Dreadlocks, Tattoos, Celts and Vikings


Look, I like folk metal as much as the next person, but it’s not actually an accurate depiction of ancient life. Realistically, there were probably no deliberate dreadlocks native to the British Isles. The good news is, there’s evidence of tattooing being used in Europe several thousand years ago, just not using woad like we’ve all been assuming, plus a bunch of other wicked fashion trends that will be easy to work into your day-to-day wardrobe.  Let’s look at this in more detail.

Woad tattoos: Probably not



16th Century illustration by John White, who knew nothing about this but was very enthusiastic

It’s generally agreed that the Picts were called that (by the Romans) because they were covered in pictures, which were either painted or tattooed using woad. We’re basing this off an account by Julius Ceasar, who probably never met any Picts.

Van Der Veen, Hall and May (1993): Woad and the Britons Painted Blue (paywall): This is alleged to have a pretty good discussion of the issue, but damned if it isn’t outside my budget at the moment.

Scotclans: What Did The Picts Really Wear? by Amanda Moffet (also has some great examples of ancient British jewellery & clothing)

Gillian Carr (2005): Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Iron Age and Early Roman Britain

Saigh Kym Lambert: The Problem of the Woad

Durham and Goormachtigh on the chemistry and linguistics of this confusion

TL;DR: Woad is caustic and you don’t actually want to put it in or under your skin if you can help it. Yes, the Romans claimed this occurred, but it’s more likely that metal-based pigments were used instead. If only Caesar had taken that body art apprenticeship while on holiday like he wanted.

Tattoo artist Pat Fish has some lovely examples of historically-inspired Celtic ink on her website. She notes that while there’s a long history of body art in Europe, the recent resurgence of tattoos in popularity is due to the presence of European colonists in the Pacific; there is no solid line of tradition between modern Western society and the body art of our ancestors.

The northern Rus people during the 10th century are described in the Risala of Ibn Fadhlan as being heavily tattooed, especially with images of Yggdrasil.

Some famous old dead Europeans with tattoos include:

  • Otzi, whose body is decorated with more than 60 separate, small tattoos, each a very simple geometric or linear form, which may have been used therapeutically to treat his arthritis
  •  Pazyryk Ice Maiden, also called the “Altai Lady”, whose wicked horse-art is also featured in another post on this blog
  • Lindow Man had traces of copper in and around him, but not enough to decide that it was from metal-based tattoo pigments, especially given the lack of visible tattoos on his well-preserved skin.


Dreadlocks: Nah

The closest we can get to Celts, Vikings or other northern European cultures sporting locs are:

  • “Elf-locks”: This is when you’re asleep, minding your own business, and some mischievous smart-arse fairy (or faerie, if you’re going to be that guy) ties your hair in knots, maybe even tying you to your bed, wrecking your hairdo. It’s a problem, not a fashion statement. Note that Shakespeare describes this as occurring in”foulsluttish hair”, meaning unkempt, unwashed, and generally uncared for – not something you do on purpose. Here’s an illustration from self-professed “faery authorities”, Brian Froud and Alan Lee, in their classic work Faeries:


Note the lack of dreadlocks. Old mate’s not going to be impressed when he wakes up.

Chalk it up to the Fair Folk being jerks, rather than a concerted effort to mat your own hair.

  • “snake-like hair”

Braids, woo! Who doesn’t love a good braid? The Romans, apparently, whose menfolk almost universally sported short hair and cleanshaven faces, along with disapproving frowns. They looked down on the bearded barbarians and their “snake-like” hair, which helped to reinforce their worldview of Rome as a civilised and civilising force. Braided hair is attested in the Táin Bó Cúailnge as well as other sources.

  • The Glibb (glybbe, glibbe, etc)

Colm from Irish Archaeology on the Glibbe

This is like… a rat’s tail. At the front. Except it’s been stuck together. It’s like a Chelsey cut for people who specifically hate their own hair. It was popular for about five minutes during the 16th century until the English saw it, decided it was part of a plot to throw the English out of Ireland, and may or may not have stamped it out – certainly they took credit for doing so. The glibbe may have aided in helmet-wearing, somehow. It doesn’t really bear any resemblance to modern post-Bob-Marley-era dreadlocks but if you are super keen to sport a glibbe of your own, then you go for it, champ.


The above image is from the  Irish Archaeology blog, after Albrecht Druer’s woodcut of 1521 AD. Medieval hipsters. Note the matted hair at the front contrasted with the close-cropped hair elsewhere. I’m sure someone somewhere thinks it’s cute.

Irish Martial Arts blog on the Glibbe hairstyle


Solid Black Outfits: Nope

This would not have been feasible for your average Joe Viking or Jenny Briton, since dyeing fabric was still an expensive, stinky and often mildly poisonous task, which many people regarded with great suspicion (like they did with writing). While some folks, particularly Volvas, are described as frequently donning naturally-occuring black shades of wool or leather, solid black dye is a pain in the butt to achieve with natural materials (and you’ll know this if you’ve tried to copy India Flint in your spare time, or fucked up the instructions on the back of the Dylon packet while trying to liven up your faded jeans).

Mara Riley on dyeing ingredients available to Roman Britain

Hurstwic on Dressing Like A Viking 


Still Pretty Metal

Some styles that ARE strongly evidenced:


I know, giant hyena-man, I’m excited too.
  • Chunky silver jewellery: Many examples of these are found in grave-goods and buried caches of jewellery and currency. Evidence for ear-piercing is limited, some objects have been found which could be hoop earrings, or maybe clothes pins. Unfortunately no facial or body piercings are in evidence for this area & time period.


Image from an exhibition at the British Museum

Further reading:

“Viking Braids” by Annette Collin will help you recreate historically accurate Viking hairstyles at home to impress your SCA buddies. Currently I can only find this in Norwegian (authentic!) but hopefully will update soon with links to decadent English versions.
Have I plugged Pat Fish enough yet?
Herodotus on the Scythians


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