Jonas Lau Markussen

Borre Style

The Anatomy of Viking Art




The Anatomy of the Borre Style


c. 850 – 950






1. Tight knot-like interlace.
2. Equal-sided geometric figures (circles and squares).
3. Spirals.

4. Triangular head facing forward.
5. Round or almond-shaped eyes.
6. Protruding ears.
7. Oval snout.

8. Short and squat proportions.
9. Slim and elongated legs.





Even outlines without tapering or dents.





A preference for geometric curves.


A. Multi-loops.
B. Pretzel-knots.





  • Very tight interlace with almost no visible background.
  • Double contour occur.
  • Double-stranded ribbons.
  • Triple-stranded ribbons.
  • High relief.






  • Tight compositions of closed ribbons (D), knots (B, C) and animals (A, B).
  • Repetition and juxtaposition of geometrical shapes (C, D).






  • Gripping beasts (A, B).
  • Ring chains build by repetition and juxtaposition of closed interlacing ribbons of equal-sided geometric shapes (D).
  • Single knots build by interlacing closed ribbons of either geometric shapes or pretzel-knot patterns (B, C).








Conquest and Colonisation



Unification of Norway


The Norwegian chieftain Harald Fairhair united Norway after his victory in the battle of Hafrsfjord and bacome the first King of Norway.


Many of the petty subjected Norwegian chieftains were not satisfied with his rule and his claim to collect taxation over their land, and in their pursuit of freedom, they migrated to other Norse territories.



The Icelandic Commonwealth


The newly discovered isle of Iceland was a particularly popular place for the Norwegian emigrants to settle as there were plenty of fertile lands to claim, and soon all land was obtained by Norse families.


To regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth and settle disputes between feuding family clans, a legislative and judicial assembly, the All-thing, was initiated.



The Danelaw


The coastline of the British Isles had already been raided numerous times when the so-called Great Heathen Army arrived to invade the English Kingdoms.


Through a number of military campaigns, supposedly lead by Ivar the Boneless, the Norse army were able first to capture the city of York and then all of Northumbria. Then Nottingham and Mercia followed by London and East Anglia.


First when encountering the resistance of King Alfred of Wessex the Norse, now led by Guthrum the Old, had to surrender and sign the treaty which established the boundaries of the Norse territory on the British Isles known as the Danelaw.


Many of the Norse settled permanently in the Danelaw and in time integrated with the existing local communities.


Norse groups even invaded the territory around Dublin, and in turn establishing the Norse Kingdom of Dublin.





Norse groups had continuously been raiding the coasts of what is today western France, where the treasures of monasteries only guarded by monks, were easy prey. They eventually travelled up the Seine river reaching Paris and spreading terror on their way.


To make an end to the Norse assaults, the French King Charles the Simple gave the Norse chieftain Rollo the area of Upper Normandy in exchange for Norse allegiance and protection against further Norse raids, and of cause conversion to Christianity by baptism.


This, in reality, established the Normandy as a Norse colony under French rule, though the Norman dukes were practically independent of the French king.



The Rus’ Kingdom


In Eastern Europe, the settlements of the Rus’ was now well established. Oleg, a relative of Rurik, had seized the power of Kiev from his brother and in doing so established what would become the kingdom of the Kievan Rus’ ruled by the Rurik dynasty.


From his new position in Kiev, controlling the trade routes of the Slavic areas, Oleg was able to launch at least one attack on the wealthy capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople.




Golden Age of the Gripping Beast





If the Oseberg style saw an innovation and a reimagination of the traditional Norse animal ornament, the Borre style represents a further almost complete departure in many ways. While the traditional gripping beast took centre stage and became the prime animal of the Borre style, the ribbon animal was almost nowhere to be seen for the first time in Germanic and Norse tradition. Though we do often find the typical ribbon animal head in profile with its neck tendril, it is mostly used as a mere ribbon terminal or decorative afterthought.


In favour of intertwining ribbon animals, the interlace patterns were now often almost exclusively geometric in execution. These patterns of framework might have its origin in a further development of the geometric framework from the previous Broa and Oseberg style.


Among the new geometric features introduced was the spiral. Probably inspired by European vegetal scroll motifs, and was often used to represent animal hip joints.


The gripping beast was often either used whole as a centrepiece of the composition curled up in a pretzel knot. But also simply as a single head applied to the end of an interlaced ribbon like the ring-chain ornament. The gripping beast is also often just displayed as a mere knot for a body with head and paws as ribbon terminals.





