Hedeby/Haithabu bag handles

Hedeby style handles before staining.

Hedeby style handles before staining.

A Hedeby-style of bag has been on my wish-list for quite some time. I’ve used small totes to carry around my things, because I can’t do without my phone and other necessities on my person when at a costumed event. However, there are a few period-informed/speculated bags… and the (commonly called) Hedeby (or Haithabu) bag is one of them…

Of course, no actual bag survived… and there are no depictions clearly of the bag – but several objects in similar designs did survive in wood and bone, from multiple areas in the Viking world (not just Hedeby) – theorised to be handles to this bag style.

The fabric and cord for this bag are right up my alley – but the wood or bone carving is outside of my area of expertise. I saw a set of handles for sale at a market in Turku, Finland when I was there during summer 2017, but was in a bit of a rush and kicked myself later for not purchasing them. I hadn’t seen them for sale anywhere else (other than online) since. (And with Canadian postage being as costly as it is… it seems cost-prohibitive to order a set when the shipping would be double the price of the product.)

Thorolf le Balafre from France and The Practical Viking from Ohio, USA both have handles for sale on Etsy, ranging in cost from $38-54 Canadian (dependant on exchange rate of course).

Then a friend mentioned making some for me and a few others who wanted a pair, but after over a year of waiting (without bugging him of course, so he might have entirely forgotten) I visited a local maker space, and learned about a high-tech option to make the handles much more easily than any method I could muster with my limited woodworking skills…. (I had indeed thought about taking thin balsa wood, cutting it to near-size, glueing several together, and then sanding it down to size…. but that seems not only like a lot of work, but likely to chip and break throughout use anyways…)

So, with an available option, it was time to do some research to find out the best materials, shapes, and sizes! The reports are almost entirely in millimeters, however I’m including inches here because the maker space supervisor mostly works in inches. (Ah… Canadian life…)

Extant speculative handles

Hedeby Small arched handle

Wood speculated to be a Viking Age handle/frame from a bag found at Haithabu.

Haithabu bag handle

In the Haithabu Museum in Germany, there is one rather pretty (speculative) handle.  In NÁTTMÁL, the author describes this handle as wood “found with remnants of wool (yarn or fabric) looped through its slots”. Image above taken from Europa.org. I’m referring to this as a small arched handle as it appears to be the smallest of the ones I’ve seen in photos of the display at the museum, and the illustration suggests that the top was two arches.

The blogger reports that from Florian Westphal’s “Die Holzfunde von Haithabu”, several handles are described with the following traits:

  • Made of ash or maple
  • 181-495 mm long  (7.1- 19.5″)
  • 7-13 mm thick (0.27-0.5″)
  • 29-52 mm “wide” (I presume this is a translation issue and means tall) (1.14-2″)
  • The edges with the holes were semi-circular and had 31-61 mm (1.2-2.4″) diameters, pierced in the middle 7-10 mm wide.

Susan Verberg reports that there were a total of fourteen pieces found in this excavation, five from ash, five from maple, and four not specified. She also reports that two pieces were found identical, suggesting that it was a pair. She goes on to suggest that thus ALL of the pieces were originally in pairs.

I would propose that since the design between the Hedeby and Birka Sawtooth ones are so similar, that it’s possible that this was perhaps a common design… and finding one design in a pair doesn’t automatically mean that all were pairs… It may just have been a popular design that the maker replicated too.

Susan also includes in her appendix, a scan showing four additional handles, not all of which have survived. One is similar to the chair back style (below), two look much smoother without embellishment, and beak-shaped ends, and one is likewise simple, with a number of small holes at the lower edge rather than the elongated strap-slots.


Sketch of four of the Viking Age Hedeby bag handles

Sketch of four of the Hedeby bag handles

Hedeby Sawtooth handle

This is another speculative handle found at Hedeby. The sketch (above) suggests that it had a flat bottom, a sawtooth design with not-quite symmetrical peaks, and four arched holes with flat bottoms where speculation would suggest the handle would attach to the bag itself. Like all the others, it has two round holes for the speculative strap.

