Original single-edged sword from the Viking Age (SHM 27001). Photo: courtesy of Tord Bergelin.
In December 2016, our friend and collaboration partner, blacksmith Tord Bergelin from Thor’s Forge, recorded a single-edged Viking Age sword exhibited at Bohusläns Museum in Sweden. The exceedingly well-preserved sword was taken out of the exhibition case by museum personnel for the day and Tord Bergelin was permitted to extract the necessary data for forging a replica of the sword. Careful measurements of the dimensions of the blade and hilt were taken and the sword was weighed in order to obtain an approximation of its original weight. The examination procedure was closely followed by a journalist crew from the local newspaper.
Having been invited to the recording of the sword but not able to attend, I was pleased to receive photographic material and data regarding the sword from Tord Bergelin, inviting Combat Archaeology to collaborate with him on this project. In this connection, I offer here my thoughts on the sword type, the dating of the sword and the methods by which it was employed in combat.
Formally, the sword (SHM 27001) is part of the collections of Swedish History Museum in Stockholm but has been lent to be part of the permanent exhibition at Bohusläns Museum. The Swedish History Museum received the sword in 1962 from two sisters, Vera and Nadja Cedergren, who reported that the sword had been kept in their family home the past 90 years (Historiska Museet 2016). Unfortunately, there is no further information available regarding the sword or the context in which it was found.
The sword measures 93 cm in total length and is equipped with a hilt measuring 9.1 cm in length and 6.9 cm in width. The hilt will be discussed in detail below in relation to its type, wherefore it needs not be particularly insisted on in this place. The sword is equipped with a straight, single-edged blade without a fuller but with a c. 2 cm wide edge. The thickness of the blade is 0.622 cm by the hilt and 0.48 cm when measured 10 cm from the tip while its width is 5.27 cm by the hilt and 3.71 cm when measured 10 cm from the tip. Forged with a curved tip but a spine that gently tapers c. 24 cm aft of the tip, the tip is located close to the center of the sword. Having been broken sometime before it was given to the Swedish History Museum, the blade has been repaired in the middle by a metal plate that holds the two blade parts together. With a weight of 1.3659 kg in its current state, Tord Bergelin estimates the sword to originally have weighed approx. 1.4-1.5 kg, when taking its current condition into consideration (Tord Bergelin, pers. com., 25.12.2016).
As the original findspot and context of the sword is unknown, it is evident that the sword must be dated based on typology. To begin with, the sword does not exactly fit into the classification scheme worked out by Jan Petersen in his magnum opus, De Norske Vikingesverd (1919), wherein he proposed a chronology for hilt designs based on find combinations. Interestingly, although the hilt design of the sword has previously been described as type H (Historiska Museet 2016), the hilt is best described as a composite configuration composed of two sword hilt types. The lower and upper guard, which are plain iron fittings without precious metal inlays, are morphologically similar and seemingly belong to the same sword design. Both fittings are short and wide, and equipped with a bulging ridge in their respective centers. The upper guard, which is slightly shorter than the lower, is additionally furnished with an inward curvature in the dividing area between this and the pommel. The features discussed thus far suggest that the sword belongs to one of the early Viking Age sword types, being most similar to Jan Petersen’s type C, dating to c. 800-900 (Petersen 1919: 66-70; Jones 2002: 18-19).
The tripartite pommel, however, does not match with pommels fixed onto other clear examples of type C, nor with those belonging to related antecedent or subsequent types, such as type B and H. The low and rounded tripartite pommel, which is adorned with two vertical, shallow grooves containing traces of precious metal inlay (Tord Bergelin, pers. com., 25.12.2016), best fits the Petersen’s description of a pommel belonging to a type U sword, dating to c. 900-1000 (Petersen 1919: 153-154; Jones 2002: 18-19).
Given the two attained datings, the sword can thus be roughly dated to between AD 800 and 1000. Allowing for a chronological overlap between sword types C and U, it is tempting to conclude that the sword was made closer to around AD 900.
