Wirkmächtige Kommunikationsmedien : Menschenbilder der Vendel- und Wikingerzeit und ihre Kontexte

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


This PhD thesis deals with anthropomorphic images from the Vendel and Viking Ages, their contexts and functions. The images are seen as means of communication with “effective power” or agency ("Wirkmächtigkeit"). They could have had a relationship of interaction or partial identity with what was represented, due to the fact that the Vendel and Viking Age societies were largely based on oral tradition. Using a semiotic approach, rules for the use of images can be deduced, and it can be differentiated between various levels of meanings. In a semiotic perspective, it is also the image-carrying object and the specific situation that contribute to the meanings of an image.
The pictures are assigned to five groups: scenes, single figures, gestures and attributes, human-animal transformations, and heads/faces. These groups are subdivided into motif-groups and iconographic interpretations are discussed. Some important pictorial topics are journeys, battles, gender-specific actions, transformations between humans and animals, and binding. Only few motifs can be plausibly identified with narratives preserved in medieval texts. In the second part of the analysis, the image-carrying objects are discussed and compared with the written sources. The quantitatively largest groups are gold foil figures, components of clothing, and coins. Most motifs were used only on certain types of objects. Motifs and image carriers underwent changes during the Vendel and Viking Ages, especially in the decades before and around 800 A.D. Several motifs were transferred from the gold foil figures to pendants. Although the archaeological record and the information in the texts rarely correspond directly, the texts, too, contain distorted echoes of Vendel and Viking Age conceptions of the "Wirkmächtigkeit" of images, and their use in social strategies.
Some situations of communication with and through pictures are discussed: the deposition of gold foil figures as an act of communication with “other worlds”; the material expression of gender identity in graves; the Gotlanders´ expression of their cultural identity and the role of anthropomorphic pictures at “central places”.

The images were on the one hand media among the living, by conveying messages of wealth and visual complexity, which makes them active devices in social strategies. On the other hand, their Wirkmächtigkeit is also grounded in their artistic production, and in the relationship of mutual influence or partial identity of the image and the represented, so that the communication is also directed to “other worlds”.


  • Michaela Helmbrecht
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • History and Archaeology
Original languageGerman
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
Award date2011 Jun 3
Print ISBNs978-91-89578-38-8
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2011-06-03 Time: 10:15 Place: Kulturens auditorium, Tegnérsplatsen, Lund External reviewer(s) Name: Gaimster, Märit Title: fil dr Affiliation: PreConstruct Archaeology, London ---

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