Hedeby Chairback handle

I’m entirely making up this name… because the top of this handle looks rather like a nice carved chair back top to me… simply for my own organization than anything else.  This chair-back effect is more noticeable in the photo of the artefact than the sketch. This too was found at Hedeby and has a flat bottom, and four holes (for straps to speculatively attach the bag). Two are even on the ends, while the two in the middle are not the same.

Hedeby Flat top handle

While all of the handles from Hedeby had flat bottoms (or so slightly curved that they look mostly flat), the ones I’ve seen illustrated or photographed online all had decorative tops, save this one. Hence, I’m calling it a flat-top handle. Again, just giving it a name for my own organization.  The entire piece is slightly bowed… more like the Uppsala example (below) than the remaining Hedeby ones. It has three bag-attaching strap holes on the lower edge, the middle one much smaller than the two outer ones.

Curved central Uppsala handle

Find from Uppsala Sweden speculated to be a handle from a Viking Age bag.

Uppsala bag handle

This Swedish find has a more curved bottom than the Hedeby examples, and a smoothly curved top. A translation from Runeberg.org which shows an OCR scan of “Ett lappländskt jordfynd från Uppsala.” (A patchy land find from Uppsala.) by Arvid Julius indicates that the outer edge is decorated with zig-zag lines.

The lower edge has six holes, speculated to fasten the handle to the bag. The translation describes the lines as “coarse” which could mean that they are roughly done, and says that the lines were “filled with a black mass” which makes the decoration appear more sharp. Most of the black filling is gone, but enough remained to suggest that all of the lines were filled. The translation also suggests that this handle is similar to Viking Age finds from Björkö (Birka). The translation might say that the bag was made of leather – though I’m not sure how the author could know this, or if I am misunderstanding the translation. I suspect that the ‘black mass’ is charcoal, ground into the line work, and then the excess brushed off. With the laser cutter, any embellishments will be burnt in, so they will already “pop” as is.

Direct link from Linda Wåhlander's website

Direct link from Linda Wåhlander’s website

Swedish Museum guide Linda Wåhlander shows the handle on her blog as well, and the holes where the bag was likely attached are much more clear in her photo, as are the decorations on the handles. However, there is only one photo, done through glass, and not great clarity either. I used Google Translate on her page, and it suggests that it’s considered a Sami work, and was one of two handles for a leather bag. She also questions how the museum currators knew the bag was leather. She also speculates about the middle rectangular hole may be for some sort of locking mechanism. The translation calls it a “horny object” which I suspect is a translation error indicating the handle is made of horn vs. bone or wood.

With this example, I’m most intrigued by the notion of exterior decorations filled with black…

Unfortunately as of yet I haven’t found anything saying that this find is Viking Age – if it is a Sami artefact, it could be significantly later.

Additional Sami-style (attributed to Sami or otherwise) curved handles include:

This braid decorated pair, made of horn which I THINK are dated 1603-1754

This single handle made of horn, which I THINK is dated 1490-1630. Like the Uppsala version above it has the strap holes, bag-attaching holes, and a single rectangle in the middle.

This pair from Finland (no date provided) is also made of bone and very decorated. Like the others they are arched, with holes for attaching the bag. This pair does not have the single rectangle.

Another undated single with decoration. Presumably bone or horn. This one has lower holes, two holes on either side for the ‘strap’ for a total of four, and instead of a rectangle, it has a hole in the middle. Another example but with only two strap holes in total.

A single handle with more of the braid decoration, lower holes, and central rectangular hole. Likely bone or horn, no attribution or date.

An incredibly simple pair which look like rib bones, with a series of holes – presumably the outer edges for the straps, and inner holes for attachment if these are the same thing.

