With the so-called "Viking Age" lasting the best part of 3 centuries and the Vikings traveling extensively to trade, raid and fight different peoples, cultures, and militaries, was there ever just one type of "Viking sword?"
How can historians and archaeologists help shed light on the vagaries of Viking weaponry, on what was and what definitely was not a "Viking sword?"
A historical age, an occupation, and now… a sword?
When we often think of Vikings, we think of murderous warriors brandishing swords, raiding, raping, and ravaging some early medieval coastal town or monastery. Along with the longship and the horned helmet (historically incorrect), the "Viking sword" has remained a popular image of warriors from Viking societies long after the so-called "Viking Age" ended.
Nowadays, academics and historians refer to the term "Vikings" as more of a job description than an ethnicity. These were often pirates and warriors, originally from societies in the Scandinavian peninsula, that raided, traded, colonized, and fought their way from modern-day Canada to Constantinople, from Sicily to Ireland to the Russian steppes, and everywhere in between.
Warriors from Viking societies were the pre-eminent military force and threat for much of early medieval Europe, from the late 8th to the middle 11th century CE. They dominated the battlefield and imagination so much that this period of Northern European history was often called "The Viking Age."
Their use of weaponry not only had practical military aims but was also part of their pagan religious belief systems and societal status. However, these "Viking swords" have a fascinating origin that has little to do with fierce Norse warriors.
Viking or Frankish swords?
Though there was metallurgy and blacksmiths in Viking societies, the term "Viking sword" is a bit of a misnomer. Go to any museum in Copenhagen, Oslo, or Stockholm, and you will see a sword from the Viking era. However, more often than not, these so-called "Viking swords" were not produced anywhere in Viking societies but rather in the Frankish Kingdom during the Carolingian Era (800 – 888 CE). They are often termed "Viking swords," as many manufactured during this time ended up in Viking hands (or graves) by trade, looting, or even ransom.
Frankish blacksmiths had such advanced metallurgy and forging skills, and their sword smithing was so advanced, that they produced the best quality swords in and around Central and Northern Europe for much of this age.
Perhaps the best and finest example of Carolingian swordmaking was the swords imported from the Rhine area. These blades had the name "Ulfberth" marked on them, denoting they were made of the highest-grade steel and of high quality. In fact, they became so popular with Viking warriors – who, in turn, used them against the Frankish peoples that in 864 CE, Frankish Emperor Charles the Bald placed an export ban on these swords to Viking societies - on pain of death!
Traveling a century later, however, the Arab world's first travel writer, Ibn Fadlan, mentioned how Volga Vikings (Norse settlers and Vikings in the Kievan Rus) still carried these Frankish swords. So, clearly, the export ban didn't exactly work.
What do these swords look like?
Vikings had an affinity to import most of their weaponry from the Frankish realms for much of the early medieval period. Not only were these swords made to a much higher standard and quality, but sources of iron in Scandinavia are limited and of generally poor quality.
Frankish swords were often ornately decorated with gold and silver – once imported into Viking societies, they were often inlaid in the blade or hilt of the sword itself. These were often in geometric patterns or symbols of animals or even (towards the end of the "Viking Age") Christianity.
Generally, the swords were light, weighted between 1.0 to 1.5 kilograms, with a blade length of anywhere between 70 and 90 centimeters, just under a meter. The total length of the sword itself was around a meter, meaning that these light, high-quality blades could be drawn quickly and also had a relatively long reach.
Often the sword had grooves along the blade, saving not only valuable metal but also making the sword relatively light for its length. The hilt of the sword could be made of precious metals or even bone or antler.
Parts of a magnificent sword with unique details in gold and silver have recently been found at Jåttå in Stavanger. Photo: Konservator Lise Chantrier Aasen / UiS
Sword culture in Viking societies
To own a sword in a Viking society was perhaps a symbol of conspicuous consumption. It signified high status and martial skill. Most Viking warriors would own a sword as the plunder and riches acquired in a single raid would often be enough to afford to either buy or trade one. During the reign (800 – 814 CE) of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, the prices of swords were set at the price of seven solidi (a pure gold coin used in both Frankish and Byzantine realms). This has a worth nowadays of about USD 1500.
As these swords became highly prized possessions, they were often passed down from generation to generation. There is some archaeological evidence, though still much ongoing debate, about the discovery of swords in Viking-era graves. Grave goods throughout the Frankish realm from this era have been stolen by contemporaries or successive generations, leaving archaeologists with mainly swords cast away (for example, in rivers) or from Viking era burials in Scandinavia.
Some of these swords discovered have been, it appears, ritualistically "destroyed." This was the process of breaking or bending the blade, symbolically retiring or destroying the sword from any further use. If later grave robbers would desecrate burial mounds, these swords were practically useless.
The Sæbo sword and more recent finds
One of the most famous and interesting Viking-era swords was discovered in Sæbo, in Western Norway, buried in a barrow. This iron and steel 95cm long sword is of particular interest due to its runic inscriptions on the blade. Amongst the runes is, what appears, to the modern eye, to be a swastika, but philologists have interpreted this to represent a symbol of Thor or Thor's hammer.
Another interpretation gives the symbol to be the name of the owner of the sword, Thurmuth. Tests carried out by 19th century Danish archaeologists and historians included treating it with acid, so much of these runic inscriptions have been damaged. It lies in pride of place at the University Museum of Bergen (Universitetmuseet i Bergen).
More recently, the University of Stavanger announced that local metal detector enthusiasts had unearthed a Viking sword in the region. The sword is elaborately decorated with gold, silver, and animal heads and may well have belonged to the "Gausel Queen" – a grave of a female ruler from the Viking Age, which has proven to be one of the richest pickings for archaeological goods in recent memory. The university believes that this sword was imported from the Frankish realms in the 9th century CE.
The history of the Viking swords – like Norse settlers and warriors themselves – shows how much of what we now believe to be "Viking" was heavily influenced by, and drew on, other bordering cultures, societies, peoples, and militaries.
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