11.4.2 Blades of Viking Era Swords
|Several of the swords shown here and
in the accompanying modules have standard pattern welded blades, technically no
different from the ones the Alemanni made a few centuries ago. Some blades do
not show pattern welding on first sight but might do so on
second sight, especially
if you look with X-ray
vision. Some blades are all-steel blades, some carry large inscriptions on
the blade (like VLFBEHRT) and some small inlays. In most cases we do not know
the exact age of the blade. We might be able to date the hilt by its particular
style or the owner of the grave by
dating, but that doesn't necessarily give the age of the blade. Since good
blades were passed on from father to son, possibly acquiring new hilts in the
process, some Viking era blades might be far older than their hilt or the guy
they were buried with.
As far as pattern welded blades are concerned, I have dealt with those. There seems to be no discernible difference in forging techniques between Alemanni pattern welded blades from around 600, say, and later Viking era blades from 800 or later. That is no surprise if all these blades were actually forged in the same region, along the lower Rhine. The people who made them may have been called Celts, Romans, Alemannis, Merovingians, Suebians, Franks or whatever - they had the necessary knowledge and passed on their skills and trade secrets to their progeny.
So let's forget about pattern welded Viking's swords and turn to the interesting stuff:
|With "all-steel" swords I mean swords
made mosly from relatively high carbon steel. Maybe from just one piece of
steel but mostly by piling (or laminating) several pieces.
In fact, after about 800, pattern welded blades slowly disappeared and were replaced by all-steel swords. After about 1000 AD only all-steel swords were made. So far historians saw that as an indication that a kind of revolution in sword forging techniques took place. Here are some quotes:
|Is that true? No, it isn't. We shall
see why in a moment. First let's look at the alleged revolution from a
customers point of view.
Pattern welded swords could only have disappeared because an alternative became available - all-steel swords - and because the customers went for it. What reasons could there be for this behavior of sword owners? I can think of four:
point is easy to see. It is simply inconceivable that people who could afford a
costly pattern welded sword with a fancy hilt would settle for less than the
best. They might have wanted something different than their ancestors for
fashion reasons but they would not settle for something technically inferior.
As long as pattern welded swords carried the day, all that could be done
fashionwise was to change the hilt and to a smaller extent the shape of the
blade. As long as your sword is in its sheath nobody sees your fancy pattern
welded blade anyway, so it makes sense to announce your high status by fancy
hilts and pommels. So full steel swords must have been at least as good or
likely better than pattern welded ones - and that is perfectly reasonable from
a "theoretical" point of view; I'll get to that.
The second point is obvious; no need to enlarge upon it here.
The third point need a bit of explaining. During the building of the Frankish empire and ever since, the organization of warfare changed. Before Charlemagne and his peers, an "army" was more or less an assemblage of whatever local chieftains could raise and put at the disposition for their Overlord. Their equipment consisted of whatever they could afford; swords were rather rare; look a the statistics here. Charlemagne's army, while still put together from men send by his vassals (in particular bishops and abbeys), was heavily armed with standard equipment that was specified in detail. This cost money and one can be rather sure that cheaper products that met specifications were favored by the ones who had to pay. The soldier himself had nothing to say in that.
The fourth point is obvious once more.
|Whatever point carried the day sometime and somewhere after 800 AD, one thing is also sure: It takes a while before the last conservative will catch on. I bet that some of you still use old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs, read texts printed on dead wood, and drive non-German cars. So we must expect that some pattern welded swords were still around after 800 AD, carried by dyed-wool conservatives or people in more remote places (like England) who hadn't heard yet of the newest fashion on the continent. We must expect fairly long transition periods for the whole of Europe even so transitions might have happened far more quickly locally.|
|Before I go on, let's recall an important fact: While we perceive the building of the Frankish empire as a succession of war and constant fighting between the top dogs, quite the opposite is true. Many normal people in the heart of Europe finally did have some peace and quiet for an appreciable stretch of time. The chaos days after the fall of the Roman empire were about over, civilization and business recovered. Huge stone buildings were raised once more in the cities, like the Palatine chapel of the Aachen cathedral; built by Charlemagne between 796 and 805:|
|You need peace and some
prosperity to build something like that, not to mention a lot of iron and steel
tools. While we focus on swords, let's not forget that the amount of iron and
steel used for making swords and other armor was always just a small percentage
of allthe iron and steel coming out of
smelters. Only a small percentage of all the people then living had a sword -
but everyone had a knife, and most a scythe, a
sickle, a hatchet or the
here. In conclusion, the manufacture of iron and steel products must have
increased enormously in the 8th / 9th century to meet the demands of prospering
societies and the ever-growing armies. This requires not just a hell of a lot
more people doing business as usual, this requires changes at doing things. In
the limited space where iron ore was dug out, more people would just have been
in each others way, for example. And even if digging could be scaled up in
one place, you could not scale up the
charcoal supply very much without exhausting the local supply rather quickly.