Direct link of Uppland handle from Pinterest

Direct link of Uppland handle from Pinterest

Iron age single bone handle from Uppland, Sweden, with a lot of very visible etching. This model has 7 small attachment holes, the two holes for the straps, and a vaguely rectangular middle hole which could have been subject to a lot of wear?

Highly embellished Sami attributed pair of horn handles without the middle rectangular hole.

This pair attributed to Sami, but dated as only “before 1913”, still has the braided leather cord on them, though the leather (or fabric?) bag itself is gone. The “similar items” list on this site shows a few other handles which I’m not examining here.

Sigtuna handles

Direct link from Projekt Forlǫg

Direct link from Projekt Forlǫg

This pair of handles from the Sigtuna museum just north of Stockholm Sweden is hard to find information on. While the museum does have some of their artefacts online, I could not find the handles. I did however find a thread on Projekt Forlǫg where one of the responders shared this photo from a Czech Facebook page. Thomas Vlasaty writes (in a translation) that these handles are dated to the 11th century, and are 480mm long, with textile remnants still attached.

These handles appear to have five rectangular slots on one edge, and two holes for the straps.  The slots appear to be the same size, and equally spaced. These seem to be somewhat arched – though that might be an effect of the photo – but with an orientation different from the others.


Birka handles

Speculative handles from Birka possibly for Viking Age bags

Birka bag handles

Seven parts identified as from probably five different handles were found in the water near Birka, Sweden. Some of the parts COULD go together if the handles weren’t symmetrical/symmetrically decorated.  All of the below information is from the Swedish National Maritime Museum blog. The documentation doesn’t indicate the material of the handles, other than that they were wooden, and well preserved. Likewise it does not indicate if the handles have been dated, other than “Viking Age”.

All of the handles photographed above (where there is enough material to determine) show holes where the bag could be attached rather than slots.

Direct link to Pinterest

Direct link to Pinterest

Birka 153 – three parts with a sawtooth top with four peaks – larger ones in the middle and smaller peaks at the sides. Four small holes at the bottom, two in the middle and two closer to the ends. The ends are described like “horse heads” with large holes.

  • 282 mm long (11.1″)
  • 50 mm wide (I presume this means tall) (1.96″)
  • 7 mm thick (0.27″)

I believe that this image (unlinked and uncredited) on Pinterest is a close up of one of the ends of this handle. The close up of this handle doesn’t show any decoration/carving in the handle. The hole where the shoulder strap would go through seems to be somewhat curved at the edges (from repeated sliding back and forth of the strap?) while the hole where the bag would have been attached to the handle does not appear to have as much of this same curve. It has holes rather than slots to attach the bag to the handles.

Birka 727 – One end of a purse frame, with three equal sawtooth peaks. The bottom has four equally-distant holes. The horse-head shaped end is suggested, but parts are missing. The peaks are decorated with diagonal lines.

  • 145 mm long (though part of the handle is missing, so this is not to be used as a “finished” length (5.7″)
  • 44 mm wide (tall) (1.7″)
  • 6 mm thick (0.23″)
Direct Link from Pinterest

Direct Link from Pinterest

Birka 251 – this find I found only on Pinterest, and I did not find other mentions of it.

This fragment is about 140mm based on the scale below the artefact. I pulled this graphic into photoshop and replicated a possible other side. IF the complete handle had the same four-peak design as other examples, I estimate the finished piece would have been about 230mm long. It has holes rather than slots to attach the bag to the handles.

Unknown sawtooth handles – Searching on Pinterest resulted in two additional handles, which I believe are examples from museums etc, but are neither attributed nor linked.

Example one has two parts, but is still incomplete, with one end missing. The pieces that exist show four peaks. Based on the overall shape, I believe that this design only had four peaks. There is no indication of the size of this handle, nor any idea if this is a reproduction or authentic find. It has holes rather than slots to attach the bag to the handles.

