Norse Boarded Chests

In our studies of boarded chests so far we have come up against a couple of details that point to distinct sub-sets within the type. Unlike much of Continental Europe, Scandinavia did not have quite the level of Greco-Roman influence on their design and building traditions. After the Christianization of the area, there is a distinct turn in the craft traditions of the region to be more in line with Continental styles and techniques. Most intriguing is the elements that were retained as cultural assimilation of Continental styles occurred. It is the retention of these subtle variations that can give us clues into the steadfast nature of woodworking traditions of the region. As we talk about “Norse Boarded Chests” we will divide into two broad categories. We will work with the arbitrary date of September, 1066 as the dividing line between the “Viking Era” chests and “Medieval Norse Era.” This is inconveniently convenient because we seem to have a dead-space when it comes to extant boarded chests from this region. In reality, we seem to have next to no extant chests made from the 11th to 13th centuries.

Viking Era Chests

Oh, I know all you savages are all excited about me talking of “Viking Chests.” Quite honestly, that appellation makes my teeth ache. Show me a chest that burns monasteries and loots York after extorting land from Charles III of France, and I’ll call it a “Viking.” Nouns and verbs being what they are, these are Viking Era chests.

The form is still very much a boarded chest, like our continental example from last month. Unlike the rather random sampling I did of museum and auction house cataloges, we really only have a half-dozen or so examples of Viking Era chests to draw from. But, the ingenious variances from the general form give us something to hang a sign on these for being distinct.

Photograph of the Mastermyr Tool chest

Most famous is the Mastermyr chest. Constructed around 1000CE, it is also the latest chest to be built before the long dark tea time when we have no extant examples. The box is trapezoidal in shape, both side to side and front to back. The lid is curved on the top and hollowed on the underside. There is a great Woodwright’s Shop episode where Roy visits a man who hogs a lid like this out with an adze. The hinges, though they really don’t ascribe anything to this type of chest, are “hook and eye” strap hinges. This hinge mechanism is relatively iconic for Norse Chests, at least in re-creation circles. The “knees” of the short ends are higher up than in our general continental example. That is, they overlap the endgrain of the face boards and a mating shoulder is cut into each of those. This creates something akin to a scarf or half-dovetail joint at the mating boards. The final key construction element in this chest is found in the floor of the box. Rather than grounding into the end and face boards, fastened with just nails, the face boards have a rabbet cut along their edge to house the long grain edge of the floor. Meanwhile, through mortises trap a mating tennon to house the end grain of the floor board. This is a bit of joinery that technically steps away from the definition of “boarded chest” but is also part of the divergent tradition of Scandinavian woodworking of the period.

Source: University of Oslo, Cultural Museum, Museum No. C55000_133

Oseberg “Tool” Chest, Identified as Oseberg Fundet item 149

The Oseberg chests make up the next most commonly known examples of Viking Era Norse Chests. Most people can account for two, but there were three total identified in this grave for Queen Asa and her servant. According to the catalogue numbers, Oseberg 149 is very similar to the Mastermyr chest, though it predates by at least a century and a half. The “feet” are rather much taller than in the Mastermyr, and the whole body is bound in iron, but otherwise, Ose 149 and Mastermyr are constructed with the same techniques and forms. Trapezoidal in shape on two axes, through mortise and rabbets for the floor board, nails otherwise for mechanical fastener.

University of Oslo, Cultural Museum, Mus No. O1904_178

Oseberg 178 is usually described as a “Sea Chest.” The proportions and arrangement of the parts are not unlike 15th to 19th century strong boxes used on ships, hence that designation. Unlike the Mastermyr and Ose 149, the lid for Ose 178 nests between the end boards, which extend skyward the face boards by the thickness of the lid. Some reconstructions have misunderstood the line-art drawings of this chest and have included a second pair of shoulders to entrap the face boards at both the top and bottom. Other than being much narrower and with a deeper box, we find the same basic construction elements shared with Ose 178 and Mastermyr (Ya’ll getting the hint yet). Once again, trapezoidal construction, rabbeted grooves for the floor board supported by a minimum of nails, through mortises on the end boards, and nails fastening the front to the back. The only stylistic difference between this “Sea Chest” and the other two “Tool Chests” is the lack of an knee joint part way up the face board. Instead, the knee is at the bottom, “natural” edge of the face boards. The curved and hollowed lid continues, however, and this makes for one tough little chest when built out of inch thick oak.

University of Oslo, Cultural Museum, Mus No O1904_156, Image shows additional bracing used to hold the remaining parts of Ose 156 together for display purposes.

