AGE OF HEROES - 8: WARCRAFT WARES - Weaponry and Protective Metalware for the Warrior
Dawn of the Viking Age
Cold steel, linden wood and chain mail...
The Gjermundbu helm above...
is the only one archaeologists have ventured to describe as of truly Viking origin.
Outwardly it follows the pattern of having a fixed spectacle plate - remember the one worn by Kirk Douglas in his role as Einar in THE VIKINGS? - although there are notable differences in manufacture. The Gjermundbu helm is shaped by a 'brow band', a skeleton of two metal bars and four formed triangular plates that make the dome. One bar is lined up with the middle of the skull, the other across the bowl from ear-to-ear. Both bars join at the brow band, as is the visor. The four parts of the dome are riveted to the cross-pieces to fill the gaps between the parts.
The pre-Viking Valsgarde and Vendel helms are more complicated, some having a reinforced crest, a 'wala'. Yet others have cheek pieces. true Viking-age helms are more like the Gjermundbu type. A carved elk antler from Sigtuna shows a warrior with a conical helm, appearing to be made up of four sections riveted together. Although it shows no indication of structural members, a row of rivets around the base of the helm means there was originally a brow-band attached. A nose-piece on this part might seem to be a projection of the longitudinal skull-band. However there is no certainty in this.
Viking monumental art such as the Kirklevington, Sockburn and Middleton Cross fragments show men wearing conical helms but these might equally be pointed caps or hoods. A fragment of the Weston Cross shows a bare-headed warrior. Two helms of Central European origin linked with the Viking era are from Olmutz and another unknown source in Bohemia. The domes of these helms are forged from one piece of metal. Whilst no evidence is available that this technique was used by Norse armourers, the dating of the helms and the great variety of gear used by the Norsemen tells us helms of the type may have been in use. Olaf Haraldsson is said to have had a company of five-score picked men at the Battle of Nesjar, armed in coats of mail and non-Norse helms.
There are no intact hauberks or mailshirts from the era; even fragments are seldom seen. Mail was handed down through generations, or 'acquired' until some time after mediaeval times, but this is by no means a valid reason for the scarcity of evidence or finds. Usage amongst the Vikings may have been low-profile. poetry in sagas - taken as of an earlier age than the body of the accompanying narrative - often tells us of byrnies. Mail armour comes in more often in relation to later events, suggesting its use was only more common in later years. One factor leading to Harald Sigurdsson's defeat at Stamford Bridge was that much of their armour and heavier weaponry had been taken back to the ships at Riccall on the lower Ouse after the earls submitted at York.
Verses made up by Harald during the fighting tell us of his regrets at his short-sightedness, his mailcoat 'Emma' having been taken six miles or so southward to the ships. His mailcoat would gave been similar to those worn by Harold Godwinson's huscarls and by William's foot-soldiers. Norman cavalry mailcoats were made with slits to front and back to accommodate their riding posture in the saddle for long periods of time. Harald's mailcoat may have closely resembled a style worn by the Franks of the time.
Little evidence has been found for lamellar armour in Scandinavia, being eastern in origin. A few plates were found at Birka, once one of the foremost trading havens in Central Svear (Swedish) territory. nor is there much evidence of leather or fabric 'armour' - layers of material made into protective padding. Snorri Sturlusson tells us of thirteen body armour shirts made of reindeer hide given as a gift to Olaf Haraldsson. These were believed to be denser than metal mailcoats. What might have been quilted jackets of layered material can be seen on the Gotland tombstones. However, due to the nature of this type of representative art-work, this conclusion could be guesswork.
The Gotland gravestones also show warriors with what seem to be bucklers (small shields like those borne by Highlanders at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie). Taken in ratio to the figures carrying them they would have to be just the size of a dinner plate. Items such as these may have been used but no archaeological finds have borne out this idea. A sculptor showing the usual size of shield would have had to leave greater spaces in his work for life-sized shields and in representations the art-work would have been seen as awkward.
The broadest cross-section of shield-types from the age were found with the Gokstad ship burial. These shields may have been especially made for the event and are therefore not necessarily representative of everyday use. Any of the Gokstad shields when used in combat may have been unwieldy and tiring to carry in close formations. Shield-bosses are found commonly, the fabric of the shield having rotted in the ground. It had been assumed metal rims were common, but not one excavated example had a full metal rim. Natural materials in early excavations were usually rotten; to analyse them would have been near-impossible.
