So you want to look like a Viking?

Vikings are more popular than ever. I get emails and messages from all over the world now, people are telling me they are fascinated by the Viking Age and they all want to bring more of that Viking zest into their life. And many want to look like Vikings too. So I thought I would write a piece on that. What did the Vikings look like? Or, more importantly, what’s the difference between a present day «Viking» and the Vikings back in the good, old days?

1, Size
Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings were not very tall. From the skeletons we have found, it’s safe to suggest that most men of Norse origin were around 172 cm (5 feet 8 inches) tall, while the women were smaller. Being 180 cm (5 feet 11 inches) myself, I would have been considered a very tall man back then, while today that is a normal height in my part of the world. However, the Vikings encountered people who were shorter than them, so to many, they would have been perceived as quite tall.

2, Muscular development
Skeletons from Norse burials suggest that the Vikings were muscular. They had to be, since their daily life involved heavy farm work. But they didn’t look anything like those Hollywood action stars on anabolic steroids. A body like that is not functional (and the Vikings did not have steroids). Instead, envision a drug-free powerlifter, swimmer or thrower at somewhere around 80 kgs (176 lbs). That would probably have been the physique of most healthy Viking men. Also, their diet was lower in carbs and total kcal, so my guess is that both men and women had less subcutaneous fat. Evolution gave them an effective physique and «healthy at any weight» was not a concept in the Viking Age.

3, Arthritis and missing teeth
The remains of older individuals from the Viking Age often show signs of arthritis. The heavy manual labour took its toll and many middle-aged men and women were probably partly crippled. Also, archaeological finds suggest that middle-aged to older people were often missing teeth.

4, Clothing
Forget about those leather garments in the tv show «Vikings». That is pure fantasy. The Vikings mostly wore wool and linnen and they loved bright colors. Linnen was much more expensive than wool, so it was likely to be reserved for the wealthier individuals. Obviously, they Vikings also wore the hides of animals, but wool seems to have been the most common material. Silk were also worn, but only by those few who could afford it.

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The author on board a “knarr”, a Viking cargo ship, at the Viking ship museum in Roskilde


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