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AGE OF HEROES - 9: TO CRAFT THE TOOLS OF WAR You Need Strong Arms, Sharp Wits And Keen Eyes

Updated on August 11, 2017

Masters of the arts of weapon-making and mail forging

Blade in the forge - a new sword in the making, pattern-welded, gold-hilted maybe?
Blade in the forge - a new sword in the making, pattern-welded, gold-hilted maybe? | Source
Weaponmaster at work on chain mail - Viking Centre, Ribe, western Jutland (Denmark)
Weaponmaster at work on chain mail - Viking Centre, Ribe, western Jutland (Denmark) | Source
Weaponmaker - a master craftsman in his workshop busies himself with a new task
Weaponmaker - a master craftsman in his workshop busies himself with a new task | Source

Volund or Wayland, Weaponsmith to the gods

Wayland's smithy at Uffington, White horse country
Wayland's smithy at Uffington, White horse country
Norse carving of Volund the smith making weapons as Egil fights off attackers
Norse carving of Volund the smith making weapons as Egil fights off attackers

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However, as the sagas were often obscured by mysticism, they can not be used as historical reference beyond descriptions of what had been undertaken.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

Chain mailcoat with belt
Chain mailcoat with belt | Source
Shield with edging and boss of unpainted steel on wood
Shield with edging and boss of unpainted steel on wood | Source

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 ├║nknown - 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!

A collection of Viking patterned spear heads
A collection of Viking patterned spear heads | Source

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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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      A certain amount of faith was called for in fielding an army. Faith was needed in the next men in your company - as it is now - and in yourself... As well as in your gods (whichever you believed in, or bowed your head to). Some trust in an afterlife helped, as with the Viking warriors' belief that they would feast with the Allfather and carouse with the Valkyries by night, and by day they would fight as they did in life. Over centuries the gods changed from several to one, and carousing with the Valkyries turned into carousing at the local sin-bin. Only the small details changed really. The main thing is you show a brave face for your comrades, thumbs up and hope for the best.

    • MrMaranatha profile image

      MrMaranatha 6 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

      Let me Add to that: In ancient Palestine there was not only a shortage of metal.. but also of Mental.

      They may have had the metal but without the Blacksmiths and the knowledge of turning that metal into arms... they were still without what it took to field an army.

    • MrMaranatha profile image

      MrMaranatha 6 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

      Right... and they had some strange ways of cooling the blades for temper as well as I seem to remember... Using either human bodies (live or dead) or cattle like sheep or oxen to stab the blade into so that the cooling happened at the right speed and not too slow or too fast... I imagine that that had both occultic significance as well as its practical value..

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Point taken, MrMaranatha. I don't think in this case the recycling was done because of a shortage of metal. In these times Northern and Central Europe and Scandinavia enjoyed a glut of weapon-making. Sweden and Norway are still exporting iron ore, they've got mountains-full of the stuff! What brought about the recycling was that the owners of heirlooms passed down from their grand-fathers and fathers wanted to prolong the life of the weapons they inherited - to keep their forebears' 'spirits' in motion, so to speak. Scrap the goods and scrap the memory, no less. Plus also in pre-Christian - even post-Christianisation - a spell might be cast on the blade to hasten the victim's death. Weaponsmiths were regarded in a similar way to sorcerers, which brings us back to spirits...

    • MrMaranatha profile image

      MrMaranatha 6 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

      Recycling the tools of war is actually very well known... It is even talked about in the Bible in several ways..

      The Philistines at the time of the Judges (+/- 13-1500 BC) are mentioned as having had a complete monopoly on the Blacksmith trade.. they prevented their enemies from knowing how to work metal in an effort to keep them subjugated... But since tools were needed to work the fields... the Bible says every man went down to the blacksmiths ... Here part of the passage:

      1 Samuel 13:20 But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock.

      21 Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads.

      To wit.. they got them mended and sharpened... then they either used them as they were... or probably heated them up in the fires and straitened them out themselves for use as weapons.... Oxe Goads were basically just a type of Spear tip anyway... the other things could be made into a type of sword or pole arm... Recycling was important in that time because Metal was always in scarce supply.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Recycling's been with us since, after eating the meat from the animals they killed, mankind took the bones and turned them into tools... or weapons

    • Kadmiels profile image

      Kadmiels 6 years ago from Florida

      this is just the best, humans have come such a long way in the involvement in tools and weapons.. of gcousres the best part is they even recycled them lol

    • profile image

      Ghost32 6 years ago

      You've done a fine job of cleaning up the spelling and grammar--at least, I didn't notice a single flaw!

      Now, if an inferior sword blade could only be upgraded so swiftly and surely....

      This added considerably to my limited store of weaponsmithing knowledge. One thing of which I HAD become aware, not from ancient times but in the Here and Now: A firearm worked in stainless steel is beautifully rust resistant--but also SOFTER than the blued (presumably higher carbon content) steel of its darker brothers.

      Voted Up and More.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Science and technology, the staple of warfare all the way back to the first fighting clubs, when one caveman had something another caveman wanted and didn't want to have to pick the berries to pay for it! The other lesson is: how to wield the club to achieve the best results!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      This is impressive, and far over my head. Of course I'm totally ignorant of such things as whatever is involved in forging a sword or battle axe.

      I've read historical fiction about Julius Caesar and Genghis Kahn - and in both read some about the forging of swords....but never enough for me to pick up on any of it for long. Probably mostly that is due to how inapplicable it is in my regular life.

      But boy that kind of thing sure used to be of prime importance!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Fair comment. Will do. At least it means you've read it through. Maybe I should keep the typos as a ploy to get people reading it - only joking!

    • MrMaranatha profile image

      MrMaranatha 6 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

      Good article, but you need to go through it again and do spell and grammar checks... You can delete this comment its just for your eyes...

      I enjoyed the article.


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