Example two I believe is photographed both here and here. This example is broken into two pieces, but it appears as though perhaps it was a relatively clean break, and that all material in the length is available. One of the ends has had it’s rounded edge broken off however. This example has seven peaks if the length is intact.  It has holes rather than slots to attach the bag to the handles. The photo suggests that this is just under 40cm (400mm) long.

The Swedish National Maritime Museum blog also mentions other finds not from the Viking Age.

  • Purse frame of bone from Läckö Castle, dated 1500-1600’s, with two large (shoulder strap) holes and five small (purse-attaching) holes. The bone is carved with a design.
  • Uppland purse frame of bone dated between Late Iron Age – Medieval age, with a large hole in the middle, two medium holes on the sides, and seven very small holes on the bottom. The bone is carved with a design.
  • Lapland finds of antler, dated 1600-1700’s.

Danish handles

Direct link from Eibeck

Direct link from Eibeck

Eibeck shares a photo from the museum at Viborg, with two handles. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of information. The author notes that the display is within a display of other Viking Age objects, but doesn’t specifically say they are Viking artefacts.

She notes that they’re very simple – that the top one seems to be made of bone, while the bottom one of wood. A commenter added they had also seen the display, and believes the bone one is between 20-25cm long.

Handle overview

Direct link from Pinterest

Direct link from Pinterest

This Pinterest image shows a number of different handles inspired by artefact finds. While this image is once again, unfortunately unlinked and unattributed, it shows the “trends” found in different places – the simple shapes from Viborg, the sawtooth design from Birka, the very long Sigtuna example, and the wide range of designs from Hedeby.

Bag speculation

Direct link from Trollkona

Direct link from Trollkona

Why do people think that these artefacts are bag supports/handles? In Tomáš Vlasatý’s translation of Florian Westphal’s “Die Holzfunde von Haithabu” (English link here) the ethnographic material from the Sami (not Viking Age) have similar characteristics. A preserved Sami bag has a pair of identical antler handles with a similar design, and is intact, with the bag fixed to the handles along the oblong holes, and a rope or cord passing through the holes, and served as a shoulder strap. Additionally, since two curved handles were found as a pair (Haithabu128), the speculation is that all artefacts were at one point paired, serving this same purpose.

The photo of a Sami bag is from the Trollkona website.This image is replicated on the europa.org.au website as well, which indicates the bag was made with hair-on cow hide, and was suspended by a braided leather strap.

Direct link from Pinterest

Direct link from Pinterest

A latin manuscript currently at the National Library of France ‘Tacuinum sanitatis‘ shows an image of a bag with handles that function in a similar way. In this version the sides have holes along the top edge to accordion fold with the shoulder strap.  These handles are not as ornate as the Viking age ones however – they look quite plain.  In the larger version of this image, the proportions of this bag make it look quite huge – if the people in the image are adults, and the drawing is somewhat proportional, the handles of the bag are about the same length as ankle to knee on the figure dressed in blue. I can’t read the latin or the caligraphy to see if perhaps these are children depicted instead.

I found two similar image on Pinterest, but neither  link to anything, so I can’t see the attribution.

Bag material speculation

While all of the (speculative) handles have holes where the shoulder strap/closure would go through, some have slots, while others have holes.

Wood speculated to be a Viking Age handle/frame from a bag found at Haithabu.

Haithabu bag handle

This is interesting to me, and suggests what kind of material might have been used for the bag. The small arched Hedeby bag handle shows four threads/yarns on the left side visibly, possibly stitching the bag material to the handle.

The holes on the hole-version could work the same way. However the slots suggest straps of material rather than a series of threads… this would suggest the bag material would likewise be cloth.  However the hole-only could be cloth or.. perhaps something like sprang?  Would it make sense to have a sprang bag with the wooden handles? What if it were used for fishing instead of carrying around things?

Close up of decoration on weaving combs

Close up of decoration on weaving combs

But… some of the handles appeared to have been decorated. This suggests a more decorative use rather than just practical – THOUGH… a lot of Viking artefacts with mundane uses (weaving combs, etc) have decorative elements. I don’t think the decoration of the handles suggests the use of the product made with them.

