When a storm hits the Orkneys in 1985, the winds uncover a remarkable site along the coast. We know it as the Scar boat burial. In the following years, the coastline further erodes and by 1991 there is the immediate danger of losing the complete burial to the sea. Archaeologists hasten to excavate the site and find not one, but three bodies. And they are accompanied by rich grave goods such as a hnefatafl set, a bronze-gilded brooch and this exquisite whalebone plaque.
The Plaque’s Function
The Scar dragon plaque is not unique. There are approximately 40–60 known plaques. There are some in Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, and Sweden. Most, however, are from Norway. And researchers believe several plaques found outside Norway are probably of Norwegian origin, too. Such as the Scar plaque.1
In most cases, the plaque is found in the grave of a rich, and probably an elite woman. What does this tell us about the function of the plaque? Well, there are three theories. The first claims these might have been serving boards because they have cut grooves. Yet, there is no way of knowing for sure these grooves were made by knives. The second theory claims that this is an ironing board for linen. Because in some graves, such as Birka Bj854, a smoothing stone is found near the plaque.2 Close to Scar, in Perth, is another glass smoothing stone from the Viking Age.3 Yet, in all, these stones rarely appear near or with plaques in Viking Age graves.
The most recent theory is a combination of the first two. It suggests that the boards were used for rituals for the goddess Freya. Perhaps flax and/or linen was used on the board. This theory makes a strong connection between the possible cut grooves, the flax or linen linked to Freya, and the fertility symbolism of both flax and Freya in connection to women.4 And it helps to explain why the plaques are only found in female burials.
Crafting with Whale Bone
The Scar boat burial dates between c. 875 and 950.5 However, it is quite likely that the whalebone plaque and the boat are much older. The whalebone and the sand between the boat’s planks also suggest that both items originate from Norway.6
So, how would a ninth (or eighth) century carver go about making this board? A quick trip to educational museum websites and informative YouTube videos, teaches us that new whale bones are oily and splinter easily. In the past, their oil is often used to keep the hearth going.7 However, this quality is not good enough for a skilled artist who wants to carve an object out of whalebones. Today, carvers choose bones that are at least 50-100 years old for the best carving experience. These older bones are less oily, more stable, and also important, don’t decay as quickly as wood.8 If this is true for modern-day carving, does it also apply for Viking Age carvers? For, in that case, the dragon plaque is certainly much older than the burial itself.
On a final note, do not confuse whalebone and ivory. One is the raw material from a whale’s bones, the other from walrus or elephant tusks.9
Art of the Plaque
The plaque itself
The Scar dragon plaque is a rectangle, flat surface. Following its edges, are two deep lines with Z-shapes in between. On top, two animal necks emerge from the board. Nine double ring-dots follow the curved necks that bow toward the centre where two dragons look each other in the (single ring-dot) eye. The dragons have large fangs and their forked tongues flow back into the board.
This plaque has many similarities with other whalebone plaques from the Viking Age. The animals can be dragons, horses, and even birds. Often, their faces meet in the middle with tongues sticking out and pointing back to the board. And there are geometrical designs around the outer edges. You can see these elements in the plaques from Lilleberg, Grytøy and Kvaefjord from Norway, and the one from the Walters Museum. Of course, there are exceptions, too. For example, the famous Birka Bj854 plaque has animal faces pointing outward.10
The motifs and patterns
Designing a pattern means repeating a motif (or shape) many times over. On the Scar dragon plaque are two distinct patterns; ring-and-dots and Z-shapes. The ring-dot pattern (also ring-point or cup and ring) is used in early Scandinavian rock art, but also across Europe in prehistory.11 The Z-shape is also visible on decorations from ancient China, and in Islamic, and even Celtic art.12 In short, both motifs are much older and used widely before they even appear in Viking Age decorations. But I found no information about what this says about the Scar plaque’s artist, or when the plaque was made.
Creating these patterns
Using whalebone when it’s older and harder, requires skill to carve the perfect shape. It takes patience and method for a carver to create a mere line in a whalebone (see the link to the video in the footnote).13 The rings in the ring-dot pattern are quite perfect. Something one does not expect from hand carving, but something that is achievable with a special tool. The description of such a tool is confirmed by experiences of two re-enactors who tried their hand at bone carving:14
“The ring and dot motifs embellishing the figure’s head and lap were made with a sharp, circular tool rotated in the maker’s hands in the manner of a spindle stick.”Medieval Art in England – Exhibition 2019
I have a strong feeling I have only scratched the surface of the art and function of the whalebone plaques. This, however, is the extent that I could find relevant material and research online. In any case, I’m sure I’ll update this article before too long. Your input and feedback are most welcome!
- ‘Whale–Bone Plaque,’Walters Art Museum. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://art.thewalters.org/detail/11104/whale–bone–plaque.
