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Home > Auctions > 25th February 2020 > Viking 'Great Beast' Weather Vane Terminal

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LOT 0553

GBP (£) 4,000 - 6,000
EUR (€) 4,790 - 7,180
USD ($) 5,190 - 7,780

Sold for: £6,875
(Inc. bp*)

Viking 'Great Beast' Weather Vane Terminal

11th century AD

A gilt-bronze Ringerike style 'Great Beast' finial for a Viking longship weathervane formed as a standing quadruped with scrolls to the hips and shoulders, raised head with piriform eye; rivetted at the feet to a fragment of a rectangular panel 147 grams, 70mm (2 3/4"). Fine condition. Extremely rare.

From a London W1, UK, collection; acquired on the German art market before 2000.
For ship-vanes of Ringerike style see Graham-Campbell, J. Viking Art, London, 2013, items 138-140; for a discussion of Viking-period weather vanes and their re-use as badges of nobility in Normandy, see Engström, J. & Nykänen, P. New Interpretations of Viking Age Weathervanes, in Fornvännen, vol.91, 1996; Lindgrén, S. Viking Weather-Vane Practices in Medieval France in Fornvännen, vol.91, 1996 and Lindgrén, S. Viking Weather-Vane Practices in Medieval France in Fornvännen, vol.78, 1983.
The navigation techniques in use in Iron Age Northern Europe were very sophisticated, as would be expected from people bordering the Baltic, North Sea and North Atlantic where boat- and ship-building traditions have been perfected over more than a thousand years. A carved wooden panel from Bergen, Norway, shows a number of Viking longships at sea, some with weathervanes mounted on the stempost. They are mounted vertically with the beast on the outer end. Gilded bronze weathervanes appear on the roofs of medieval churches in Sweden, Norway and Finland where they are often regarded as ornamental: symbols of access to resources and craftsmanship for the important families who endowed such buildings. These weathervanes in many cases originally adorned ships and were used as part of the navigational equipment. They may have inspired the medieval Norman custom of attaching a gilded weathervane or cock to church roofs, which eventually spread to secular buildings such as castles in France and Italy where their use was restricted to certain ranks of nobility (Lindgrén, 1983).

Weathervanes were used for determining the strength and direction of the wind, in conjunction with the sólarsteinn (sunstone) Icelandic feldspar which polarises sunlight and allows the sun's position to be determined in overcast conditions. A wooden bearing-dial fragment was found in Greenland - a destination colonised by Icelanders in the 11th century - with the 'horizon' divided into 32 sectors. This would give an accuracy of about 11 degrees per sector, which would make landfall using latitude sailing a straightforward matter. Engström & Nykänen (1996) suggested that the vanes were decorated with holes or markers on the outer edge which enabled the helmsman to make an assessment of the sun's height from the position and length of the shadow, and thus to work out his position by rule of thumb. These holes may have been used to attach streamers as a visual aid. The ships equipped with these weathervanes may have been the 'flagships' of their fleets, taking the lead in navigation and in manoeuvring. The dragon on the weathervane may thus have signified the position of the fleet's leader, and may even have given rise to the name drakka (dragon) for the largest type of Viking period ship.