered in tattoos, didn’t actually use the word tattoos. He used the same word as that which describes mosque decorations so we don’t know if they were tattoos or even if the men he saw were Vikings. The sagas, where the physical appearance of the characters is often described, never mention tattoos. We know that tattoos can be preserved for thousands of years, but none of the Norsemen or -women we have found, have tattoos. So while it is possible and even likely that some Vikings encountered tattooed people and maybe even got some themselves, it is simply not correct to state as a fact that we know the Vikings had tattoos.
The Vikings were well-groomed and tidy. We know the men, as a rule, took great pride in grooming their beard and hair — we’ve found numerous combs that were likely used by both men and women. Being beardless was seen as unfavourable for a man, but my guess is that at least the warriors would have kept their beard short, so that it couldn’t easily be grabbed by an enemy. So forget about the big, braided beards from the movies. Also forget about the impractical hairstyles from the before mentioned tv show. You wouldn’t want to shave parts of your scalp when you’re spending your days out in the Scandinavian winter. Also, keep in mind that the Vikings were not all blonde. Some were brown haired, and the Danes seem to have been dominantly red haired back then.
Viking women and -men among the higher social classes often wore makeup. Needless to say, this was probably not common among normal people. The farmer obviously wouldn’t have spent time applying makeup in the morning before going out in the field. But at least around the height of the Viking Era, makeup seems to have been fashionable among the nobles.
8, Square faced women
From skulls we can reconstruct the faces of the Viking Age, and it seems like the women were more square faced than they are today. Which means their facial features were different from those of modern day Scandinavian women. It is safe to assume that intermarriage with Celts and other ethnic groups affected how modern Scandinavians look today.
9, Scars and physical defects
The Vikings were not primitive, but they simply did not have the medical technology of our modern world. So any wound would have left a bigger scar than we would expect today. Also, if you were born with a defect like a deformed foot or a cleft lip, there was nothing to do about that and you simply had to live with it.
10, Frostbite and wrinkles
If you spend most of your life outdoors in Scandinavia, your face will become wrinkled and frostbitten. And while it certainly is healthy to spend time out in nature, spending your life there will take its toll on your skin.
A longhouse with an open fire is not a healthy place to live. From experience, I can tell you that it is very hard to avoid breathing in that smoke. So lung diseases were probably common, and with those comes caughing. It was probably a familiar sound in the morning. While not strictly a physical feature, lung diseases were probably crippling a substantial part of the population.
To conclude, the original Vikings were quite a different creature from the «Vikings» of modern popular culture. That said, we understand that when it comes to the Viking Age, there are lots of things we yet don’t know. As new knowledge is surfacing, I find that I’m constantly adjusting the image I have of my ancestors. They were more diverse and much more advanced than most people believed just a few years ago. The modern Viking subculture seems to move in its own direction these days, and Google pseudo-science is often mistaken for truth, but the fact that we now have a modern Viking subculture is extremely positive. We need more Vikings in this world.
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen