Swords of the Viking Age are some of the most iconic objects of the early medieval period. The very word ‘Viking’ conjures images of warriors, at least judging by the covers of books on Viking-age history and archaeology.
But I confess, I have been putting off saying much about weapons and war because the Viking Age is just so easily stereotyped as an age of raids and violence. Warriors were not the only people who mattered in early medieval Scotland, and even those we find buried with weapons may not have wielded them in life.
In fact, the more I look into Viking-age swords, the less they seem to say about any specific ‘Vikings’ and the more they say about the ‘Age’. The swords which survive in Scotland were largely not the ones left on the battlefield, but the top-of-the-line, expertly crafted status symbols deposited in the graves of a very narrow elite in a short window of time in the ninth and tenth centuries. The fashionable swords they used signalled not an exclusive ‘Norse’ identity but something rather more aspirational.
What counts as a Viking sword?
It turns out it is very hard to define a ‘Viking sword’. A century has passed since Jan Petersen established a widely influential sword typology for Norway in De Norsk Vikingesverd (1919; a partial English translation can be read here). It remains a classic example of object typology, impressive in scope and allowing for patterns of use to be detected within and outside Scandinavia. However, its types are based on only one part of the sword – the hilt – and the variations often come down to what seem today to be minor, if not insignificant, differences in the curve of the hilt guard or the shape of the pommel. It worked well enough that it is still used as a shorthand today, but it can be a bit subjective, and two different scholars might classify a sword differently using the same system.
A good percentage of ‘Viking swords’ were also made outside of Scandinavia. Demand for Frankish steel was one of the engines fuelling Viking-age markets, to the extent that in AD 864, the Carolingian king Charles the Bald banned the sale of Frankish weapons to pagans in the north. Muddying the waters still more, there are examples of Frankish blades being fitted or refitted with new hilts in Scandinavian fashion. Turns out the best ‘Viking’ swords may well be Frankish-Scandinavian cyborgs.
There is also plenty of evidence that foreign swords – whether won in battle, received as gifts or bought on the open market – conferred considerable status on their owners. One recent study has identified dozens of Insular swords from Viking-age graves in Norway. It should not surprise anyone that Vikings got around, and liked to show it.
In truth, the biggest limitation with all our typologies is that the medium is the message. The swords we have in Scotland, as in Norway, are overwhelmingly from graves. The very small percentage of people who were afforded these furnished graves were those whose mourners could afford the sacrifice of those expensive, bleeding-edge (!) examples of blacksmithing technology. These were almost certainly the land-takers themselves, new owners, some of them probably newly wealthy, needing to show their status in a time of rapid change. If a sword was needed, then only a memorable sword would do.
As a badge of status, the swords used in such graves might invoke not just where they came from, but where they were going – the Frankish or Insular elites whose parties they were crashing. A ‘Viking’ identity may not be the main thing these prestige objects were signalling – or rather, what we think of as ‘Viking identity’ was more complicated.
Viking swords in the National Museums Scotland collections
So let’s turn to the swords in our collection, gathering all the ones dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, and see what they tell us about Scotland’s Viking Age. A note of caution first: a major reassessment of Viking graves in Scotland is still underway and will certainly change the figures presented here, but the overall message holds.
The latest published study counted 34 to 36 reliable accounts of ‘Viking swords’ from Scotland, of which 30 certainly came from graves. To these, we can now add the spectacular new find from a boat-grave in Ardnamurchan. 17 of these swords can be found in the collections of the National Museum. In addition, we have also acquired fragments of three pommels of ninth- to eleventh-century date through the Treasure Trove process. And for the completists, our collection has two tenth-century swords from Viking burials at Ballaugh and Maughold on the Isle of Man, gifted to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1824, now on display in Kingdom of the Scots.
Of the 22 swords in our collection, then, all but five come from graves. So we effectively have a collection of aspirational grave goods, not a snapshot of all Viking swords, and still less a picture of how they were actually used on a daily basis.
In the study mentioned above, at least 10 of 34 swords from Scotland were classified as Petersen’s Type H. Petersen’s Type H also happens to be the most popular sword type across Scandinavia, so for starters we can say that Viking-age burials in Scotland fit into the mainstream of their day. For instance, all four swords from the famous cemetery of Westness, Rousay, Orkney (including an antiquarian find from Swandro nearby) are of Type H. They are often, but not always, decorated with a distinctive pattern of alternating strips of copper-alloy and silver, creating a mesmerising multicolour visual effect when they catch the light. We are on the safest ground calling these ‘Viking swords’ just based on their prevalence in Scandinavia and across the Viking diaspora.
Of the remaining swords from Scotland which could be classified, 14 belong to a wide range of other types. These are for me the most interesting, as they represent those who pushed the boat out a bit, as it were, by opting for something other than the most common type. With these, one of these tells you everything you need to know about ‘Viking identity’.
This is the famous Eigg sword hilt, classified as Type D. This has been used as an icon of the Viking Age beyond Scotland. Its inlaid silver, gold and bronze decoration is quite rare, and it’s one of many ‘prestige swords’ found in high-status Viking-age contexts – including four from Ireland. There remains some debate over whether these are Frankish-made or just Frankish-inspired. The answer is most likely that it is both and neither at once. They are (kind of) Frankish in form and (kind of) Scandinavian in style, and seem to have been very popular in diaspora contexts. Actually, the same can be said of Type H hilts, too.
Of the other sword-types identified in Scotland so far, we have swords coming from beyond Norway including Type L swords, often said to be of Anglo-Saxon manufacture, and Types X, Q and B with Danish and Frankish distributions. The sword from Gortons in Strathspey has been classified as either Type Y, P or L over the years, and it is possible here that we have a sword that is hard to identify on purpose – that is, a merging of different types, maybe even executed in a diaspora workshop. It is the Voltron of Viking swords.
Swords beyond the grave
One last thing: what happens if we look at the few swords which were not found in graves? We have an interesting series of swords and pommels dating to the ninth to eleventh centuries in the collection which came from far outside the Scandinavian-dominated north and west of Scotland. These include swords with no certain grave context from Torbeckhill, Dumfriesshire, and Harvieston, Clackmannanshire. We also have three sword pommels which have been found through metal-detecting from Bonchester Bridge, Scottish Borders; Abington, Lanarkshire; and Aberlady, East Lothian. All of these are of ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ types, and are of the Viking Age but given their contexts, could have been wielded by anyone. So even though we know lots of these Type L insular swords are being used in the north, there’s only one from a grave, from Machrins, Colonsay. It may be that in a Scottish context, an insular sword was not seen as prestigious enough for wealthy furnished burials.
How to make a Viking (sword)
So overall, our definition of a ‘Viking sword’ really depends on what we mean. If we only mean a sword made in Scandinavia or by Scandinavians in the ninth to eleventh centuries, we are rather missing the point, and in any case may never be able to prove this. If we mean swords which are intended to signal a distinct Scandinavian identity, well, some of our most famous swords are not Viking swords at all.
The reality is that what made a sword meaningful in the Viking Age was its relationships – to its maker, to its owner, to mourners at a funeral, to the places it had travelled, and of course, to the swords of other notable warriors, be they Scandinavian or not. In this sense, swords could be purposeful hybrids – not an expression of any specific ethnicity but creating a new ‘Viking’ identity altogether. If we disagree over the exact typology of a sword, this is not the sword’s fault, but ours for trying to impose such reductive labels. The case of the insular swords, mainly seen as stray finds but not grave goods in Scotland, shows that the ‘exotic’ was part of the prestige. The attraction of the foreign among the Vikings is something we will need another blog post – maybe a few more! – to really get to grips with.