Migration Period Swords and Fancy Hilts & Pommels
|What It's All About|
|Not much seems to be known about Elis Behmer. But his one and only book "Das zweischneidige Schwert der Völkerwanderungszeit" (The double-edged sword of the migration period) is still the standard for our topic here. It was published in 1939, a time when "Germanic" stuff was prominent in Germany (and Scandinavia); the book should be read with this in mind. Behmer's book is apparently his PhD thesis work1) and contains a huge amount of hard information in the form of (black-and-white) pictures of a large number of objects plus detailed information about their origin and whereabouts.|
|Behmer established three
main groups (A, B and C) for migration period swords, with 4, 3 and 2
subgroups, respectively. In contrast to the classification given
here, Behmer does not
consider the blades but looks at everything else, in particular the hilt (with
pommel, grip, cross guard) and the various metal parts associated with a
scabbard (chape, locket, belt attachments etc.).
His classification of the sword from the earlier periods (say 350 AD - 450 AD) is based to a large extent on the Danish bog finds and thus overlaps with the modern systems. However, for the time after 450 AD, his system is still the one everybody seems to use.
|Here are a few excerpts. First the group A, subgroup 1 hilts:|
|Behmer sees swords with this kind of
hilts (and proper other parts) as the oldest "Germanic" types. They
are typical for finds in Danish
bogs. The one the left is indeed from Nydam and on display in the
museum. There are also finds from graves, and according to Behmer this kind
of sword was prevalent all over Northern Europe (including England) around 300
AD - 400 AD. Since we know that a least the blades found in Danish bogs were
all of Roman make, this would indicate that the Germanic tribes used (pattern
welded) Roman blades but attached their own hilts. This is quite possible;
there are indications from all eras that one and the same blade may have seen
different hilts. It is, however, hard to prove.
Behmer, like many archaeologists, is reluctant to make definite statements. All the numbers given are therefore mostly my interpretation of what he conceals in lengthy prose.
|Here is group A, subgroup 2:|
|This type is more or less restricted to Denmark, typically found in bogs like Kragehul. In this case Behmer also looks at the blade in some detail. It is typically narrow (4,5 - 5,5 cm) and pattern welded. The blades have fullers - up to six - and go back to the Roman spatha for mounted warriors, says Behmer. The time horizon for this type is 350+ AD|
|Group A, subgroup 3 is of some interest because it is the first one to sport major amounts of gold (or silver). The hilt is covered with the noble metal and gold cells inlaid with almandine (a red garnets variety) in the cloisonné technique. Here are pictures from Behmer:|
|The blade is broad
and bears no resemblance anymore to Roman types (says Behmer). The blades tend
to have one (broad) fuller but "rich damascening is only found on
exceptions". I'm not sure if that is true since many of these blades are
badly corroded and "damascening" is not obvious and only shows up in
X-rays (that Behmer didn't have).
I would tend to put the following sword hilts in the same category, and so does Behmer:
|The group A3 swords are the
swords of the
Alemmani (or Alamanni). These swords
spread from their homeland in South Germany to the West, East and North, states
Behmer. Well, maybe, but not in the way Behmer describes it. In his reasoning
the "Heruli" play a major role, an East Germanic tribe who migrated
from Scandinavia to the Black Sea in the third century AD. The Heruli, however,
according to more modern insights, were not as important as earlier historians
"Goldgriffspathen" (gold grip spathae) appear around 450 AD 490 AD and are nowadays seen (by some) as derivatives of a Romano-Byzantine design. The culmination of this kind of sword was found in the grave of Childeric I, who died on 481 / 2 AD. We also have an early lavish use of red almandine gemstones for decoration.
|Childeric I (ca. 440 481/482)
was a king of the Salian Franks, those Franks in the North-East (present day
Belgium, North France). He fathered Clovis I, who would unite the Franks and founded
dynasty that eventually subdued and
out the Alemannis. His sword, however, was
evidently imported from the Alemanni. Since it must have been made some time
before his death we can date it to 450±.
His tomb, around Tournai, Belgium, was discovered in 1653. The many precious objects it contained were kept in a library in Paris. In 1831 they were stolen and melted down. Only a few pieces survived including the pieces shown above. From the rest we have only drawings.
