Beautiful surviving examples of elaborate viking swords

Ian Harvey
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Longswords, or spathas, were more than just powerful and deadly weapons.

They were also highly-valuable status symbols and, more often than not, works of art created by highly-skilled craftsmen. Those longswords that survive as artifacts tell a story of culture, artistry, warfare, religious ritual, burial customs, law, and even taxes.

Two sword hilts on exhibit in Hedeby Museum. Photo Credit

During Charlemagne’s rule (768 to 814 AD), a longsword with a scabbard was valued at seven solidi, the currency of the time. We know this by referencing the Lex Ribuaria, which was a set of laws that detailed, among other things, how people could pay their taxes.

Museum of Scotland, viking sword hilt, 9th century Photo Credit

Viking sword from Skaun, Sør-Trøndelag county, Norway. Estimated to be from early Iron Age (from AD 550 to about AD 1050) Photo Credit

Viking swords from the river Meuse in the-Netherlands. Photo Credit

Taxes were often paid in kind rather than with currency, so the value of trade goods was pre-determined. It’s interesting that the price of a sword without a scabbard was only three solidi, indicating that a scabbard was the more valuable part of the set. By comparison, a healthy horse was valued at seven solidi, but a healthy cow only one solidi.

Since they were so valuable, swords were used almost exclusively by cavalry officers who were high born and could afford a warhorse. Although swords as weapons have been used since ancient times, the longsword was a development of the Middle Ages.

Viking longswords. Photo Credit

Early Viking fighters used something called a sax, which is the precursor to the Viking longsword. A sax was shorter, no more than about 24 inches as opposed to a length of up to 43 inches in the case of a longsword. Unlike the longsword, which is hilted and heavy, with a two-handed double blade, the sax is more like a long, single-edged knife.

Examples of longswords that exist today as precious relics have been recovered from graves and hoards, as well as rivers, lakes, and bogs. The Norse (Vikings) often conducted ritual sacrifice to their gods, offering valuable items like swords by depositing them in sacred water. These are some of the best-preserved swords because of the anaerobic conditions that prevented decomposition of the steel.

Type B sword hilt with gold “wheel” ornaments, dated c. 750–850, found in the river Meuse near Den Bosch, the Netherlands Photo Credit 

The exact methods and technology used for making medieval swords are not well understood. By the 9th century, however, when higher-grade steel became available, pattern welding, which had been in use for at least 600 years, became far less popular.

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