Much of the tableware in use was made from wood, especially for a travelling encampment.
There is a large amount of evidence for wooden bowls and cups. The finds from Coppergate in York prove that the production of wood turned items was a small industry in our period; the Coppergate name coming from the coopers or cup-makers street, and the finds of bowls and cups from York are a good example of what is expected.
Generally bowls should have a rounded profile and not be square. All turned vessels must have been able to be produced on a pole lathe, so very small and/or intricate woodwork is rare and therefore to be discouraged. Lathe marks should correspond to a period lathe ; modern jaw grooves or marks and the like should be carved away.
Whilst bowls are usually fully round, there are examples of ‘footed’ bowls. These have a thicker bottom section with a vertical side called a foot, and can readily be made on a pole lathe, especially considering that leaving the foot in place reduces the amount of wood you need to remove and therefore makes the job quicker.
Many modern wooden bowls have a similar foot but this is used to conceal an internal dovetail or similar groove for a modern chuck jaw mounting onto the lathe. Whilst a flat or slightly dished foot is acceptable a modern chuck mount is not and the modern mount section should be carved away, although take care as you may go through the bottom of the bowl. As always there are specific exceptions to this general rule, but anything not fitting this general description should be cleared with an authenticity officer or a RTT-V.
Plates and platters
Note that actual flat plates were not used. There is evidence of wooden platters, without lips or rims etc., but these are usually on the large side and more associated with serving dishes rather than individual eating dishes. Some from the Oseberg ship find have heavily sculpted edges, suggesting a serving purpose, and might have been cheeseboards.
Wooden carved eating troughs were common as an alternative to turned bowls. These come in all sizes from one person eating troughs to much larger serving troughs, and really big (3ft long) bread making troughs. Troughs are sometimes called trenchers.
Further information is available in a handy guide by Dave Constantine summarizing the evidence: File:Trenchers & troughs - Dave Constantine 11 March 2013.pdf.
Care of wooden tableware
Care of wooden crockery is the same as for other wooden goods such as buckets. Remember that oiled wood will impart an oily residue into liquids and most woods will impart a taste if liquids are left standing in them. Generally speaking many wooden cups actually leak like sieves because water will travel through the grain, so they were intended to be filled and drained straight away and not left standing.
Wooden items can be washed the same way as modern crockery, even in the dishwasher on a quick cool setting, providing that they are oiled after each wash. Even with good care wooden crockery will not last forever, hence the need to constantly replace it and the emergence of the industry at York.
All wooden props must be of allowable woods. No African or South American hardwoods and no sectioned or blocked turned bowls (with self- or different-coloured squares of timber). Modern bowls such as Ikea rubberwood plates etc. are not permitted.
Bowls should generally be made from English hardwoods, which are all usually light in colour although there are exceptions.
- Usual woods are: alder, ash, beech, birch, elm, field maple, lime, oak, rowan, willow, poplar, and some fruit woods such as apple and cherry.
- Infrequently used for bowls: holly and hawthorn.
- Unsuitable for bowls: yew, willow and (less frequently) birch are sometimes too wet, and whilst they will readily turn they will shrink too much once the bowl is made and which leads to cracks and mis-shapes. This is the same problem you get if turning softwoods, although these can also be used at a pinch.
No English hardwood is actually poisonous to humans except for yew. Yew is toxic enough to kill horses if they eat the leaves. However, yew wood is only dangerous to humans after extended periods of high exposure. Whilst exposure levels are unlikely to be dangerous it is nevertheless not a good idea to use it to make eating bowls out of.
Some hardwoods such as oak have high tannin levels, hence the use of oak chips to make tanning solutions. These can give you bad indigestion but again usually only after extended periods of exposure to the green wood. Oak bowls will usually have sufficient tannin washed out in normal use to be OK.
Most hardwoods impart a taste to whatever is put in them. This is usually linked to the tannin or other chemicals in the wood. So oak with its high levels of tannin imparts quite a bitter taste in newly turned bowls. Most other woods do the same to a lesser extent.
Sycamore is frequently used for bowls and is very suitable because it does not impart any taste to food. There is however always a question mark over sycamore because it is not an indigenous species. The accepted timeline is that it was introduced to the UK by the Romans, so it had several centuries to propagate and mature in the UK before our period. As such we take the position that there is nothing wrong with using Sycamore as an authentic Saxon/Viking period wood, also noting that it is related to field-maple, which is indigenous.
Beech is another questionable wood. Whilst indigenous it was limited to the south of England for several centuries and was therefore perhaps not commonly used, especially in the North.
For reference on bowl turning and woods used in York see the ARC publication Archaeology of York: Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York v. 17, Fasc. 13 ISBN-10: 1902771109. This is perhaps 'the' book on Viking wood turning however their description of spindle and face turning are not synonymous with modern wood turning nomenclature so can be confusing if you also read modern books about modern turning techniques. In modern wood turning terms ALL period woodwork produced on a lathe are spindle turned.
Credits: with thanks to Steve Lines.