Archaeologists have discovered a wide range of musical instruments from the Viking Age, many of which resemble instruments that are still used today in parts of Eastern Europe.
Some horns were simply used as blast horns, the type as depicted in the Bayeux tapestry c.1066. A style of recorder was also made by boring four or five holes into a cow or goat horn.
Many flutes have been discovered in Scandinavia. They were usually formed from animal bones, such as the leg bones of cows, deer, sheep or from large birds. Most had three holes in them, but some had up to seven.
A panpipe dating from the 10th century was found at the Coppergate excavations (1976-1981) in York, England. The pipe is made from a small slab of boxwood and the pipes were created by boring holes into the wood at different depths. The hole tops were bevelled slightly to form a comfortable rest for the musician’s lips. The York panpipe has five pipes, and it is still is possible to play the ABCDE sounds on it.
The mysterious Skalmejen was discovered by archaeologists on the island of Falster in Denmark. It is estimated to date back to the 11th century but it is unclear how it was used. There is some speculation that it was part of a bagpipe as a similar one was found in Sweden with remnants of leather next to it, perhaps suggesting a leather bag. It may also have been a type of hornpipe with a mouthpiece added to it.
This is a small, portable, metal harp that was, and still is, played in the mouth and emits quite an unusual sound.
The lur is one of the most talked about instruments from the Viking age. This trumpet-like instrument was made from one piece of wood which had been split lengthwise, the interior hollowed, and then the two halves banded back together very tightly with some willow bands of different lengths. It was probably primarily used by farmers to call their livestock back to the farm, but is also thought to have been used during warfare to gather the troops for an attack. Examples found at Herning and Holing in Denmark were between 78cm and 79.5cm long (30-31 inches), compared to those at the Oseberg ship-burial which are 106.5cm long (42 inches).
The lyre is basically a harp and, according to the Norse sagas, was thought of as a gentleman’s instrument. Einar Selvik from the group Wardruna is often seen playing the lyre.
Another string instrument from the Viking age is the tagelharpa. The name basically means “horsehair harp” because the strings are made from horse hair. This is another of the instruments Einar Selvik has used for composing his music.
Through their extensive travels, the Vikings often came across other cultures with new and exciting musical instruments. It is highly likely that they found this string instrument when they travelled to the Byzantine Empire and traded for it. The rebec looks almost like a violin, however the sound is not quite the same. An example from the Viking Age was discovered during excavation at the old Viking town of Hedeby.
It is speculated that the drums the Vikings used were similar to either the Irish bodhran drum or the skin-headed drums used by the Sami people in northern Scandinavia.
Bells and Rattles
A wide range of bells and rattles have been found. They were probably used as part of the Vikings’ music-making, but were also believed to keep the evil spirits away from children when they lay in bed.
Modern Viking music
Today quite a few groups specialise in music from either the Viking age or the early medieval times. Examples include Wardruna, Forndom and Amon Amarth.