Height: 23.000 cm
Width: 20.000 cm
Thickness: 0.900 cm
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Room 41: Europe AD 300-1100
From a burial mound at Lilleberge, Namdalen, Norway Viking, 9th century AD
A domestic symbol?
This whalebone plaque was discovered in a woman’s grave along with a pair of oval brooches, strings of coloured glass beads, a gilded Celtic mount, a spindle-whorl and other artefacts. A prized material, whalebone was obtained through risky hunting operations, or if whales became stranded or washed ashore.
The top of this plaque is decorated with a pair of open-work horses’ heads. Incised, ring-and-dot and geometric designs add extra fineness. Similar plaques have been found in other rich women’s graves, mostly in northern Norway. Occasional examples are known from Denmark, Sweden and parts of Ireland and Scotland where Vikings settled.
The function of whalebone plaques is uncertain. A popular theory is that they were used like ironing-boards for smoothing folds and seams in linen clothing, with the aid of a bun-shaped smoother. A newer idea is that they were serving-platters for food at high status feasts, since cutting and chopping marks have been found on some examples.
Whalebone plaques probably had a symbolic function too. Their link with women is clear, being used by women in life and buried with them in death. Perhaps plaques like this one symbolised the central role Viking women played in the home – organising the household, caring for the family, preparing food and making clothing.
S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval a (London, British Museum Press, 2013)
R.A. Smith, A guide to the Anglo-Saxon and (London, British Museum, 1923)