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28.11.2020

The Birka dragonhead

The symbol "Dragon Birk" is synonymous with the famous city of the Viking Age, an association that emerged from the discovery in 1887 of a casting mould depicting the head of a dragon. Recent excavations in Birk's Black Earth Harbor have uncovered a clothing pin, which almost 150 years later may be directly related to this mold. This artifact brings a unique "style of tag" to the small body of the famous Viking Age pins depicting a dragon head. The authors discuss and research the production, function and chronology of the artifact, as well as its connection with the shaped heads of ships.

Archaeological research in the former silted harbor in 2015 and 2016 in front of the zone of the settlement "Black Earth" were focused on the study of physical nature and chronological development of major port facilities. For the Viking Age long-distance trade center. Here, in close proximity to the pier, the head of the dragon Birk was found, the construction of which dates back to dendrochronology 853/854 AD. When extracted from the harbor wet sediments (PQ 8 grid square on the L23 / IV section), the artifact was almost completely sealed with a dense layer of soil and iron corrosion. Although the throat and neck were covered with a large lump of rust, the curved neck of the dragon was recognizable and thus revealed the identity of the object. The corrosion itself helped preserve the fragile artifact. Layers of corrosion and soil were carefully removed in the archeological research laboratory. After conservation, the artifact weighs 13.5 g, has a length of 45 mm, a maximum width of 42 mm on the face and neck width of 17 mm. 
The two-sided head of the dragon is distinguished by a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and the rudiment of a truncated involute tongue. and a pearl bezel around the neck with a characteristic curly mane (with five preserved curls on the neck). Eyes, curls and nacreous frame were cast in relief. Closer to the bottom of the neck, there is a loop protruding to the side (possibly for the cord) and a three-sided belt terminal. At its foot there is a small round shaft filled with rusty iron.

The dragon's head was damaged in ancient times. For example, there is a fracture of the alleged horn and a crack right in front of him, on his upper jaw. The first curl of the mane is missing, as is the tip of the tongue, which we assume was originally twisted. The artifact was cast from an alloy rich in tin, with a small amount of added lead. The "Dragon Birk" was clearly cast in a two-layer form, as the artifact still shows burrs from casting. The presence of corroded iron in the small round shaft at the bottom of the dragon's head indicates that this decoration was once attached to an iron pin. It is very likely that it was inserted into a specially prepared channel in a two-component form before the liquid tin was poured into the gating and the dragon head was cast on it.

The closest analogy to the recently discovered dragon head undoubtedly comes from Birka itself and is shaped like a well-known casting mold. By 1887, half of the original two-piece soapstone casting mold was placed in the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. According to the main inventory of the museum, a cast obtained from the settlement of Birka "Chernozemye". In the inventory, the casting mold was simply referred to as "two sides of the casting mold, broken". The catalog of the Iron Age collection describes an artifact - accompanied by an ink drawing - as "half a soapstone casting mold, broken into two parts, shiny smooth on one side and rough on the other. One hole is drilled in each upper corner. The largest length is 81 mm, the largest width is 66 mm, and the thickness is 1.3 mm. Today mold is listed in the unpublished "Sörlings Catalogue", which lists the early finds of Birka, which originated mainly from excavations of the Black Earth in 1871-1873.

The mold shows a carved dragon head measuring approximately 40 × 41 mm, showing a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and a twisted tongue, as well as a pointed horn on the forehead and a characteristic curly mane on the neck. At the bottom of the neck there is a three-sided belt terminal adjoining the protruding, forward-facing and almost square loop. In the lower left corner of the form you can clearly see the shrinking baton leading to the lower neck of the dragon's head. Since the sprue does not connect to the cavity of the pin, we can assume that the pin was inserted into the shape and that the dragon's head was cast on it as a composite. In addition, it should be noted that soapstone is a soft material that tends to crack during casting. Thus, it was used for casting soft metals with particularly low melting point or tin.

Although usually described as the head of a dragon Ambrosiani suggested that it could actually represent the head of a wolf of the same type, which is usually one of the three wolves, boar and eagle on some shields of the Wendel period. The lack of data on the archaeological origin of the form means that it can only be roughly dated to the Viking period. The image of the "dragon-like wolf's head" was so distinct that it was chosen as a logo for "Excavations on the Black Earth 1990-1995" by Ambrosiani and was accepted as an emblem for the subsequent Birka Studies series. Today, the cult "Birka Dragon" is synonymous with the World Heritage Site itself. Almost 130 years after the discovery of the mold, its cast copy was finally extracted from Chernozem in Birka Harbor. However, unlike the recently discovered dragon head, the image on the mold shows seven curls. Thus, it cannot be the real shape from which the dragon head was cast.

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