Increasing the iron production required to open up new mines, increasing the
productivity by getting more iron out of the same amount of ore, and
utilization of low grade ore that didn't do so well in old fashioned
bloomeries. And so on.
How was that done? I don't know but I do know that you, the ancient iron monger, did not sit down, mulling all this over, and then proclaim the new ways of doing things. You just did it. And you go better at it. A rapidly increasing demand for iron and steel in relatively quiet times when one didn't have to run for one's life all the time, facilitated plenty of improvements for all steps in the production chain just by doing business. Investors were around, and you also were more receptive to what you heared from other regions, including from empires far away.
|So exactly what happened to the iron
and steel technology between 750 and 1100, more or less the "Viking
era"? And why?
Let me tell you right away: It's not just me who doesn't know - nobody knows! That doesn't mean that there are not plenty of theories around. Thankfully, we do not need to look much into anything older than 20 years or so, since more recent findings overthrow most of that. There is still a lot of confusion, however, and on top of that we have the enigma of the Ulfberht swords; more to that in the next subchapter.
One thing, however, is obvious to me and should now also be obvious to you:
|Obvious, isn't it? No? Well -
just remember: Forging techniques
already peaked 400 or so years ago. A technique that produced elaborate pattern
welded swords like the ones found in the
Danish bogs has already
reached its climax, you simply can't improve upon it. You can only get better
products if you supply the master smith with better materials on a reliable
base. And no, it's not that the old master smiths had not discovered hardening
by quenching and so on. You can take for granted that at least some old smiths
had working recipes for proper hardening that would have worked all the time
with good material. If they failed, it was the materials that failed them.
Of course I'm no the only one who noted that. Alan Williams, to name just on major sword researchers, knows it, or Mikko Moilanen
To illustrate my claim that the demise of the pattern welded sword was not due to better forging but better smelting techniques, I give you a remarkable figure:
|The shaded areas show typical FeO concentrations in slag from bloomeries or blast furnaces. Concentrations decrease a bit with time because smelting temperatures went up a bit with time. The (elliptical) dots show measured concentrations.|
|This is an amazing figure. It is
based on research conducted by two heroes of
who we have met many times before: Ünsal
Yalcin and Andreas
Hauptmann from Bochum, Germany.
What does the figure show? Back when I discussed iron smelting in some detail, I made abundantly clear that the slag of "classical" bloomeries always contains a lot (50 % or more) of iron monoxide (FeO) or wüstite for reasons that are quite clear. In contrast, blast furnaces produce cast iron only if operated with limestone as flux and concomitantly low wüstite concentration in the slag.
Analyzing the wüstite concentration in slag from different times thus allows to see when the transition from bloomeries to blast furnaces occurred. This is exactly what the figure shows.
|Three conclusion are unavoidable:
|This goes right against the "old" wisdom positing that a more or less sudden jump in (forging) technology happened around 900 AD. What really happened was that a continous progress in smelting technology occurred when things calmed down again somewhat before the dawn of the "Viking era" as pointed out above. That iron smelters could make cast iron far earlier as believed until not so long ago is not the crucial point, however. The crucial point is that smelting became far more more efficient (you got more iron /steel output for the same input of ore / flux / charcoal) and that the quality of the bloom increased. In short: you got more and better iron and steel. The bloom was less spongy, cleaner, and various steel grades could be recognized and separated more easily. Control of phosphorous and sulfur was possible "somehow" too, and so on and so forth.|
|Don't forget that the iron / steel people of old
knew about the different grades of
"iron" already for centuries by then. They somehow could tell
phosphorous iron from plain iron, enabling them to make striped rods, and they
knew about the existence of carbon-rich "hard" steel that they used
for the edges. They might have believed that iron and steel were two completely
different materials that just looked about the same (like silver and tin, for
example) but that doesn't matter. They had working recipes to deal with the
stuff, including the far-from-trivial fire welding and all kinds of quenching
procedures. If a master smith failed in making a good product on occasion, it
was the material that must be blamed, for sure. There was simply no way to
distinguish between good
raw material and not so good one as long as the basic criteria were met.
