Hair rings in Viking Age re-enactment: The puloker as a possible source of confusion.

Please be aware that this page discusses human remains. This includes text and images, drawings, and links to other photographs of the remains under discussion.

Re-enactment groups, like any other social group, can go through brief fashions or longer periods where practices become accepted and normalised as part of the "standard" depiction that the general public, and club members, may expect to see being worn. These changing trends usually involve jewellery (eg. people wearing 16th century-style syul'gamas with Scandinavian dress (Вихляев and Кемаев 2019; Úlfvíðardóttir 2012)), or the cut and decoration of clothes (Hägg 2009). But it seems almost any physical aspect of ones portrayal can be susceptable to the whims of contemporary fashions, including expectations around hairstyles, and their ornamentation.

One such hairstyling trend seen in the depiction of Scandinavians during the Viking Age (ca. 800 - 1100 CE), is for beads, or coiled spirals of metal, to be threaded onto plaited beard and/or head hair. But the evidence for this practice is extraordinarily slim to non-existant. The closest analogue that I had found are the "beard" and "hair" tresses held by the Hull and East Riding Museum, in the United Kingdom (Hull Museum Collections 2022a-l). But where were these archaelogical finds of tresses originally found, and how did they become associated with Viking Age Scandinavia?

The trail seems to start with the University of Lincoln's School of Art & Design. Around 2004, the "Hull and East Riding Museum enlisted the help of the Conservation and Restoration Department... to conserve... braids of hair wrapped in wood, leather and metal and Viking-Age jewellery" (Lincoln School of Art & Design n.d.). This was then reported in the press as research on "Viking locks" (Wood 2004). This is in spite of the Hull Museums' catalogue, and the early 20th century literature describing their aquisition, never describing these these finds as being Scandinavian, or early medieval (Sheppard 1904). Instead, they are clearly described as originating from an "Finno-Ugrian tumulus at Efaefsk (Efaevo), Russia" (Hull Museum Collections 2022a-l).

It is important to note, that human remains such as hair are relatively rare in the archaeological record, so the tresses held in Hull have been mentioned in the English-language scholarly literature in comparison with Scandinavian evidence for haircare and styling. For instance, Steve Ashby's research into cultural practices around hair in the early European middle ages mentions two examples in a discussion of "Viking hair;" a single extant lock of hair from Sweden, and the extant braids from Hull Museums (Ashby 2014). But on careful reading, it is clear that Ashby is also not intending to imply the braids at Hull are Scandinavian.

The single surviving example of "Viking" human hair comes from Skopintull, in Adelsö, Sweden. The lock had been placed in the bottom of a metal vessel, that has been dated to the 10th century (Lund and Arwill-Nordbladh 2016: 427). The cremated bones of two humans, other animals, and objects, were then placed on top (Arwill-Nordbladh 2016). Fragments of these cremated remains are still visible in photographs (Statens Historiska Museer 2022, Figure 1). Despite being compared to the Hull examples, this piece of hair does not appear to have any evidence of having been braided, plaited, or decorated with metal.

Figure 1: Lock of hair from a vessel containing cremated remains, originally from Skopintull, Sweden. Today it is held by the Statens historiska museum, inventory number 106900_HST. Click on the image to enlarge.
Photo courtesy of Jens Mohr, Statens historiska museum/SHM (CC BY 4.0).

But the other location is not associated with early medieval Scandinavians at all. Ashby's source of information is an article by a former curator of the Hull Museum, Tom Sheppard (1876-1945), who had received objects from "the famous tumulus of Efaefsk, which is situated in the government of Pensa, eleven miles to the south of Krasnoslobodsk" (Sheppard 1905: 50). Today this village is known as Efaevo [Ефаево], with the Efaevo burial ground [Ефаевский могильник] nearby. It is located in the Krasnoslobodsky District of the Republic of Mordovia, the traditional lands of the Erzya and Moksha people, also collectively called the Mordvins. Sheppard describes the Efaevo burial mound as containing 15 graves, that were believed to date "back to the eleventh or twelfth century" that included bodies identified as female, whose hair had been preserved in a style that was "tightly wound together, in some instances round a piece of wood, and was hung down the back" (Sheppard 1904:51).

Figure 2: Drawing of a puloker from the Efaevo tumulus, from Sheppard (1904:52). Image now in the public domain. Click on the image to enlarge.

According to Malkova (2001-2:85, 87), only the Moksha people wore this style of braid prior to the 17th century, which is known as the пулокерь [puloker] (Only in the late 17th century did their neighbours, the Erza, start to wear the puloker (Malkova 2001-2: 87)). Originally, the woman's hair was plaited into a single braid. It was then wrapped with a long, rectangular leather lace, or strip of bronze, that formed a decorative braid case. By the 12th century, the style of puloker described by Sheppard from the Efaevo graves was in use; a rod-shaped "wooden case" was placed around the hair, before the bronze wrapping was applied (ibid.:86). Other Moksha women wore wooden or iron rods plaited into their hair, that was then wrapped in bast (ie. inner tree bark) to form the inner braid case, before it was wound with bronze (ibid.:86). These stiff, metal-wrapped puloker braids were then attached to the head with textile cords (ibid.:86).

Malkova also states, like Sheppard, that this style was only worn by women although the length of the braid could vary between eleven to sixty-five centimetres in length (2001-2:86). It is therefore much more likely that the 11 centimetre long "beard tress" at Hull is simply a shorter braid of head-hair, worn by a woman (Hull Museums Collections 2022i). In any case, these elaborate stiffened braids worn by medieval-period Moksha women are not evidence for decorated hairstyles worn by Northern European men and women in the Viking Age. They are a unique socio-cultural marker that was utilised by the Moksha people of Eastern Europe for centuries, and they should not be used to justify the wearing of metal rings, or beads, in the hair  for Viking Age, Scandinavian re-enactment.


URLs current as of 21 October 2022.

©2022 Rebecca Lucas.