In the early years of the Viking Age shields were the norm. The odd oval-shaped shield in the Oseberg Tapestry has never had an archaeological parallel - kite-shaped shields that began to be used in the 11th Century were known as Holfinn-skjoldr. Anglo-Danish huscarls in King Harold's household used them exclusively, and they were to be seen in use at Stamford Bridge and Caldbec Hill (Hastings). Highly-paid retainers would have been equipped with such new introductions to warfare from Frankia.
Although emblems were often associated with Viking shields, any evidence has been of limited worth. Characters in Njal's Saga are said to have hd shields decorated with dragons and a lion. A study of the Bayeux Tapestry shows such motifs to have been in use for less than a hundred years earlier.
Greenlanders used symbolic shields. Red showed a battle might be imminent, white was used to show peaceful intent. The followers of Olaf Haraldsson carried shields covered with white cloth decorated with felt red and blue crosses by AD1015. The symbol of the cross was to show Olaf's aggressive conversion aims, but also to distinguish them from their pagan foes.
Axe, bow, spear and sword were the chosen weapons found at most grave sites, many of which being grave-goods. Danish burials of the earlier era hold the same weapons as their Svear and West Norse counterparts until the late 10th Century when Denmark adopted Christianity under Harald Gormsson. After the early 11th century Danish graves were no longer furnished with weapons to accompany the fallen warrior into the afterlife.
The most common axe types were the long-hafted Dane axes, with their short downward-angled beard. The use of the axe determined the blade, however. A common wood-hewing tool might also be serviceable as a weapon, as many found. Broad-bladed, two-edged axes would be wielded two-handed, with a second man close by armed with sword or spear to protect the axe-bearer. By the time of the Conquest these were the distinguishing form of weapon of choice carried by Harold's huscarls in response to the more widespread wearing by Norman knights of hauberks. Axes with beards, downward-pointing blades were a mark of Norse weaponry.
The spear was only the third mosr used weapon after the axe or sword, according to Danish grave-finds until the late 10th Century. It may be elsewhere spears were more popular. Spearheads were more economical to make, and could be turned out faster than either swords or axes. There were mainly two types of spear used in warfare, the throwing spear and the jabbing - or thrusting spear. The throwing spear was cheapest to make and buy in great numbers, and could be retrieved after a victory in addition to those of the beaten foe.
Many spears were of Carolingian - Frankish - origin, identified by their broad blades and projecting 'wings', which could be used to hook over the foes' shields and drawn down quickly in order to spear the shield-bearer. Spears with narrower blades might be the throwing kind, aero-dynamic and light. Individuals decorated their spears and their victims' corpses might be seen about the field, where a comrade might say, 'That is Sverri's spear - he has felled their champion again!'
Swords were practically tailored to the owner, or were inherited - as with English thegns and huscarls - and were more commonly long, two-edged with cross-guard and a type of pommel. Blades were likely to be pattern-welded, with a central longitudinal channel to allow the victims' blood to drain away and ease extraction after combat. Points were generally not sharp, as the swords were slashing rather than stabbing tools. when not in use the sword might be kept in a scabbard of thinly-pared wood, adorned with leather, a metal chafe riveted to prevent damage by rubbing. The scabbard could be lined with sheepskin, wool inward to keep the blade clean, wiped when the sword was drawn or sheathed. A remarkable regional variety of sword was about a yard long (just less than a metre), with a single edge like the Saxons' seaxe. It is Norwegian by origin, several having been found with fittings like those of the sword, and pattern-welded to show the user was likely to have been well-born.
Single-edged knives were also found at the Coppergate dig in York, and may have had more general use aside from as a weapon. Sometimes, sooner than wait for a maid at an inn or in the feasting hall a warrior might use a fighting knife or dagger to cut meat (generally boiled), apples or roots (boiled turnips, pale carrots, swedes are known to have been eaten in northern Europe at the time).
Next - 9: Crafting & Mending the Tools of War
A book that although it will only partially sate your thirst for knowledge about the Vikings, 'VIKING WEAPONS and COMBAT TECHNIQUES' will give some useful background knowledge about one aspect of the Vikings that strikes the reader (metaphorically of course). There is so much literature available about the Norsemen, their hunger for land, gold and the good life that you could amass a library on that subject alone.