I won't give you details about the better melting processes and the resulting increase in product quality because we don't have a clear picture yet. The articles of Yalcin and Hauptmann give some hints but much more work is needed (including a better understanding of the smelting process itself) before the last word will be in. The key, however, was to raise the temperature by better smelter design (including making it bigger) and by paying attention to details: kind of ore, pre-treatment of the ore, adding suitable flux (instead of unknowingly relying on the gangue and smelter walls), and so on. That should sound familiar
All things considered, in the 9th century and later sword smiths by and by could obtain better grades of iron / steel at lower prices. That resulted eventually in better and cheaper swords because forging became easier. What more do you want?
|So let's look at blades now. Below is
another figure that will tell us a lot. It shows the quality of about 100
swords from the 10th to the 17th century; thus going far beyond the Viking era.
The quality is expressed in seven "grades" like in German schools. A
"1" is the best grade, a "7" the worst (see the details in
the lower part of the figure). All these swords have been investigated in some
detail by metallography.
About 10 swords per century is of course a ridiculously small number for drawing general conclusions. But that is all we have and against the odds some insights will emerge. Here is the figure; the colors symbolize the numbers of swords investigated.
|Neglecting for a moment the 10th century "Viking" blades we recognize that the general quality went up as time progressed. Very slowly, indeed, but swords did get better. Of course, at any time and in any place there were excellent smiths and iron masters and poor ones, like in every profession. We must thus expect a certain spread in quality at all times. Nevertheless, general improvements must be due to improvements in the material quality and not so much in forging techniques.|
|The figure also shows in full brutality the
enigma of the 10th±
century "Ulfberht" swords. Among the 59 "Ulfberth's"
swords investigated by (mostly) Alan Williams, about 25% were better, and about 20 % were worse than anything produced in the next 500 years!
The rest merits something between grade 2 and grade 6. I have lumped them
together because the grade definition used for these swords is somewhat
different from the one given for the other swords. There are about 170 known
""Ulfberht" swords, so Alan Williams investigation covers about
1/3 of them and thus has some statistical significance.
We have a real puzzle here. A possible and highly advertised solution was given by Alan William; the next sub-chapter will go into that.
|For now we will look a bit more closely at the blade construction after pattern welding went out of style.|
|Making All Steel Blades|
|While the best possible sword consists of one kind of homogeneous steel with possibly quench hardened edges, I also allow swords in this category that were made from several pieces of steel by piling. That seems to bring us right back to the old Celtic times before pattern welding came into its own. However, we need to add one more criterium: Piling now is done for almost sure with faggotted steel and any piece runs (typically) the whole length of the blade. Something like this:|
|Sorry for the clumsy graphics so let's look at the real thing:|
|This is one of 16 swords (Grave No. 438) that have been found in an early medieval stronghold at the site of Mikulèice (Hodonín county) in Moravia (Czech Republic); it dates to about 830 - 900. Moravia bordered the Frankish empire and the swords found there are likely "Frankish". More to this sword and its brethren can be found in this advanced module.|
|The sword shown is remarkable for
|Now you wonder. I have been going on at full
steam in this subchapter for quite a while and all that happened in the
transition from pattern welded swords to all-steel swords is use plain steel as
a kind of veneer on the blade instead of fancy patterned one? Well, yes, but it
is not as simple as it looks.
The question to ask is why that didn't that happen much earlier? The sword might not look as good but it is much cheaper. At least the not-so-rich ones who lived by the sword should have provided for a good market. I can think of several reasons:
|Many of the early all-steel swords
carry long inscriptions while pattern welded swords from the same time horizon
typically don't. Why is that?
A simple explanation suggests itself: An inscription would not go well with the pattern. True enough - but only for huge inscriptions made in a comparatively artless way. If you consider what artisans could do with the hilts, one could have expected very fine and beautiful work on (small) parts of the blade, too.
|Some pattern welded swords actually
do carry "inscriptions" or adornments. Earlier ones may sport small
figures made from copper
or other metals. Later ones might have symbols like
inlaid into the blade by making the symbol from a thin twisted striped rod that
is hammered into the blade. The smith may first make suitable grooves into the
blade that hold the symbol or he might just bang the (cold) symbol directly
into the (hot) blade. Mikko Moilanen has written a detailed
paper about his experiments concerning that;
read it if you want to know more.