Olwyn Olwen, ’Curiouser and Curiouser: Mysteries of Tuquoy and Scar,’ in: The Faces of Orkney: Stones, Skalds & Saints edited by Doreen J. Waugh (Edinburgh: SSNS, 2003), pp. 156 [pp. 138–160]. ↩︎
- ‘A Viking Dragon Plaque,’ Teaching History with 100 Objects | The British Museum. Last Accessed 17 March 2021. http://www.teachinghistory100.org/objects/abouttheobject/avikingdragon_plaque. ↩︎
- ‘Linen–smoother of glass and fragments of a bone plaque,’ National Museums of Scotland | Record. Last Accessed 17 March 2021. https://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000–100–043–838–C. ↩︎
- Olwen (2003), pp. 156 [pp. 138–160]. ↩︎
- ‘Sanday, Quoy Banks,’ Canmore | National Record for the Historic Environment. Last Accessed 17 March. https://canmore.org.uk/site/3494/sanday–quoy–banks. ↩︎
- Olwen (2003), pp. 153. ↩︎
- K.N. Smith, ‘Inland Icelanders Burned Whale Bones for Warmth,’ Hakai Magazine. Published 27 March 2019. Last Accessed 17 March 2021. https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/inland–icelanders–burned–whale–bones–for–warmth. ↩︎
- ‘A Viking Dragon Plaque,’ Teaching History with 100 Objects | The British Museum. Last Accessed 17 March 2021. http://www.teachinghistory100.org/objects/abouttheobject/avikingdragon_plaque.
‘Let’s Talk About…Whalebone!‘ Museum of Inuit Art Blog. Published 13 april 2012. Last Accessed 20 March 2021. https://museumofinuitartblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/lets–talk–about–whalebone. ’Carved Whale Bone, by Abraham Anghik Ruben,‘ Glenbow Museum | Facebook. Published 23 July 2018. Last Accessed 20 March 2021. facebook.com/glenbowmuseum/videos/carved–whalebone–by–abraham–anghik–ruben/10157043481130628. Nicholas D. Higgs, Crispin T.S. Little, Adrian G. Glover, ’Bones as biofuel: a review of whale bone composition with implications for deep–sea biology and palaeoanthropology,’ in: Proc Biol Sci. Volume 278 (2011), pp. 9–17. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1267. ↩︎
- Roy Meals, ‘Bone or Ivory? A Cautionary Note for Collectors,’ About Bone | Blog. Published 19 December 2017. Last Accessed 20 March 2021.
I.M. Godfrey, ‘Ivory, Bone and Related Materials,’ Western Australia Museum. Last Accessed 20 March 2021. ↩︎
- At the British Museum: ‘Whalebone plaque,’ The British Museum. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00034944001. In Norway: ‘Viking Whalebone Plaques,’ Artefact–ology. Published 10 May 2015. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://artefact–ology.com/2015/05/10/viking–whalebone–plaque–from–scar–orkney. From the Walters Museum: ‘Whale–Bone Plaque,’ Walters Art Museum. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://art.thewalters.org/detail/11104/whale–bone–plaque. The Birka Grave: ’Föremål 106994. SHM 34000:Bj 854,’ Historiska. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/fid.asp?fid=106994. ↩︎
- Gerhard Milstreu & James Dodd, ‘The cup–mark: the smallest, most frequent, cosmopolitan and most complicated symbol.’ In: Adoranten. Volume 2018, pp. 5 [pp. 5–30]. T.N. Pollio, Ancient Rings: An Illustrated Collector’s Guide (Jefferson N.C.: McFarland & Comps, 2018), pp. 38–41. ↩︎
- Derek Hull, Celtic and Anglo–Saxon Art: Geometric Aspects (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003) pp. 74–75. ‘Prehistoric Art of the Stone Age | Introduction to Prehistoric Art: Characteristics.’ Visual Arts Cork. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. http://www.visual–arts–cork.com/prehistoric–art.htm. ‘Prehistoric Art,’ Wikipedia. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_art. ↩︎
- Richard Gontarek, ‘Carving on Whale Bone,’ Youtube. Published 20 August 2015. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN5Ngk3e_Ng. ↩︎
- Sam Fogg, Medieval Art in England Catalogue: Exhibition 26 June – 29 June 2019. Sam Fogg. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://www.samfogg.com/usr/documents/exhibitions/listofworks_url/18/medieval–art–in–england–pdf.pdf. H.L. Jǫfurfríðr Haraldsbaner, ‘Whalebone Plaques,’ Jǫfurfríðr Haraldsbaner | Blog. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://orkneyviking.wordpress.com/current–projects–and–research–interests/whalebone–plaques. Halldor Magnusson, ‘Basic Bone Working 101 – The Toolkit,’ Halldor the Viking ~ The adventures of an Early Medieval re–enactor | Blog. Published 20 March 2014. Last Accessed 21 March 2021. https://halldorviking.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/basic–bone–working–101–the–toolkit/. ↩︎