AGE OF HEROES - 9: CRAFTING THE TOOLS OF WAR Takes Strong Arms, Sharp Wits and Keen Eyes
Masters of the arts of weapon-making and mail forging
Volund or Wayland, Weaponsmith to the gods
Rites were conducted on the completion of special weapons.
However, as the sagas were often obscured by mysticism, they can not be used as historical reference beyond descriptions of what had been undertaken.
In Thirik's Saga the forging of the sword Mimming by Volund (Wayland) the smith is described: 'The process takes in the making of the sword, filing it to dust and feeding the dust to the chickens. So it is mixed with their food in the droppings. The rite is carried out twice before Volund is happy with the outcome'. An independent account of the rite by the Rus appears in Arabic writings. However, misunderstandings may have crept into all accounts written either by outsiders or by Christians long after the old beliefs were set aside in Scandinavia and Iceland. Animal droppings may have been introduced to the process of smithing weapons. The traces of nitrates would have given the blades durability.
The most wished-for element in a ferrous metal weapon is carbon. Iron by itself cannot be hardened unless at least 0.2 percent and at most 1 percent carbon enters the process. Norse weapon-smiths needed to monitor the quantity of carbon according to how earlier masters achieved the same result.
Barbarian weapon-makers as long ago as the 2nd Century BC noted that the surface or iron could be hardened by exposure to carbon-based gases in a vacuum. A clay box holding hot carboniferous material might help achieve this end. Medium quality steel could be made by heating iron ore (to 1200 degrees Centigrade - this measurement was taken in the reconstruction process) in a furnace alongside bone matter. This could be forged and drawn as rods with a steel surface, then twisted and heated with rods of lower carbon content into a blade that revealed a pattern. The process is known to us as 'pattern-welding'.
Axes and spearheads were by and large of plain steel, although again weapons of both kinds have been found that were of pattern-welded manufacture. Harder edges could also be welded to less brittle heads made of a lower carbon constitution. The Viking site at Black Duck Brook in Newfoundland has produced evidence for all stages of production. Archaeologist Helge Ingstad found evidence for bog-iron working, a naturally-sourced ferrous deposit on particular plant species. A ruin she identified as a smithy was at the westernmost point of Norse exploration, a temporary settlement which by all means but one had produced iron after only a short length of occupation of L'Anse aux Meadows ('Vinland').
The mythological forging of the sword Ekkisax by Alberich the dwarf needed the blade matter to be thrust into the earth for a while to harden. This could point to the burying of bog iron modules to allow non-ferrous metals to be drawn from the ore. After curing, what was left over could be worked into a thick bar well below the melting point of iron. A lump of iron could be heated and pressed to force out impurities. Before modern metal-working processes allowed easy exploitation of haematite (iron oxide ore) most iron produced in Scandinavia was extracted in this fashion.
Shielding the body
The Making of Armour
The few related finds of armour-manufacture in the Viking Age make this assessment hard. Non-metallic body armour finds are únknown - for obvious reasons - but for literary references.
In art such things are hard to identify. Any shields found were located in graves, the coverings having rotted. At the time, in the areas in which they were found recovery technology was negligible.
The main form of metal armour was chain mail. There is much in writing about this form of protective wear. The only known kind in north-western Europe is of the interlocking ring variety, butted, riveted or done as complete rings. the usual way of interlinking rings was by attaching to all four around them. The size and shape of the wearer's torso determined the shape of the chain mail coats or hauberks. Each ring was a wrought ring of ferrous metal - copper alloy decorative borders go back only to the 14th Century - the wire from which the rings were made had to be drawn through a series of smaller holes in a metal plate to arrive at the thickness specified by the wearer (or more likely according to the size of his money bags). Research tells us that iron rich in phosphorus gave better wear for drawing in this manner.
Another fine production from Osprey Publishing in the Warrior series:
What everyone thinks of as Vikings, the hersir were once minor landowners who would use their considerable income from taxes, rents and traders to mount expeditions. This was 'Viking', the hersir pressed home their fearsome reputations on those unlucky enough to live near the coast or rivers
Heads for thrusting spears, too good to throw!
The Vikings, Sea Wolves - their reputation went before them. It took a long time and much organisation to defeat them, but whilst they were on top they reigned supreme as warriors across Northwestern Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles
Mending the Tools of War - and a darker side of recycling weaponry
Smiths were seen as having special powers. Weaponsmiths were regarded with awe, their skills akin to magic. They were accorded a position in society few other craftsmen could aspire to.
Sometimes specialist knowledge was needed in the mending of weapons in the field - in a portable smithy, or 'bothy' - or in a properly equipped workshop within a lord's garth or stronghold.
There might be straightforward solutions such as bent blades, such as when the Celts stood on their blades to straighten them. Observations such as appear in sagas tell us of the poor quality of Erse or Hibernian weapons, but often the Norsemen carried sub-standard weapons too, such as Steinthor in the Eyrbyggja Saga, who was mocked for the weakness of his sword blade in an earlier fight. Kormak's Saga tells us how the young warrior damaged the blade of Skofnung - erstwhile of Hrolf 'Kraki' - in combat. In trying to re-sharpen the blade he made the dent bigger. Droplaugarsson's Saga tells of a servant, Thorbjorn, who was making good the blade of Helgi. Grim. Helgi's brother asks for the weapon especially. Small whetstones - such as one fitted with a ring to attach to an amulet - have been found on numerous Viking sites. Olaf Tryggvason at Svold was worried enough about his men's armament that he issued new weapons amid the fighting.
Swords were often passed down through generations, gaining legendary status in their own right. Old swords enhanced status, and nexus of might and standing. To the kinsman they might endow good luck on the warband through their leader(s). Swords of over two hundred years of age have been mentioned in the sagas as used in battle, but in real life great care would have been lavished on them to ensure further useful life. Yet some old swords were damaged so severely they could not be re-used as such and might be re-forged into spearheads such as Grasida (Grey Sides) in the Saga of Gisli Sursson. Grasida broke in a fight, and as the metal was of such good quality a new weapon was made from it. The fragments were thought to be imbued with the purity of the old sword. Dark intent was present in the re-forging of the blade, a sorcerer chosen to assist in the process. A short handle to turn it into a stabbing spear was made for Grasida - indicating an unknown ceremonial purpose - and the weapon was used for the slaying of Vestein and Thorgrim.
Next - 10: Attire Evolution
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