I'm not yet talking "+VLFBERH+T" or "INGELRII" signatures but far more simpler stuff, essentially just symbols of some kind, as shown here:
|All-steel blades might also carry
these kinds of insignia. The better known ones carry the words mentioned above;
here is an example Two
questions come to mind:
|It appears that nobody before me has
asked the second question. Why did the famous smith Ulfberht (if he existed)
mark his swords by inlaying crude letters of iron and not perfectly made
letters of gold or copper? The prize couldn't have mattered, just look at the
hilts! Moreover, why were the rather crude and uneven letters not made from
some suitable wire of, e.g., phosphorous steel, providing for a nice contrast
to the blade steel, but made from hard-to-make twisted striped rods?
We have two question here. I do not know the answers but I can guess:
|The letters are rather big,
crude and uneven because:
|Now we are almost
ready to give the "+VLFBERH+T" swords and his brethren a close look.
Before I do that, however, I need to look at a new and unexpected find: The
fully embellished or encrusted 8th century sword shown below was found in a
Bavarian lake by a diver. "It was examinated by the
archaeological department of the university and by the archaeological state
collection of Bavaria. The metallurgic and x-ray examinations proofed the sword
to be authentic" reports the finder in the vikingsword.com forum.
Here it is:
|To me this sword looks like an all-steel sword
that has been embellished with a recurrent motive (as crudely outlined) on both
sides in essentially the same twisted striped rod technique that was used
(later?) for making the VLFBERHT etc. inscriptions. This might be totally wrong
but if it isn't, we might make some wild guesses:
|Well - there seem to be some more remarkable survivors. One is resting in the Provinciaal Museum van Drenthe, Holland. Here it is:|
|Unfortunately we do not have a date for that
sword. If it is "early", say around 800, it would go right with what
I surmised above. It is probably form later times, however;
Ypey suspects the 10 th century
While I'm not sure what the "SIGBRHANI" on one side fo the blade signifies; the "+INGERIHFECIT" cleary means that some Ingeri... has made ("fecit") that sword.
Note that the letters are clearer and neater than in many VLFBERHT swords, and that the "+" sign only appears with the signature of the maker, supporting Anne Stalsberg's hypothesis that this signifies the orgin from an "industrial" enterprise run by a monastery.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Only time (and looking a the "hidden treasures" in museums) will tell.
|2)||Valerie Dawn Hampton: "Viking Age Arms and Armor Originating in the Frankish Kingdom", The Hilltop Review (2011) Vol. 4, Iss. 2, Article 8.|
|3)||Simon Coupland: "Carolingian Arms and Armor in the Ninth Century" Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 21 (1990) (???); on-line via "De Re Militari", Soc. for Medieval Miltary History.|
"Zur Technologie der frühen Eisenverhüttung", Arbeits- und
Forschungsberichte zur SÄCHSISCHEN BODENDENKMALPFLEGE, Band 42 (2000), p.
307 - 382
Andreas Hauptmann und Ünsal Yalcin: " Archäometallurgie der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Eisenverhüttung im Vorland der Schwäbischen Alb". In: "Abbau und Verhüttung von Eisenerzen im Vorland der mittleren Schwäbischen Alb", Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Baden-Württemberg, Band 86 (2003) p. 127 - 158.
|5)||Jirí Hoek, Jirí
Bárta: "THE METALLOGRAPHIC EXAMINATION OF SWORD NO.
438 AS PART OF A SYSTEMATIC SURVEY OF SWORDS FROM THE EARLY MEDIEVAL STRONGHOLD
OF MIKULÈICE, CZECH REPUBLIC", Gladius, XXXII (2012) pp. 87 - 102
Patrick Bárta is well-known to us as the master smith who makes all these beautiful replicas of pattern welded swords.
|6)||Mikko Moilanen: "ON THE MANUFACTURE OF IRON INLAYS IN SWORD BLADES: AN EXPERIMENTAL STUDY", Fennoscandia archaeologica XXVI (2009) p. 23 - 38|
|7)||J. Ypey: "Einige wikingerzeitliche Schwerter aus den Niederlanden", Offa 41 (1984) pp. 213 - 225|
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)