The Borre style is the first phase of Viking Age art that allows for more accurate dating based on a few coin finds in conjunction with metalworks in hoards.



Gripping Beast Pendants


Some of the most iconic Borre style work are the pendants found across Scandinavia displaying a typical gripping beast with its ribbon body and squat wide hips, curled up in a pretzel-knot gripping its own slender limbs and the surrounding circular frame with its four paws.



The Borre Harness Mounts


On the horse harness-mounts from a ship-grave in Borre, from which the style got its name, we find the other trademark of the Borre style; The so-called ring chains. They are formed by a juxtaposition of geometric shapes typically circles and rhombs and are often terminated by a triangular head of a gripping beast.


The Ring Chain pattern schemes are not known from Scandinavian tradition or foreign models, and may, therefore, be a Scandinavian invention.


A variation of the Ring Chain; Gaut’s Ring Chain, was widely used in the Norse regions of the British Isles and is seen on many stone crosses of which the crosses made by Gaut Bjørnson is the most notable.



The Birka Penannular Brooch


The penannular brooch from Birka is an excellent example of all the Borre style traits in combination. Ring chains, knots, gripping beast heads and even tiny heads of ribbon animals are all part of the composition.





The expansion and new settlements of the Norse are well reflected in the distribution of Borre style artefacts. The style is the first also to be found outside of Scandinavia.


Not only do we find items made by the Norse in Borre style, but the style also influenced the local styles in the settled regions too, and the style itself represent a stage of decorative eclecticism.


The style was especially popular in the British Isles where it was picked up and mixed with local trends. While stonework was virtually nonexistent in Scandinavia, it was very common on the Isles, and the Borre style was integrated into many stoneworks by local artists.













c. 850

Gilt silver pendants
— the Hon hoard

Hon, Buskerud, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo, C719–51, 12210–11, 13451–54, 14473–4, 14616–17, 30259


c. 870

Tongue-shaped mount

Gokstad, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo C10441a


c. 913 – 942

Gold disc brooch
— the Vester Vedsted hoard

Vester Vedsted, Jutland, Danmark.
Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen 18278, 18571, DNF 12/33


c. 940

Gilt silver pendants

— the Vårby hoard

Vårby, Södermanland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm SHM 456


c. 944

Silver pendants

— the Terslev hoard
Terslev, Zealand, Danmark.
Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen DNF 33/11, 35/11, 40/11, 46/11


c. 953 – 954


— the Gnezdovo hoard

Gnezdovo, Smolensk, Rusland.
Gosudarstvennyj Ermitaž, Saint Petersburg 994






Animal head needle

Hedeby, Schleswig, Germany.
Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig, Schleswig


Animal head pendant

Sigtuna, Uppland, Sverige.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm SHM 27883



Suputry, Rusland.
Gosudarstvennui Istoricheskii Muzei, Moskva.


Bronze dies

Hedeby, Schleswig, Germany.
Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig, Schleswig


Cast silver disc brooch

Gotland, Sweden.
The British Museum, London 1901,0718.1


Circular brooch

Bjølstad, Heidal, Oppland, Norge.
Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo C23005


Cruciform pattern filigree disc brooch

Finkarby, Taxinge, Södermanland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm


Equal-armed brooch

Elec, Upper Don, Russia.
Gosudarstvennyj Ermitaž, Saint Petersburg 997/1


Gaming board

Gokstad, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo C10406


Gaut’s cross

Kirk Michael, Isle of Man.


Gilt bronze horse-harness mounts

— the Borre grave

Borre, Vestfold, Norway.
Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo C1804


Gilt silver quatrefoil brooch

Rinkaby, Skåne, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm SHM 4578


The Hiddensee hoard

Hiddensee, Rügen, Germany.
Kulturhistorisches Museum Stralsund 1873: a–d, f–g, i, 450. 1874: 39 a–b, 91–92, 162,176


Horse harness mounts

Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.
Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm.
SHM 34000:Bj 644


Penannular brooch

Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.
Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm.
SHM 34000:Bj 581


Round brooch

Björkö, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden.
Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm.
SHM 34000: Bj 967


Terslev style pendant

Hedeby, Schleswig, Germany.
Archäologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig, Schleswig


The Værne monastery gold hoard

Østfold, Norway.


Ship and gripping beast ornament

Randlev, Jutland, Denmark.
Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen






Graham-Campbell, James, 2013. Viking Art.


Fuglesang, Signe Horn, 1982. ‘Early Viking Art.’ Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia (Series altera in 8°) 125–173.










The Anatomy of Viking Art

The Anatomy of Viking Art

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