Thursday, May 10, 2007

Oseberg Tripod - My Interpretation...

This is a version of recent posting to NORSEFOLK. It continues the discussion on the Oseberg tripod, and how I see its design features combine to an interpretation of the context of this specific object inside the material culture of the Viking Age.

When I made my first reconstruction of this object, I was working from three sets of long range information. I had access to the primary excavation report, in Norwegian (which I can't read). So I was only able to read off the recorded measurements, and work from a scaled drawing of the tripod as it was found in the ground. I also had gathered images out of every general work on the Viking Age I had access to, but these showed little detail and generally had no measurements. I also had a number of images shot of the actual object by a friend which showed some of the construction details. I mention this limit on data as I have never personally seen the actual object.

First comment - On the basic design and construction of the artifact:

Remember that the original is made of wrought iron metal, not modern mild steel (the way our reconstructions are). At roughly 1 cm diameter to the uprights, the legs will not bear that much weight before the would start to warp in use. This also drastically limits the structural strength of the design, especially where the upper legs are punched to join them to the basket hook. In historic wrought iron, the tripod is a very light construction overall for its intended use.

The solid pivot point at the top of the tripod fixes the three legs to the central basket. The top of the legs are slightly curved. This all has the result of fixing the angle of the legs. That in turn fixes the spread of the legs, and in turn the mounting height of the tripod itself. The central basket and terminal hook will always have the same clearance above the fire. Note again that this fixed distance is 60 cm (24").

Because the basket hook is a solid piece (made up of three bars welded together) there is absolutely no method possible to raise or lower any attached pot above the fire surface. Any experienced camp fire cook knows you control heat, thus cooking rates, by moving the * pot *. Not by changing the configuration of the * fire *. (The voice of long experience, and often much frustration when trying to teach modern generation cooks!)

The three claws that form the feet of the uprights are a quite intentional design - and intended for use in bare earth. (If you compare the feet to your own hand, it will make this next bit make more sense.) The upright compares to your arm. The three individual prongs are forge welded together to form a 'palm'. This palm is angled back from the line of the upright, something like 30 degrees. (Flex your palm upwards at the wrist, so you can see the back of your hand.) Each of the three prongs curves downward to an angle roughly 90 degrees from the palm section. (Now hook your fingers downward to a claw.)
The end result of all this is that with the legs folded outwards in the open position, the palm section of each leg will run exactly horizontal to the ground. The size of the palm is such that merely stepping on the top surface will firmly drive the points of the three prongs solidly into the earth. This is a quite cleaver and intentional design feature - and one clearly intended for use on bare earth. Driving the prongs into the ground keeps the force from hanging a pot from being born by the holes in the top end of each leg, where the basket hook passes through. That location has the thinest metal of the entire construction.

Use of stones under the feet to elevate the whole unit I agree would allow for producing a useful height for a pot. Perhaps even if large enough stones were used, there might be enough space to allow for a short chain or trammel to control elevation. Resting the claw feet so they hooked over the edge of a rock would be quite unstable however. This method would result in all the force from the pot weight to be born by the thin metal around the punched holes in the legs. This is sure to result in damage to the tripod itself in time.
I have also found that this problem of stress on the construction is most extreme when the tripod is placed on a hard flat surface - a rock ledge, or a modern concrete floor. The legs will balance on the tips of the central prongs only. Any force at all put on the hanging hook causes the legs to try to skate away outwards, so all the stress is borne by those holes in the top of the legs. Also since only the central point is in contact, the legs try to twist sideways adding further stress. (I had made up a wooden plate with holes for the claws to steady the tripod when displayed in an indoor setting.)

It should also be remembered that the actual cauldron found in the same burial will just barely clear the ground when set on to the tripod's hook. The clearance is only about 1 cm. Totally unusable as a cooking set up. (Mind you, would make a impressive way to present beer to ladle out of at a feast!) Did that pot show any traces of fire blackening? Again I do not know. Since there was also a cauldron hanger in the Oseberg burial, the indication of use of the cauldron over a fire does not also prove use of the tripod.

So what I see here is an object intended by its construction and design to be mounted in bare earth, but at the same time, one that also by design is actually not fully functional, primarily as there is no method possible to control cooking temperature.

At this point we have to look to archaeology for further evidence. Certainly in house finds, fires are almost always found set on top of raised platforms. Typically this is a line of stones or stone slabs forming a rectangle that is filled with earth to set the base of the fire a good 15 to 20 cm above the floor. This is not done to aid the cook - but specifically to improve the draft and physical operation of the fire itself. (Believe me, we had a HUGE problem with this whole thing at L'Anse aux Meadows.)

It certainly would be quite possible to create the required clearance for correct cooking if the fire was set into a pit dug underneath the tripod which was correctly set in the ground. So my question here - does the archaeology show the use of such pits to contain cooking fires? (I ask because I do not know.) I would expect a useful size to be less than the diameter of the tripod leg spread, say roughly 50 - 75 cm. In our own use of a replica tripod, I'd suggest a depth of at least 20 cm is required - but 50 cm would be better. This is the kind of feature that should show clearly.

One other thing that very much needs to be addressed:

The Oseberg tripod is an unusual object - and is a * camping * piece of equipment. I mention this because the standard object used in household settings is the cauldron hanger. There are a fair number of samples of chain hangers which run from simple short chains to elaborate decorative forgings of royal status. As I mentioned, there is also an elaborate cauldron hanger in the same Oseberg find.

There is enough * metal * contained in the tripod itself to allow a smith to have constructed a fairly long hanger. The amount of work involved, from a purely technical sense, is quite similar. There are more forge welds in a hanger, but the tripod requires drawing out those long bars for the uprights. From my own work, I certainly would find forging the various small units of a chain less taxing overall than hammering out those long lengths for the tripod!

There are a large number of pieces of equipment in the Oseberg burial that represent travel, rather than home, lifestyle. Consider the wagons / sedges / tents - all mobile equipment (as is the containing ship itself). Although all are functional to a greater or lesser extent, there certainly is a dominance of the highly decorative over the merely useful seen in all.

My conclusion remains that the Oseberg tripod was not originally intended as a functional object. It was instead a purpose made presentation / ritual / symbolic object. For that reason I certainly do not consider it suitable for inclusion in most representations of the Viking Age, unless a specific point about royal versus 'everyday' status objects is the intent.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Mind you.... you started this interpretation game. :)

What if, the Oseberg tripod were simply a serving station? Not a ritual/representative thing, just a simple serving station.

Remember this is the burial of a queen we're talking about. She surely wouldn't be hanging out about the kitchen cookfire.

Perhaps she had a reception area and food and drink were nearby. This is the equivalent of pitchers for hot beverages. Bring the pot off the cookfire all bubbly hot, and let it cool while serving. She's got the servants to bring it back and forth from the fire or to rotate them in.

Or heck, a cold beverage could equally be served this way.

Not ritualistic, just a tool of service.



February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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