My version

My version – handle material

Since my main Viking Age persona is Icelandic, I’m drawn to birch for the material – a material that would have been easily available to my persona. Since four of the 14 Haithabu handle finds were not identified material, I hope that this is a possible material.

I am not interested in using bone at this time.

Since the only two other materials that were listed from extant examples were ash and maple, these were also materials I’d consider. I looked up prices online for wood by the board foot, and trying to find similar thicknesses for comparison sake, it appeared that ash, birch, and plain maple were all within $2/board foot in price… so price wasn’t going to be a major factor. (Of course, pretty curly or bird’s eye maple would be more expensive!)

Possible Material: Ash, Birch, or plain Maple

The laser cutter's first pass on my handles and other elements on my sheet of wood

The laser cutter’s first pass on my handles and other elements on my sheet of wood

Chosen Material: The Maker Space supervisor recommended Birch plywood, as they have had success with it, and with their ventilation considerations, they’ve confirmed the safety of this material. I would prefer a solid wood, but was unable to find solid wood as thin as I wanted.

The extant handles are between 6-13mm thick. The thickest material that the laser cutter can easily work through is 1/4″  (6.35mm) which is within the thickness range of the extant examples.

I bought a 24×48″ sheet of 1/4″ thick birch plywood from Windsor Plywood for $16.49 before tax, and since the cutter can only work with 24×36″ material, I cut it in half before laying out my design in Adobe Illustrator. From this 24×24″ sheet, I’ll get multiple pairs of handles, plus other things. I saw other wood types as well, which I might try in the future.

Although 1″ thick wood won’t work in the laser cutter for cutting, they had 1″ thick maple (6×4) for $22.99 and (8×4) for $38.99 if I want to try a different way of making these handles in the future, out of a different material. This isn’t plywood, which is what I’d prefer overall. I also saw similar plywood at Lowes, but forgot to record the price for comparison. 

The laser doing a second pass on each of the elements on my wood for my Viking style bag handles

The laser doing a second pass on each of the elements on my wood for my Viking style bag handles

Windsor Plywood writes that Birch plywood has:

  • Excellent strength, stiffness, wear and impact resistance
  • Smooth and durable surface
  • Fine even texture

They describe Ash as:

  • Straight grained with coarse but even texture

Likewise, Maple is described as:

  • Glues and finishes well
  • Easy to work
  • Abundantly available

I think these descriptors suggest birch as the best option for my handles, although ideally I’d prefer to work with solid wood instead of plywood. Still, for a first project, this hopefully is a good option.

My version – design

Arched bag handle

I really LIKED the visual appeal of the small arched Hedeby bag handle. It just seems PRETTY to me.

I took the sketch of the artefact, and pulled it into photoshop, and extrapolated the speculative design. From there I pulled it into Illustrator as well to create the pattern as a vector graphic.

Direct link from Pinterest

Direct link from Pinterest

The sketch of four artefacts suggested that the arched design was about half the length of the longest handle, and the photo from the exhibit (unattributed on Pinterest) also suggests this.

Assuming that the four examples represented both the longest and the shortest handles, that would suggest from the range 181-495 mm long  (7.1- 19.5″), these small arched handles are approximately 181mm long.  I’m not using the height range, but instead am using whatever the design works out proportionately.

I decided to make this handle in two sizes. The smaller one is approximately 20 cm long by 5.3 cm tall at the widest/tallest points (8 1/8″ x 2 1/8″) The larger one is approximately 25 cm long by 6.5 cm (9 7/8″ x 2 5/8″)

Hedeby chairback handle

I also decided to do a larger version, and chose the “chairback” design because it’s still somewhat decorative. Again, assuming that the four examples from the sketch represent both the longest and shortest, the ‘chairback’ is not the longest 495mm.