|I'll skip the peculiar but not so interesting group A, subgroup 4 swords (Eastern type) and continue with group B, subgroup 5. You know these hilts from Nydam and especially Esbjol.|
|Those hilts are almost exclusively form Danish bogs; they date to the end of the 4th century (380+) up to about 500 AD. Behmer includes some rather different looking hilts from Norway in the same group; see below. I'm not sure about that.|
|I could go on like this for quite a while but remember: This is about iron and steel and not about gold and jewels! So for the remaining subgroups I only give you an overview:|
|Congratulations to whoever compiled this picture! Scaling and combining the important pictures with Behmer's often long-winded prose in a meaningful way is a lot of work. As far as I'm concerned, I will only look at one topic in what follows:|
|I'll skip the subgroups 7 - 9. They are more or less a transition from the "fancy hilt" group 6 to the "Viking sword" that has its own backbone chapter. For the remainder of this module we look into the fascinating if somewhat decadent subgroup 6.|
|The Pyramid Pommel|
|The general topic that triggered this module is: "Evolution of Pattern Welding"; we may also call that: "How Pattern Welding Matured and Died". That development might well be symbolized with the well-known "pyramid pommel" often associated with the Merovingians and the Vendel culture. This statement needs to be qualified in what follows, but first let's look at the object thus described|
|These pommels are typically made from precious metals, often inlaid with (then very precious) almandine (a garnet variety, mostly red but other colors do also exist). They are flimsy and neither well suited for fixing rivets nor for bashing heads in. They are prominent in Wilfried Menghin book "Das Schwert im frühen Mittelalter" (Swords during the Early Middle Age) from 1982.|
|We have a peculiar
pommel shape, more or less reminiscent of a pyramid or actually more of a
bicorn hat or cocked hat (the kind Napoleon and Lord Nelson liked to wear).
Pyramid pommels also come with a ring attached to one side as shown above. In
Behmer's systematic they belong to the large group B, subgroup 5.
In less well preserved specimen we see a lot of rivets, one rivet is quite
prominent in the right-hand side hilt above.
The first question to consider now is: what are pommels for? Here is the list:
|Quite a list! If you now look at the
sword hilts in the picture above, you see:
|Those pommels from Behmer's subgroup 1 or from even older times do not supply any substantial weight (they are made from wood, bone or ivory). They certainly prevent your hand from sliding off and they do provide enough material for securely riveting the tang, always with some metal piece (a rivet plate or cap) right on the bone / wood. Here are some rivet plates and caps:|
|The two on the lower right-hand side
are special: they have a pyramidal shape and belong to early "subgroup
As long as you use these pommel endpieces for riveting the tang by banging it (cold) into a mushroom shape, these pieces needed to be made from solid steel and thus could not be particularly decorative.
|The next thing that happens (if we dare to put this into a time-line) was that somebody had a brain-wave and figured out that you can actually rivet your tang to a simple piece of metal like the elliptical ones above, and then put a fancy kind of endpiece on the whole thing, fastened with rivets to the metal plate. The tang wouldn't show any more and you could make (the end piece of ) your pommel as flimsy and decorative as you liked. For reasons of symmetry you used a similar construction for the cross-guard part. Now you could produce a hilt that was more precious than the blade and really announced the status of its bearer:|
|You either used gold inlaid with almandine or at least silver or bronze parts, more or less fancily decorated .|
|"Fancy pommel" science got
a mighty kick in 2009 when the so-called "Staffordshire hoard" was discovered
in England. It consists of about 3,500 precious items that are mostly related
to weapon decoration (nothing for females in there). Most everything dates to
600 AD - 700 AD; a few early pieces go back to about 530 AD, the youngest ones
are from 700+. The items must have been intentionally damaged, if only by
prying them off by force from a hilt.
Why should one have damaged and buried extremely precious objects around 600 AD in England? We know that the English are notoriously a bit on the weird side but this is wasting money and that's usually where normal weirdness stops. A few lines from "Beowulf" might point in the right directions:
|Then the one warrior plundered the
Stripping Ongentheow of his iron mail-coat,
His hard-edged hilted sword, and his helm,
Carrying the old mans armour to Hygelac,
Who accepted the spoils, and pledged fairly,
To share the rewards, and promptly did so:
|Later it continues:|
|They gave to earth the heroes
Gold under gravel, where it lies still,
And as useless, now, to mankind as ever.
|So we had looting and burial of treasure. The latter, however, in connection with the burial of a hero and not "just so".|
|Among the items were 86 "pyramid" pommels; 64 made from gold; the rest silver (17) and bronze (5). 17 of the gold pommels were inlaid with garnets in the cloisonné technique (look it up yourself), the rest were heavily ornamented. But only one sported a ring! (see below). Compare that to the 29 pommels collected from a huge area around Uppåkra, Sweden, and the 5 pommels from the Snösbäck / Sveden ritual deposit. There are many single stray finds, of course, and we have about 400 pyramid pommels altogether. But with 86 pommels from one place (plus all the other objects) there is now plenty of material to study in a known context.|
|There is more to these expensive masterpieces of early medieval gold-smithing than meets the eye. The surface of the gold below the garnet is often textured into a regular pattern of little pyramids that reflect the light back - just like the reflectors of your bicycle. This can be seen in the picture below or in the lower left pommel of the picture here.|
|Then, following point 5 from above, the fancy pommel may well have some magical / spiritual function, in more than one way. The shape of the gold cells inlaid with garnets, or the decorations otherwise employed, are not always random. They may have meanings:|
|The design on front and back is subtly different. The marked parts designate a boars head. Yes; I don't see it either but people familiar with early medieval iconography are sure about things like that. Maybe this picture helps:|
|Boars are associated
with the prominent Norse God Freyr who gets around by riding the shining
dwarf-made boar Gullinbursti. Depictions of boars heads on the pommel might
have given protection by magic.
