Typology of Spearhead Wings

When I wrote an article called “On Viking Age spearhead wings“ a few years back, I did not expect returning back to the topic and revising the content due to heavy new evidence. Wings on spearheads are often debated by fighting reenactors, while experts only give it little attention. In general, the feature is both time and geographically widely spread phenomenon, surrounded by several mystifications. This article aims to describe the anatomy of Early Middle Ages spearhead wings and attempt to categorise them.


The term “wings” describes an intentional protrusion attached to socket of the spear, which can serve several functions. In the first place, wings work as a cross-guard by widening the socket and preventing the spearhead from penetrating deeper into the body of animal or human. Increasing the surface of socket was achieved in various ways during the Early Middle Ages, such as installation of a ball moulding, a cross, a row of rivets or animal figures (see Fig. 1); sometimes the blade alone is shaped to prevent the penetration. Nevetherless, the wings are specifically formed in order to serve other functions of combat nature too – hooking, weapon deflection, cover etc. Some wings have a pointy tip and can be thus used as an extension of the harmful part of the spear while cutting, or they could had been provided support to additional blades that were attached to the spearhead, increasing the attack surface of the spear, such as in the case of Holy spear from Vienna (Paulsen 1969).

The wings were undoubtedly also used for easier sheath fixation. It is simply a practical feature, which increases the weapon’s effectiveness and which also gained a symbolic value (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 177). Winged spears are usually used in the context of hunting, for which they were certainly used since the Roman Era up to Modern history (Fuglesang 1980: 136-140; Oehrl 2013: Attachment), although it is certain that at least during the Early medieval period, they also found use in military conflicts, as supported by various relevant iconography.

Viking spear sockets shapes
Fig. 1: Early Middle Ages ways of widening the spearhead socket: wings, ball moulding, cross, a row of rivets, animal figures.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.

In this article, we will only analyse wings that are an integral part of the socket. We will omit wooden wings that could had been tied to the shaft, as was sometimes the case in Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. As for the material used, the wings were in vast majority made of iron metals, rarely also from ironless metals, usually copper alloy. Wings made of iron metals were almost always welded on, non-iron wings could had been cast together with the socket.

Archaeological material shows a variety of possibilities when it comes to spearhead wings, which corresponds with local trends and even customisation to personal needs. Archaeological research (eg. Solberg 1984Westphal 2002: p. 254-266) focused solely on standard types which were present in higher amounts. We shall attempt to fix and improve this approach by including even other wings types that have not been considered before, thus increasing the possibilities. With that in mind, we kindly ask our readers and users of the schemas provided to be considerate, and we will gladly accept any suggestions and constructive criticism you might have. Should this new spearhead wings typology come into wider usage, we ought to figure out several issues, such as bad state of many wings, which can be an obstacle to categorise the wings or change their typology entirely.

Fig. 2: Spearhead anatomy, as used in the text.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 1: Wing’s upper side placement
Represents an orientation of the wing’s upper side placement in relation to axis of the spear. By placement, we mean the initial touch point of the wing (as shown in Fig. 3), which we categorise as follows:

A. perpendicular placement (the wing is perpendicular to spear’s axis)
B. placement incurved towards spearhead (the angle between spear’s axis and wing’s placement is lesser than 90°)

C.
placement incurved towards shaft (the angle between spear’s axis and wing’s placement is greater than 90°)

Fig. 3: Feature 1: Wing’s upper side placement.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 2: Upper side curvature in relation to wing’s placement
Represents an angle of the wing’s upper side in relation to the angle of their placement (as shown in Fig. 4), which we categorise as follows:

A. straight (the wing’s upper side is parallel with the wing placement)
B. c
oncave (the wing’s upper side is concavely curved in relation to the wing placement)
C. convex (the wing’s upper side is convexly curved in relation to the wing placement)

Fig. 4: Feature 2: Upper side curvature in relation to wing’s placement.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 3: placement and curvature of the bottom side
Represents the style of placement and curvature of the wing’s bottom side in relation to the wing (as shown in Fig. 5), which we categorise as follows:

A. straight (the bottom side is perpendicular to spear axis)
B.
continuously concave curvature (bottom side of the wing is continuously concavely curved from the placement to the terminal)
C.
continuously concave curvature with a step (bottom side of the wing is indented with [sometimes pointed] step, then continues with concave curve to the terminal)
D.
slant (bottom side of the wing is straight and slanted in relation to spear axis)
E. continuously convex curvature (bottom side of the wing is continuously convexly curved from the placement to the terminal)
F. continuously convex curvature with extended tips (convex bottom side of the wing is extended to two tips exceeding the socket; tips that are integral parts of the socket are not included)
G. angled (bottom side of the wings consists of two lines that intersect in an angle greater than 90°)

Fig. 5: Feature 3: Placement and curvature of the bottom side.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 4: frontal look of the terminal
Represents the style in which the wing is ended from frontal view (as shown in Fig. 6), which we categorise as follows:

A. tipped terminal (upper and bottom sides of the wing meet in a tipped point)
B.
flat terminal (upper and bottom sides of the wing meet in a plain)
C.
flat terminal with a barb (the upper and bottom side of the wing meet in a plain with a barb)
D.
terminal with a separated barb (upper side of the wing is ended with a curve or flat pad, bottom side of the wing is ended with a barb, and these two are separated with a notch)
E.
curved terminal (upper and bottom side of the wing meet in a curved terminal)
F. curved terminal with a barb (upper and bottom sides of the wing meet in a curved terminal with a barb)
G.
globular terminal (upper and bottom sides of the wing meet in a ball)
H.
animal head terminal (upper and bottom sides of the wing end in an animal head)

Fig. 6: Feature 4: frontal look of the terminal
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 5: side look of the terminal
Represents the style in which the wing is ended from side view (as shown in Fig. 7), which we categorise as follows:

A. spike (the terminal has a sharp, single-point profile from the side view)
B.
sharp edge (the terminal has a sharp or very narrow profile of up to 3 mm from the side view)
C.
blunt edge (the terminal has a blunt profile from the side view)
D. s
quare or rectangular profile (the terminal has a wide square or rectangular profile from the side view)
E. c
ircular or oval profile (the terminal has a circular or oval profile from the side view)
F.
animal head (the terminal is shaped in an animal head)

 

Fig. 7: Feature 5: side look of the terminal
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


Feature 6: the look from below

Represents the style of the winged socket from the bottom view (as shown in Fig. 8), which we categorise as follows:

A. straight with constant width (the wings are straight and of constant width, whether narrow or wide)
B. constant width with bent terminals (the wings are straight and of constant width with bent terminals)
C. tapering into a spike (tapering wings ending in a spike)
D. tapering but ending with a flat terminal (tapering wings ending in a flat edge)
E. tapering in a wavy line (tapering, wave-shaped wings)
F. tapering with an enlarged terminal (tapering wings that are enlarged at the terminal, such as with an animal head)
G. straight with constant width, with globular ending (straight wings of constant width with globular or otherwise similar ending)
H. stepped (the wings are narrowing in a stepped manner)
I. tapering and curved (the wings are tapering and curved to one side)

Fig. 8: Feature 6: the look from below.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml.


In the following practical section, we have so far categorised a total of 23 different types of Early Middle Ages winged spears. The categorisation of the wings will be based on the more complete or better preserved of the two. In some cases, there are spears with wings where each could be categorised differently, but these are rather an exception as the craftsmen usually attempted to achieve symmetry.

Fig. 9: 1A.2A.3A.4B.5C.6A; Niederstotzingen, Germany; grave 6, dated 650-680 AD.
Westphal 2002: 246-247, cat. no. 3.3.8.

 

Fig. 10: 1A.2A.3B.4B.5C.6A; Walsum, Germany; grave 6, dated to 2nd quarter of 8th century.
Westphal 2002: 242-243, cat. no. 3.3.4.

 

Fig. 11: 1A.2A.3B.4A.5A.6C; Hage, Norway; Solberg type VI 1B, belonging to approx. 750-850 AD.
Cat. no. B11315.