A closer examination of the sword revealed that the hilt configuration was rather carelessly assembled (Tord Bergelin, pers. com., 26.12.2016). The pommel is not aligned with the geometry of the upper hilt and its perforation for hosting the tang seems too wide, judging from the visible gaps on the top of the pommel which indicate that it had been difficult to peen the tang over so as to cover the opening properly. Similarly, the lower guard’s inlet for the blade and tang is unnecessarily wide and does not seem to have been specially made for this blade.
Although the lower guard is not specifically forged for the blade, it remains possible that both the lower and upper guard comprised the original hilt configuration. Firstly, the lower guard’s inlet is equally wide on both sides, wherefore it may be considered as something of a standardized solution for blades of unspecified dimensions – a “one size fits all” guard. This is a particularly useful concept if the blade and hilt are made in separate workshops. As such, the blade has not been fitted with a lower guard made for another sword, but can with equal justification be considered part of the original hilt design. Secondly, the upper and lower guard are clearly a set, given their morphological similarities, suggesting that this was not a case of replacing individual components. Finally, when consulting statistical data, single-edged blades predominate among type C, F and G (and commonly associated with hilts belonging to type B, H and M) (Jones 2002:21). In fact, type C accounts for 63% of the single-edged blades examined by Petersen (1919:10). That the sword in question best fits the description of a type C is therefore no surprise. The lower and upper guards can thus with some justification be assumed to have belonged to original hilt of the blade, although there is yet some uncertainty surrounding the issue.
Granting that the lower and upper guard were part of the original hilt – or, at least, an earlier configuration – the pommel appears to be a later addition to the sword. The poorly fitted pommel and the separate sword type to which it belongs, which is generally of a later date, suggests that the currently featured pommel served as a replacement in place of an original. Single-edged blades are, moreover, only unusually associated with hilt designs appearing after the close of the ninth century, offering further indications that the pommel has been added later (Jones 2002: 21). The pommel is assumedly the hilt component which is most likely to break or detach itself from the sword – especially in cases where the pommel is fastened by simply peening over the tang. Such a scenario offers a plausible explanation for the current hilt configuration. As such, the sword appears to have been remained in long use, possibly having been passed down for one or several generations, although an approximate date of around AD 900 remains plausible. Exactly how long the sword remained in use remains unclear, but somewhere in the course of time, the original pommel was replaced by a more modern and elaborate design.
There can be no doubt that the sword was a formidable weapon in its heyday. While the blade lacked the benefits of a second edge, the robust spine gave the blade better stiffness and rigidity when using it and the wide edge must have facilitated deep cuts. Other reasons for a single edge may be an attempt to limit injury to own forces when fighting in formation or, simply, a lack of double-edge tradition or craftsmanship in the workshop in which it was made. Forged without a fuller, the relatively heavy weight of the sword would add to its cutting capability but also demand a great deal of control, lest the sword wielder would lose control of his weapon and leave himself open to attack.
The length of the blade – being usually longer on single-edged swords than their double-edged counterparts – would also render the sword more unwieldy but gave the benefits of a longer reach and more powerful cuts (Jones 2002: 21). Generally speaking, it is also worth underlining that, in contrast to seaxes of the late Germanic Iron Age from which the single-edged sword has evolved, the single-edged sword was, in addition to having a thinner spine, equipped with a developed hilt. While longer seax types – such as the longseaxes of the Germanic Iron Age – were equipped with a handle and used much like machetes, the hilt of the single-edged blade – with its pommel and lower and upper guard – awarded the sword with a set of unique properties. The fingers could be wrapped around the hilt more dynamically and allowed for better control and more effective cuts at full extension. As such, the sword may be considered a relatively heavy cutting weapon which, in virtue of its great length and hilt, could be used from a relatively long distance. The curved tip, moreover, naturally adds to the sword’s slicing capabilities, especially at longer distances. Although primarily a cutting weapon, the sword was well-suited for thrusts as well, given the gentle tapering of the blade and that its tip is located so near the center of the sword.