Here is another pommel with garnets on one side and a kind of Celtic braid in gold on the other side.
|Wilfried Menghin has a lot to say about pommels in general and pyramid pommels in particular. His book is where you look for details. Since it is from 1982, it does not contain the Stafforshire hoard and is thus already a bit outdated. It does still contain a lot of detailed information, though, that is of interest here. For example many maps of where specific things have been found; here is an example for pyramid pommels:|
|Menghin also gives timelines for specific shapes: Pyramid pommel shapes and time of occurrence|
|Fancy pyramid pommels thus appeared around 550 AD - just about the time when the Merovigian and Vendel periods started. That is why these fancy hilts are often associated with these cultures.|
|The Pommel Ring Puzzle|
|Now you are prepared to appreciate the "pommel ring puzzle ". Some of these hilts come with a ring attached to one side; see above. The puzzle is simple: Why? The answer is simple, too: We don't really know!|
|We have some idea how
this "pommel ring" developed. Some people call it "ring
pommel" but that will lead to a mix-up with the those swords where the
pommel is a ring.
In the beginning, it seems, somebody just used one of the rivets to make a little loop, enclosing a freely moveable ring. Also note the magical sign on one pommel.
|Later an extra rivet was used for the ring holder and the rings got more massive. They were often made from gold or silver or at least from bronze, possibly gilded. The rings are more massive and do not move easily anymore|
|In the end - around 700 AD - the "rings" aren't even separate pieces anymore but made from one piece of gold or gilded silver / bronze:|
|This example gives us a weak clue to
what rings were good for. The massive ring on this hilt was added some time
after the hilt had been made. Pieces of the
wonderful gold - almandine work had to be cut off and damaged to make place for
the ring. There is evidence that this has happened with other hilts, too. There
is also evidence that a ring was sometimes also removed from a hilt.
So it appears that some sword owner on occasion felt compelled to add a ring to his pommel, which might have been removed again somewhat later. Either by the owner or by whoever took over the sword. Now consider that there were far more fancy-hilt swords without a ring than with one, and you can start to develop your own answer to the "why are there rings" question. Here are some answers from the literature:
|Behmer already discussed these
|Securing a sword with a peace band as
shown also explains in a rather natural way the function of all those
"sword pyramids" or other adornments that have been discovered in a
number of Anglo-Saxon graves, lying beside sword scabbards. From the way they
are constructed they were obviously meant to be attached to a strap of some
But let's go on hypothesizing:
|Enough. We simply don't know the exact function of the pommels with rings for for sure. But more and more people (including researchers) employ themselves to solving the riddles of iron steel and swords and new insights are certain to be made in the near future.|
|1)||On the title page we
AKADEMISK AVHANDLING SOM MED TILLSTÅND AV HUMANISTISKA FAKULTETEN VID STOCKHOLMS HÖGSKOLA FÖR VINNANDE AV FILOSOFIE DOKTORSGRAD FRAMSTÄLLES TILL OFFENTLIG GRANSKNING I HÖGSKOLANS LÄROSAL D LÖRDAGEN DEN 9 DECEMBER 1939 KL. 10 F. M.
I'm rather sure that this means it is a PhD thesis.
|2)||Svante Fischer and Jean Soulat: "The Typochronology of Sword Pommels From the Staffordshire Hoard. Symposium paper; no reference given (symposium is Greek and translates as "to drink together"). http://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/svantefischerandjeansoulat|
Books and Other Major Sources
Critical Museum Guide: Württemberg State Museum, Stuttgart, Germany
Critical Museum Guide: Museums in Copenhagen
Critical Museum Guide: Landesmuseum Schleswig-Holstein in Schleswig, Germany
Critical Museum Guide: "The Vikings" Special Exhibition from Oct. 2014 - Jan. 2015 in the Martin-Gropius-Bau
Old Sagas, Heroes and Swords
11.3.3 Evolution of Pattern Welding
Large Pictures 2 - Chapter 11.3
The Frankish Empire And Its Swords
11.4. The Transition to All-Steel Swords / 11.4.1 Viking Swords
Danish Bog Sacrifices
Northern Sword Types of the First Millennium
Some Less Important
Maps of Various Cultures
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)