A Sword from the Late Viking Age from the Higgins Museum
An article by Alexi Goranov
Viking sword hilt design began to simplify in the beginning of the 10th century and the complex two-part pommels were largely replaced with the pommel forms that would dominate European sword design for the next century and a half: the tea-cosy and Brazil nut pommels. The tea-cosy pommel appeared first and appears to have been more popular in the coastal regions of northern Europe up to the Baltic Sea, the lands where the 10th century Vikings settled or often attacked. The Brazil nut pommels appeared independently around the mid 10th century and from archeological evidence it appears that this hilt form was popular in Central and Eastern Europe in the lands occupied by the Germanic and Frankish tribes. Initially these pommels were rather flat and wide, with their end points even with the centerline of the pommel. From the second quarter of the 12th century, the base of the Brazil nut pommels became thicker; its width decreased and, often, its side points moved above the pommel's centerline.
HAM# 2036.1 is of Geibig Type 5 but also could be described as having an Oakeshott Type Xa blade, Type A pommel, and Style 1 cross. The tang is flat, rectangular in cross-section, and relatively wide at the cross tapering acutely in profile towards the pommel. The end of the tang is peened over the pommel. The grip is just long enough for a single hand. The Brazil nut pommel is relatively thin and wide, seemingly of the earlier variety of Brazil nut pommels as discussed above. The pommel is held in place, at least in part, by two iron wedges on each face of the tang. The mostly corroded cross is of a seemingly simple design, but a closer examination reveals some subtle details in its construction. It is rectangular in cross-section (the longer side is parallel to the blade) and tapers gently towards the blade (a feature more pronounced in Oakeshott's Style 2 cross). The cross also has a slot for the blade shoulders to fit in. This slot seems to have been rather deep as the corrosion (even at the better preserved parts of the cross) allowed the blade shoulders to show through.
The corroded blade is an almost ideal Geibig Type 5. It is a double-edged, moderately tapering blade with a very thin cross-section and a shallow, moderately tapering fuller a third of the width of the blade which reaches to about five inches from the point. The very tip of the sword (possibly about 1/6 of an inch) is broken off. The blade features a very flat lenticular cross-section between the end of the fuller and the tip, but the bevel from the fuller to the edge is a nearly straight line. The corrosion on the blade reveals layers of metal stacked one on top of the other. Peter Johnsson speculated that this might be indicative of the nature of a tempered steel blade: skin of hardened steel on top of softer core in the middle. The edges of the sword still form a very sharp, albeit uneven and pitted edge, which may be indicative of corrosion working evenly over the whole surface of the blade. Due to the excavated condition of the sword, I was not able to measure some important aspects of its design such as point of balance, center of percussion, or pivot point.
An interesting feature of this sword is the inscriptions on both sides of the blade. The inlays which may have sat in the incisions are long gone, but the cuts are still clearly visible. There are three symmetric groups of symbols 0.62 inches high on each side. Similar markings are found on at least 3 other swords. Sword 1864, 1-27 3 in the The British Museum in London is dated to the 10th century and has the following inlay on one side III Ω+Ω III (the + stands for a cross potent) and III+O+III and the omega symbols oriented horizontally. Another sword discovered by Jorma Leppaho near Loppi has an almost identical inscription but the crosses are of the standard form, not cross potent. Yet another sword discovered by Leppaho near Saaksmaki carries the Ulfberht inscription on one side and III Ω+Ω III on the other (the omega symbols oriented horizontally and the cross is a derivative of the cross potent).
I had the chance to make detailed documentation of this sword. Its provenance is possibly German and it dates from circa 1050-1150.
Measurements and Specifications:
HAM# 2036.1 in many aspects epitomizes the classic sword of the early High Middle Ages: a cutting-oriented, wide and flexible blade, single handed grip and brazil nut pommel. It is very fortunate that swords of the type have survived through the ages to teach us what little they can about the skill and practices of the medieval smiths as well as the period fashions and methods of the weapon's use. It is even more fortunate that museums like the Higgins are doing their part to expose amateurs and professionals alike to those marvelous examples of surviving history. Hopefully, by examining and re-examining these artifacts we can add to the growing body of knowledge concerning the medieval sword.
About the Author
Alexi is a doctoral student in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Sword in the Age of Chivalry, The, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Records of the Medieval Sword, by R. Ewart Oakeshott
Swords of the Viking Age, by Ian Peirce
I want to extend my gratitude to the curator of the The Higgins Armory Museum, Jeffrey Forgeng, for allowing me to examine HAM# 2036.1. Special thanks goes to Cristina Bauer of the Higgins Armory Museum for all her help, comments, provision of information, and for making this study possible, and to Peter Johnsson for his comments and encouragement.
Photographs taken by Alexi Goranov and reproduced by permission of The Higgins Armory Museum.