 

Fig. 12: 1A.2A.3C.4B.5C.6A; Straume, Norway; Solberg type IX 1B, belonging to approx. 950-1050 AD.
Cat. no. C24488.

 

Fig. 13: 1A.2A.3G.4B.5C.6A; Lutomiersk, Poland; dated to 11th century. Nadolski 1954: Tab. XXVII:4.

 

Fig. 14: 1A.2A.3B.4B.5D.6B; Dugo Selo, Croatia; dated around 800 AD. Demo 2010: Fig. 1.

 

 Fig. 15: 1B.2C.3B.4E.5C.6I; Sahlenburg, Germany; grave 68, dated do 750-800 AD.
Westphal 2002: 226-227, cat. no. 3.2.3.

 

Fig. 16: 1C.2B.3B.4B.5C.6E; Frankish spear, Palatium, Ostrów Tumski, Poznań, Poland.
Exhibition “Kiedy Poznan był grodem… Uzbrojenie“.

 

Fig: 17: 1C.2B.3C.4B.5C.6A; Kjorstad nedre, Norway; Solberg type VI 2B, belonging to approx. 850-950 AD. Cat. no. C30253.

 

Fig. 18: 1B.2C.3C.4C.5B.6A; United Kingdom; dated to 9th to 10th century.
British Museum 2019.

 

Fig. 19: 1A.2A.3B.4C.5C.6A; Østre Toten, Norway; Solberg type VI 2B, belonging to approx. 850-950 AD. Cat. no. C20909.

 

Fig. 20: 1A.2A.3B.4G.5E.6G; Neckartenzlingen, Germany; dated typologically to 8th century.
Westphal 2002: 248-250, cat. no. 3.3.11.

 

Fig. 21: 1A.2B.3B.4B.5C.6I; Krefeld-Gellep, Germany; grave 1782, dated to 525 AD.
Reichmann 2013: 269, Fig. 3.

 

Fig. 22: 1B.2C.3F.4B.5D.6A; Krefeld-Gellep, Germany; grave 6352, dated to 1st half of 4th century. Reichmann 2013: 268, Fig. 2.

 

Fig. 23: 1B.2C.3C.4B.5B.6D; Frestedt, Germany; dated to 2nd half of 8th century.
Westphal 2002: 239-241, cat. no. 3.3.2.

 

Fig. 24: 1A.2B.3E.4A.5A.6C; Haugen, Norway; cat. no. C21961. Dated to 840-900 AD.
Nørgård-Jørgensen 1999: 233-235, cat. no. 52:7, Pl. 27.

 

Fig. 25: 1A.2A.3D.4B.5B.6A; Stade, Germany; dated to 8th century.
Westphal 2002: 228, cat. no. 3.2.5.

 

Fig. 26: 1C.2B.3B.4B.5A.6E; Hameln, Germany; dated to 2nd half of 8th century.
Westphal 2002: 233, cat. no. 3.2.11.

 

Fig. 27: 1C.2B.3B.4B.5C.6A; Poznań-Luboń, Poland. Kostrzewski 1947.

 

Fig. 28: 1A.2C.3C.4H.5C.6A; Farnhem, United Kingdom. Dated to 11th century.
Lang 1981: Pl. XV; Wardell 1849: Fig. 2.

 

Fig. 29: 1C.2C.3B.4H.5C.6A; Vesilahti-Suomela, Finland.
Kivikoski 1973: Tab. 134, Abb. 1182.

 

Fig. 30: 1C.2B.3E.4A.5A.6C; Perniö-Paarskylä, Finland.
Kivikoski 1973: Tab. 134, Abb. 1183.

 

Fig. 31: 1B.2C.3B.4H.5F.6F; Bargen; grave 7, end of 7th century.
Dauber 1955: Abb. 3B.


By the end of the article, I would love to point out that until this day, the researchers evaluated the wings function only in regards with hunting, without any practical knowledge of the possible working with the spear. For that reason, this beneficial feature was mostly overlooked, and the wings were not given any broader attention or systematic elaboration. Fortunately, this is changing thanks to reenactors, who pursue acquisition of accurate replicas, and in some cases even attempt to reconstruct the original fighting techniques as well.