The functional aspects of the sword should be understood conjointly with the use of the round shield which assumedly accompanied the sword in combative scenarios. The small lower guard, which offered little protection to the hand, and the aforementioned attributes of the sword, which rendered the sword more powerful to the detriment of manoeuvrability, suggests that the use of the shield was an important factor in combative scenarios. Not only did the manoeuvrable shield play an important parrying role; it also allowed the combatant to actively seek out new and exposed targets on the opponent with his shield and deliver powerful strikes with his heavy weapon (Warzecha 2014; Warming 2016).
While the single-edged swords are mostly confined to the early Viking Age and western and central Norway, it is useful to note that the widespread use of the one-handed axe – a heavy chopping weapon – may reflect the same combative approach. In this respect, there is a widespread and an unbroken martial tradition in terms of weaponry and their employment in combat. In a certain sense, it may be said that the tradition of using heavy and powerful one-handed weapons contributed to the construction and prolonged use of the dynamic shield which was necessarily used actively in conjunction with these weapons.
Concurrently, the gradual disappearance of the shield-cleaving longer seaxes and single-edged swords may explain the inclination towards constructing more fragile round shields in the Viking Age, which, in contrast to shields of the Germanic Iron Age, are generally sparse in metal reinforcements (Warming 2016). With these long and heavy weapons gone, it assumedly became more desirable to construct lighter and more manoeuvrable shields. The heavy one-handed axes certainly outlived the use of long seaxes and single-edged swords, but these did not pose the same danger to the light round shields, given that the wooden handle made up most of its length and not the relatively small blade. Simultaneously with the spread of broader axes towards the end of the Viking Age – such as JP type M (broadaxe) – the arm’s race appears to have experienced a new boost in terms of protective equipment, as witnessed by the apparent increased use of mail, metal helmets and, most interestingly, the appearance of sturdier shields such as the kite shields and more reinforced round shields (ibid.). Offensive and protective armaments and their use go hand in hand, and it is often fruitful, if not necessary, to examine both aspects in tandem.
Bergelin, T. 2016. Personal communication with Tord Bergelin in December 2016 discussing his observations regarding the forging of the sword. Tord Bergelin is a blacksmith in Höör, Sweden.
Historiska museet 2016. SHM 27001. Huvudkatalog A. Available at: http://catview.historiska.se/catview/index.jsp. Accessed: 27.12.2016.
Jones, L. 2002. Overview of Hilt & Blade Classifications. In Peirce, I., Swords of the Viking Age: 15-24. The Boydell Press.
Petersen, J., 1919. De norske vikingesverd: En typologiskkronologisk studie over vikingetidens vaaben. Videnskabsselskapets Skrifter II. Kristiania.
Warming, R. 2016. Shields and Martial Practices of the Viking Age: Shield Finds from Viking Age Denmark and the Functional Aspects of Round Shield Use and Construction. MA Dissertation. University of Copenhagen.
Warzecha, R. 2014. Form folgt Funktion: Wie die Anforderungen im Kampfeinsatz die Formgebung von der Spatha zu mittelalterlichen Schwertern beeinflussten. In L. Deutscher, M. Kaiser & S. Wetzler (eds.), Das Schwert – Symbol und Waffe. Beiträge zur geisteswissensschaftlichen Nachwuchstagung vom 19.-20- Oktober 2012 in Freiburg/Breisgau: 153-161.
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Rolf is the founder of the Society for Combat Archaeology (SoCA). He holds an MA degree in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Southampton and another MA degree in Prehistoric Archaeology from the University of Copenhagen. His studies have preeminently been on the subject of combat and conflict in the past, ranging from Mesolithic violence to organized state formation in the Renaissance. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University and an affiliated Ph.D. researcher at the Swedish Defense University. In addition to his academic studies, Rolf has a background as a junior officer in the Royal Danish Army. He is also the chief instructor of the martial arts organization Weapons Combat Systems, teaching classes and seminars on an international level. In addition to this, Rolf is the chief instructor of Weapons Combat Systems, a weaponry-based martial art which he teaches on both a national and international level through classes, seminars, etc.