Once again I went to technology to try to figure this out. I pulled the sketch into Photoshop, and grabbed a centimeter grid. I made the longest sketch 49 cm (approx) and double checked the smallest one (it came in at 19 cm which I took to be pretty good, since the original was stated to be 18 cm…) With that same grid this made the chairback handle approx 44 cm long using that same scale. This assumes that all of the sketches are to-scale with one another, but I think it’s a good start.

For reference, it also suggests the sawtooth version is about 29cm long.

I brought the sketch into photoshop and then illustrator to make a vector graphic. 44 cm seemed like a very long handle for a simple tote, so I decided to modify this length as well when I actually cut the handle out. Like the Hedeby handles, I decided to make two versions. The smaller is approximately 21 cm long by 3 cm tall at the longest/tallest points (8 1/4″ x 1 1/4″) and a larger one 25.3 cm long by 3.5 cm tall (10″ x 1.5″)

The next time I have wood to cut out on the laser cutter I might try to do one set of these at the original 44 cm, just to get a sense of how large they are. Perhaps this size wasn’t used with a tote/purse, but maybe for transporting something long, thin, and lightweight (in my mind I’m seeing dyestuffs.. lol)

The laser cutter

Getting onto the laser  cutter was a lot more challenging than I’d hoped it would be. I was hoping originally to get onto it before Christmas, but then the machine needed servicing. I came back after the holidays, and there was another delay because they Maker Space needed to update their software.  I hoped to have a finished bag for the step-up of the Barony of Montengarde’s new Baron & Baroness (SCA event) but didn’t get to the cutter until after the event.

…. but.. once I did- it was so satisfying! The cutter required two passes to completely cut through most of the wood. It only required a few minutes with an exacto knife on the back to free each piece, and then I needed to sand.

I started out using my dremel to do the first sanding – taking off the burnt wood on the longest edges. I knew that it wouldn’t be possible to use this inside any of the holes, or in any of the tight corners. I finished them off with sandpaper, though it still wasn’t possible to get into the smallest holes or tightest spaces. I also lightly sanded the surface of each handle.

Sanding the surface of a Hedeby bag style of handle.

Sanding the surface of a Hedeby bag style of handle.

Stain & finishing the wood

Hedeby style handles before staining.

Hedeby style handles before staining.

I had a few pairs in each of the two styles, so decided to stain some of them with Mahogany, and the rest with Royal Walnut coloured stains. On my next round, I think I want to try wood-burning some of them, and/or trying a home-made stain.

Hanging handles (and some other items... stay tuned!) to dry after staining.

Hanging handles (and some other items… stay tuned!) to dry after staining.

It was way too cold to do  the staining outside, so I ended up doing it in my basement (stinky!) and rigged up a box to hang each to dry.

My boyfriend came to visit for the weekend, so I let them dry over the weekend (longer than they really needed) and on the following Tuesday took them down, and coated each with a coating of a high gloss varnish. I didn’t want them super plastic-shiny, so only used one thin coat.

Next steps – material

Hedeby style handles before staining.

Hedeby style handles before staining.

For my bags, I opted to use fabric rather than experimenting with sprang at this time. This is mostly because I haven’t done sprang before, and I believe that fabric bags would be more practical (plus then I can hide a more secure pouch within the bag).

Stay tuned to a future post where I’ll show the finished fabric bag attached to the handles!


7 comments on “Hedeby/Haithabu bag handles

  1. Fascinating! I can’t wait to see what you do for fabric bags! 🙂

  2. Catherine says:

    Would you be willing to share your vector files for the comb and bag handles? I now have access to a laser cutter for the first time and I’d like to try this too.

    • Dawn says:

      I’m envious! Unfortunately the maker studio I was working at still hasn’t reopened with Covid concerns 😦 Since I’m selling them, I can’t give away my files right now. However you can try thingieverse – I didn’t see anything up there earlier – but there might be something up there now – it’s been something like 2+ years since I looked.

  3. Catherine says:

    I now see that you sell them on Facebook – thanks

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