The lack of any serious attempt for practical interpretation of the spear wings limited both researchers and reenactors, distorting its full function and limiting greatly our understanding of Early Middle Ages warfare. In the first place, current common argument is that the spears were purely two-handed weapons. This may be true for some longer or massive pieces (which is also supported by iconography), but vast majority of our sources suggests single-handed use in combination with a shield. This specific combination, which can be found in cultures all around the globe, was purposely used in a specific combat phase. Iconography shows that when it comes to ground combat, single-handed spears were held with the thumb facing away from the spearhead, which can prove practical for four reasons:

  • experiments confirmed better penetrability
  • the ability to quickly throw the spear
  • higher safety of the thumb
  • better ability to pin down the opponent’s spear

Thickness of the preserved shafts and sockets proves that vast majority of shafts were between 20 and 30 mm thick, and that they were tapered. This thickness has experimentally turned out to be universal and that a spear with split shaft of this thickness is both flexible and durable enough to sustain one- and two-handed combat style, while also being well usable for throwing. The total weight of the spear, with some exceptions, was between 500 and 1500 grams.

Fig. 32: Spear combat on the Bayeaux tapestry.

Fig. 33: Examples of winged spear combat.
Left: Corbic Psalter (Amiens Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 18, fol. 123v), circa 800 AD (Paulsen 1969: Fig. 4:2). Right: The Codex Aureus of Echternach (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Hs. 156142, fol. 78), dated to 1030-1050 AD (Fuglesang 1980: Pl. 110C).

Should we accept this fact, it would allow us to move farther in some theses. During the combat, where the spears were predominant – which was basically common for most, if not all European battlefields in the Early Middle Ages – the wings on spearheads represent an advantage and addition that provides a higher performance. We specifically consider these three cases:

  • There is a correlation between height of the wings, width of the blade and thickness of the shaft. Width of the wings is always equal to or higher than width of the blade – spears with narrow blade will have short wings, spears with wide blade on the other hand have taller wings. Majority of Frankish, Polish and Croatian finds (and possibly even other countries for which we have no corpuses) commonly have inner diameter of the socket between 25 and 36 mm, the wings span 59-90 mm and their height is 17-34 mm (Demo 2010; Westphal 2002; Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2018: 208). This ratio indicates that the wings span is not random but is on the contrary chosen purposely to prevent the spearhead from penetrating further. It seems likely that almost all the wings (except of type 2C wings, that is with the wing’s upper side being convexly curved in relation to the wing placement) could easily be used to deflecting opponent’s spear towards ground – basically stopping a counterattack by swift and precise stroke to opponent’s spear’s socket or shaft. Especially spears with very tall wings or type 1B wings, plus some of the type 2B wings suggest that they were constructed towards as best manipulation with opponent’s spear or another weapon, as possible.

 

  • For a long time, there has been an argument amongst the reenactors regarding the possibility of using the wings for hooking, although so far there is no conclusive evidence. There are several wing types (2C, 3C, 4C, 4D, 4F) that could by design be used for hooking, be it a shield or a weapon. This tactic can provide an important practical advantage. It is possible that also the types 6B and 6I could be used similarly. In the Gull-Þóris saga (chapter 10), there is a reference on an attempt of hooking a shield with a spear.

 

  • Third often discussed question, whether the spear wings can be used for hacking, can be supported. A successful hit by basically any wing type would have a devastating effect, with spears having 4A, 4C, 4G, 5A, 5B, 5E, 6C, 6E and 6G features performing the best.

Used and suggested literature

British Museum (2019). Spear-head, Museum number 1856,0701.1449. Available online: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=85949&partId=1&from=ad&fromDate=700&to=ad&toDate=1200&object=20259&page=2, accessed on 1.6.2019.

Creutz, Kristina (2003). Tension and tradition: a study of late Iron Age spearheads around the Baltic Sea, Stockholm.

Dauber, Albrecht (1955). Ein fränkisches Grab mit Prunklanze aus Bargen, Ldkr. Sinsheim (Baden). In: Germania, Bd. 33 Nr. 4, 381-390.

