03 October 2015

Sword of Late Viking Age Burial Unveiled

To let a masterpiece like this Viking sword go for whatever reason defies logic, but that is what they did, buried it with its owner. He would need it in Valhalla, of course, but to fashion such a weapon must have taken some doing in those days.
This sword brings to mind the sword Leg Biter, the weapon of choice for Halfdan Ingolfsson, chieftain of the Greenland Norse people that sailed from Greenland in my Axe of Iron historical fiction series, to eventually assimilate with the pre-historical natives of Vinland.
All that said, though, I would have liked to have seen this magnificent sword, to hold it in my hand, to feel its heft. It's a good article, I hope you enjoy the read. (Ed.)


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Sword of Late Viking Age Burial Unveiled Exhibiting Links Between Norway and England

15 JULY, 2015 - 14:38 ALICIA MCDERMOTT

Though they discovered it in 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo had to wait through four long years of conservation and research to finally reveal the finding of a unique Late Viking Age sword excavated at a burial ground in Langeid, Norway, with mysterious links to England.

The site's lead excavator, Camilla Cecillie Wenn, told Live Science that she knew that they would find something special during excavation because in the burial grounds there was one grave that was different. It was much larger than the other 20 graves found at the site. But it wasn't only the size that indicated a special grave - the post holes (suggesting a roof over the grave) in the four corners surrounding the grave provided a clear clue to something special waiting beneath.

However, the archaeologists lost some hope as they began to dig in search of the coffin and only found fragments of two silver coins. While the coins were somewhat interesting - one with embossing suggesting it was from the German Viking Age and the other a penny from the time of Ethelred II in England (978-1016 AD), it was not what they were expecting.

Thus, Camilla Cecillie Wenn and her team continued searching even after they reached the coffin.  As she explained in a press release of the University of Oslo: "But when we went on digging outside the coffin, our eyes really popped. Along both sides, something metal appeared, but it was hard to see what it was. Suddenly a lump of earth fell to one side so that the object became clearer. Our pulses raced when we realised it was the hilt of a sword!"

That wasn't the end of the story however, as the team searched the other side of the coffin they also found more metal - a big battle-axe. Many questions arise from these weapons, in no particular order, one wonders: Why were they placed alongside the coffin? Who did they belong to? When and where are they from? The archaeologists and conservators at the Museum of Cultural History have been working hard for the last four years to try to answer these questions.

The archaeologists suggest that the placement may be to protect the corpse from enemies or, more likely, as a means to show the power and prestige of the dead body.

By dating some carbon from one of the post holes they were able to link the burial to the year 1030, which also makes sense due to the English coin discovered above the coffin.

Swords were undoubtedly seen as prestigious adornments and weapons during the Viking Age, and certainly a more ornate a sword would be a visible image of social status.

The Norse sagas also emphasize the importance of an elaborate sword. The mythical sagas speak of magical swords made by the dwarves. As the process to create a well-made sword would have been difficult, there was a sense of mystery and magic that surrounded beautiful weaponry.



King Svafrlame Secures the Dwarven-made magical Sword Tyrfing of Norse mythology from the Poetic Edda (1906) V. Rydberg 
Wikimedia Commons

As Hanne Lovise, the author of a recent article on ornate Viking Age swords told Live Science,  "[...] swords are referred to as aesthetic, powerful and magical objects. The many similarities between the descriptions of swords in Norse and Medieval literature suggest that the splendor of the sword in the latter had roots in the Viking notions of the symbolic power, magic and ritual aspects of the ornate sword... There is much to suggest that these magnificent swords were such objects, reflecting the status and power of the warrior and his clan."

The sword discovered at Langeid is 94 cm ( inches) long, and despite the rusted iron blade, the handle of the sword has been well-preserved.  It was undoubtedly owned by a wealthy person, due to the silver threads entwining the handle and silver and gold details on the hilt with copper alloy thread edging. The sword decoration includes spirals, Latin letters (with a grouping that remains a mystery), and most surprising is the image depicted at the top of the pommel: a hand holding a cross.


Full image of the Viking sword, Langeid, Norway
Ellen C. Holthe/Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
"That's unique and we don't know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism," Camilla Cecillie Wenn told Live Science. She believes that this treasure of a sword may have been created in a foreign land and exported to Norway by a very important man.

The axe found alongside the burial also suggests a connection between the buried body and England. The style of the axe with its brass/coated shaft, was very rare in Norway. However, it corresponds well with axes found by the River Thames in London. The dating of the axe also relates well with the axes found in England by the Thames.


Saxo-Norman/Viking Iron & Copper alloy Battle Axe (11th Century), from battle by the River Thames, London, England
Museum of London

Piecing together the evidence of the dating, the English coin, the foreign-made sword and the Thames like axe from the  burial, project leader Zanette Glørstad suggests that the burial may be of one of Danish King Canute's warriors from the battles with the English King Ethelred. She is tempted to even suggest it may be the burial of the legendary warrior Bjor or his father Arnstein.

Although this special find may have taken some years to make a public appearance, it has finally come to light in an exhibition called "Take it Personally" focusing on personal adornments. As the sword had such a large role in adorning and creating the presence and image of a Viking-Age warrior, it is a suitable choice to debut it at this time.

By Alicia McDermott

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