Oseberg 156 met a sad end, many, many years ago. Apparently some grave robbers tried to get at the contents of the chest and smashed it open, leaving us with little more than the floor, end, and back boards. The build was the same as Ose 149, excepting four instead of three hinges to hold the lid. There are fragments believed to have been parts to three more chests in Queen Asa’s tomb, but sadly there remains too little of the remains for anyone to piece them together.

A reconstruction of the original Hedeby Chest. The extant original has severe damage to the lid and upper half of the front face board. It is remarkably intact for having been dropped into Hedeby Harbor more than 1100 years ago.

This brings us to my favorite. The Hedeby Chest: the least reported and most interesting of all the Viking Era Chests. In general, it conforms to the same shape and style as Ose 178. There’s a trick though. The front and back boards of the Hedeby have a slow arc sawn out of the bottom edge. This results in a chest with a very un-medieval appearance. There is also simple incised beading on all four faces. Otherwise, every element that defines out Viking Era chests are present.

So what have we deduced makes a Viking Era Chest? Trapezoidal shape, Nailed Face Boards, Nails and Rabbets to fasten faces to floor board, Through Mortise to joint the floor boards to the respective end boards. The knee persists consistently, but may be at the lower edge of the face boards or have a mating knee up to half the height of the face boards. This, by the way, creates a brilliantly strong cross grain joint when nailed together. This configuration leads the natural actions and reactions of the wood to reinforce itself more significantly than with the basic Continental Style. This is also the exception for the grain orientation recommendation from a previous post. When doing this mating joint, the growth rings of the end boards should be opposite of how they were described for our Continental Chest. We want the board to “flatten” so that the middle of the end boards will pull away from the floor board. This pushes in, then, where the nails fasten the overlapping knee joint to the face boards.

As an aside: many people continue to suggest that the trapezoidal shape of this style of boarded chest was intended so that a crewman on a longship could sit on the chest while rowing. Having crewed a longship once or twice, I can say that this is not the case. The curvature of the hull does not allow for a trapezoidal chest to sit upon.

“Where you gonna put that chest?”

Any space between the ribs of the ship is limited, and already full of “stuff” that would keep every oarsman from having his own chest to carry loot away in. Further, the curvature of the inner hull makes such a chest slide persistently toward the keel. The pitch is generally too steep for any of these chests to be able to make purchase and not be canted wildly toward the gunwales. If you can sit comfortably and row when your right buttock is four inches above your left, then you are a better sailor than I. At best, I have found that two similarly sized chests with trapezoidal bodies can be stacked very conveniently as they tend to nestle together. Beyond that, if there is any reason for this particular stylistic convention, then it has been lost in history.

If these are elements that describe Viking Era chests, what could be different in Medieval Norse Chests that is still different from the standard Continental Boarded Chest?

It’s an interesting thing, really. In our 12th C and later extants, we find that boarded chests have moved to the  rectangular shape of their continental cousins. In many cases there is decorative ironwork binding the whole the case, as in the Voxtorp Chest. Intriguingly, while the trapezoidal shape, curved and hollowed lids have gone by the wayside, the through mortise on the end boards and the rabbeted floorboards continues. And in this is where I believe we can find a stylistic convention that continues to separate Norse Boarded Chests from others of the Continental type. The boarded chest had always been an exercise in simplicity – simple to design, simple to construct. Despite this, the inclusion of this little bit of joinery continued in the Norse Tradition well into (at least) the 15th century.

We’ll just fade this one out with a static montage of 13th Century and Later Norse Chests.

Ryssby Chest, Ryssby Church, Småland, Sweden, C. 1200 Note the decorative ironwork that forms scenes of animals and trees.

Voxtorp Chest, Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm, 4094. Constructed early 13th Century.
The through-mortise is clearly visible between the iron banding on the end boards. This element was key in determining the unique regional convention of Norse Boarded Chests apart from all others.

Rydaholm Chest, Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Originating from Rydaholm Church, Småland, 13th Century

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One Response to Norse Boarded Chests

  1. Kevin H asked: “Just one question on the norse boxes, was there a general angle that they seemed to be? (I know that the sample size is very small)”
    Honestly it is inconsistent, sometimes even within the same piece. The Mastermyr is most evident of this where one end is at a different bevel than the other. Add to that, the front and back boards of the Mastermyr and Oseberg 178 are thinner at the lip than at the base. Between each of the Viking Age chests, we have no specific commonality beyond it being a subtle angle, somewhere attempting a 1 in 10 and a 1 in 4.
    And recall, the trapezoidal shape and associated bevels appears to have disappeared after the Viking Age. Those later Medieval Norse Chests are straight sided.

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