Demo, Željko (2010). Ranosrednjovjekovno koplje s krilcima iz okolice Dugog Sela u svjetlu novih saznanja o ovoj vrsti oružja na motki. In: Archaeologia Adriatica, Vol. 4. No. 1., 61-84.

Fuglesang, Signe Horn (1980). Some Aspects of the Ringerike Style : A phase of 11th century Scandinavian art, Odense.

Hjardar, Kim – Vike, Vegard (2011). Vikinger i krig, Oslo.

Kivikoski, Ella (1973). Die Eisenzeit Finnlands: Bildwerk und Text, Helsinki.

Kostrzewski, Józef (1947). Kultura prapolska, Poznań.

Kouřil, Pavel (2005). Frühmittelalterliche Kriegergräber mit Flügellanzen und Sporen des Typs Biskupija-Crkvina auf mährischen Nekropolen. In: Die Frühmittelalterliche Elite bei den Völkern des östlichen Mitteleuropas : (mit einem speziellen Blick auf die großmährische Problematik) : Materialien der internationalen Fachkonferenz : Mikulčice, 25.-26.5.2004, Brno, 67-99.

Kurasiński, Tomasz (2005). Waffen im Zeichenkreis. Über die in den Gräbern auf den Gebieten des frühmittelalterlichen Polen vorgefundenen Flügellanzenspitzen. In: Sprawozdania Archeologiczne, vol. 57, 165-213.

Lang, James T. (1981). A Viking Age Spear-Socket from York. In: Medieval Archaeology, 25, 1981: 157–160, Pl. XV.

Leppäaho, Jorma (1964). Späteisenzeitliche Waffen aus Finnland: Schwertinschriften und Waffenverzierungen des 9. – 12. Jahrhunderts ; ein Tafelwerk, Helsinki.

Nadolski, Andrzej (1954). Studia nad uzbrojeniem polskim w X, XI i XII wieku, Łódź.

Nørgård Jørgensen, Anne (1999). Waffen & Gräber. Typologische und chronologische Studien zu skandinavischen Waffengräbern 520/30 bis 900 n.Chr., København.

Oehrl, Sigmund (2013) Bear hunting and its ideological context (as a background for the interpretation of bear claws and other remains of bears in Germanic graves of the 1st millennium AD). In: Grimm, O. – Schmölcke, U. (eds.). Hunting in Northern Europe until 1500 AD – Old Traditions and Regional Developments, Neumünster, 267-332.

Paulsen, Peter (1969). Flügellanzen: Zum archäologischen Horizont der Wiener Sancta lancea. In: Frühmittelalterliche Studien 3, 289—312.

Petersen, Jan (1919). De Norske Vikingesverd: En Typologisk-Kronologisk Studie Over Vikingetidens Vaaben. Kristiania.

Reichmann, Christoph (2013). Late ancient Germanic hunting in Gaul based on selected archaeological examples. In: Grimm, O. – Schmölcke, U. (eds.). Hunting in Northern Europe until 1500 AD – Old Traditions and Regional Developments, Neumünster, 267-276.

Ruttkay, Alexander (1975). Waffen und Reiterausrüstung des 9. bis zur ersten Hälfte des 14. Jahrhunderts in der Slowakei (I). In: Slovenská Archeológia XXIII / 1, Bratislava, 119-216.

Sankiewicz, Paweł – Wyrwa, Andrzej M. (2018). Broń drzewcowa i uzbrojenie ochronne z Ostrowa Lednickiego, Giecza i Grzybowa, Lednica.

Solberg, Bergljot (1984). Norwegian Spear-Heads from the Merovingian and Viking Periods, Universitetet i Bergen. Dizertační práce.

Wardell, J. (1849). Antiquities and Works of Art Exhibited. In: Archaeological Journal 6, 401–2.

Westphal, Herbert (2002). Franken oder Sachsen?: Untersuchungen an frühmittelalterlichen Waffen, Oldenburg.

Westphalen, Petra (2002). Die Eisenfunde von Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 10, Neumünster.

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