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.

Geibig Type 5 blade: moderate profile taper with an elongated point

Blades on Viking swords are best described using the typology developed by Alfred Geibig, which consists of five different types, all of which can be generally fitted into the Oakeshott Type X, Type Xa, or Type XI. Geibig Type 5 swords were in general use from the mid 10th to the late 11th century and are generally described as long (almost always longer than 33 inches), moderately tapering blades, with moderately tapering fullers and elongated blade tips (distance between the end of the fuller and the point of the blade). These blades are relatively thin at the Center of Percussion and relatively flexible, designed to deliver potent cuts. I recently had the privilege to personally examine a sword of Geibig Type 5 with a Brazil nut pommel at the The Higgins Armory Museum.
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HAM# 2036.1 sword from the Higgins

The Higgins Armory Museum, located in Worcester MA, features a large collection consisting of more than 1,000 objects almost entirely dedicated to arms and armour. Because one of the goals of the Higgins Museum is to educate people about, and promote better understanding and preservation of, medieval arms and armour, its staff promptly provided information about the collection and allowed me to visit and closely examine objects that are usually not on display. One of the most striking pieces on their inventory is a single handed sword (HAM# 2036.1) purchased in 1934 for less than $20 US but currently valued at over $20,000 US. Jeffrey Forgeng, the museum's curator, was kind enough to let me study, measure, and photograph the sword in detail.

The Hilt
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.
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The Blade
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.
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Blade Inscriptions
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).


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Close-up of the blade

It appears that the three lines and symmetrical arrangement of symbols were common practices in some parts of Europe, and some suggest the three lines may have been a symbol for luck. One feature of the inscription of the Higgins sword that seemingly makes it different than the others is the width of the incisions; they appear to be much narrower than the iron inlays of the other swords (which might be expected as the inlays may be wider than the actual cuts), and consistent with gold, silver or latten inlays, which were applied by a different, cold treat method. It was once widely believed that the gold, silver or latten inlays were a newer invention that replaced iron inlays. However, in his book Records of the Medieval Sword, Ewart Oakeshott argues that findings by Leppaho show conclusively that the soft metal inlays were contemporary with iron metal inlays and could indeed be dated to as early as the late Viking age (9th-10th century). An interesting speculation arises from the fact that the 1864, 1-27 3 sword as well as some of Leppaho's findings are dated to the 10th century. Could it be that HAM# 2036.1 was also made sometime in the second quarter of the 10th or early 11th century? The blade and hilt types of HAM# 2036.1 are certainly consistent with such possibility. The sword was, however, dated to 1050-1150 by the previous curator of the Higgins museum, Walter J. Karcheski Jr.

Sword Statistics
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:
Weight as preserved:1 pound, 10 ounces
Overall length:38 7/8 inches
Blade length:34 inches
Blade width:1 15/16 inches, tapering to 3/4 inch
Blade width mid-length:1 39/64 inches
Fuller length:28 inches
Fuller width at base:37/64 inch
Grip length:3 3/4 inches
Tang width at guard:1 3/16 inches
Tang width at upper guard:1/2 inch
Tang thickness at guard:9/64 inch
Guard width:6 1/4 inches

Conclusion
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.

Sources
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

Acknowledgements
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.

 










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