Lamellar Armours of the Viking Age
This article is a translation of my Czech article “Lamelové zbroje ze Snäckgärde?” (Lamellar Armour from Snäckgärde?). The article was well accepted and was later translated to Spanish (“Armadura lamellar en la Escandinavia vikinga“), German (“Lamellenrüstungen der Wikingerzeit“), Polish (“Pancerze lamelkowe w Skandynawii“), Hungarian (“Lamellás vértek Skandináviában“), Russian (“Ламеллярные доспехи эпохи викингов“), Italian (“Armature Lamellari di epoca vichinga in Scandinavia“) and Portuguese (“Armadura lamelar na Escandinávia Viking“).
Lamellar armours in Scandinavia
The question of lamellar armour is popular among both experts and reenactors. I myself have dealt with this issue several times and I have collected the literature. My research led me to virtually unknown finds from Snäckgärde, which lies near Visby on Gotland. These finds did not survive, but are described by priest Nils Johan Ekdahl (1799–1870), which is called “the first scientific Gotlandic archaeologist.”
The reason why finds from Snäckgärde are unknown is that they were discovered almost 200 years ago and were lost. The literature about them is hardly accessible and mostly unknown for scholars of non-Swedish origin. All I managed to find is this: in the year 1826, four graves with skeletons were examined in the site called Snäckgärde (Visby, Land Nord, SHM 484), and the most interesting of these four graves are those with number 2 and 4 (Carlson 1988: 245; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318):
Grave no. 2: grave with skeleton oriented in the south-north direction, spherical mound lined with stones. The funeral equipment consisted of an iron axe, a ring located at the waist, two opaque beads in the neck area and “some pieces of armour on the chest” (något fanns kvar and pansaret på bröstet).
Grave no. 4: grave with skeleton in east-west direction, spherical mound, 0.9 meter high, with sunken top. Inside the mound, there was a coffin of limestone, with dimensions of 3 m × 3 m (?). A ringed-pin was found the right shoulder of the dead. At waist level, a ring from the belt was discovered. Another parts of the equipment were an axe and “several scales of armour” (några pansarfjäll), found at the chest.
Judging by the funerary remains, it can be assumed that two men were laid in these mounds with their armours. Of course, we can not say for sure what kind of armours they were, but they seem to be lamellar armour, especially because of analogies and the mention of scales (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 318). Dating is problematic. Lena Thunmark-Nylén mantioned both armours in her publications about Viking Age Gotland. Pins and belt fragments also points to the Viking Age. However, what is the most important are axes – according to Ekhdal´s drawings, the axe from the grave no. 2 is a broad axe, while the axe from the grave no. 4 had the handle decorated with brass. A broad axe could be dated from the end of the 10th or from early 11th century, and the brass coated handle is a feature of some axes from the early 11th century (Thames, Langeid and another sites on Gotland, see my article “Two-handed axes“). It seems logical to suppose that both graves were constructed in the same century, although there are some minor differences in the construction and the orientation of graves.
In Scandinavia, only one analogy of lamellar armour (or rather fragments) has been known so far, from Birka (see for example Thordeman 1939: 268; Stjerna 2001; Stjerna 2004; Hedenstierna-Jonson 2006: 55, 58; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 193–195; Dawson 2013 and others). Lamellae were scattered around the so called Garrison (Garnison) and they number 720 pieces (the biggest piece consisted of 12 pieces). 267 lamellae could be analyzed and classified into 8 types, which probably served to protect different parts of the body. It is estimated that the armour from Birka protected the chest, back, shoulders, belly and legs down to knees (Stjerna 2004: 31). The armour was dated to the first part of 10th century (Stjerna 2004: 31). Scholars agree on it´s nomadic origin from Near or Middle East and it´s closest paralel comes from Balyk-Sook (for example Dawson 2002; Gorelik 2002: 145; Stjerna 2004: 31). Stjerna (2007: 247) thinks that armour and other excelent objects were not designed for war and were rather symbolic („The reason for having these weapons was certainly other than military or practical“). Dawson (2013) stands partially in opposition and claims that the armour was wrongly interepreted, because only three types from eight could be lamellae and the number of real lamellae is not enough for a half of chest armour. His conclusion is that lamellae from Birka are only pieces of recycled scrap. In the light of armours from Snäckgärde, which are not included in Dawson´s book, I consider this statement to be hasty.
People often think that there are many finds from the area of Old Russia. In fact, there are only a few finds from the period of 9th-11th century and they can be interpreted as eastern import, just like the example from Birka (personal conversation with Sergei Kainov; see Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). From this early period, finds come for example from Gnezdovo and Novgorod. The Russian material dated between 11th-13th is much more abundant, including about 270 finds (see Medvedev 1959; Kirpichnikov 1971: 14-20). However, it is important to note that until the second half of the 13th century, the number chainmail fragments is four times higher than fragments of lamellar armour, pointing out that the chainmail was the predominant type of armour in the territory of Old Russia (Kirpichnikov 1971: 15). With high probability, Old Russian lamellar armour from the Viking Age came from Byzantium, where they were dominant thanks to their simpler design and lower cost already in the 10th century (Bugarski 2005: 171).
A Note for Reenactors
The lamellar armour has become very popular among reenactors. At some festivals and events, lamellar armours count more than 50% of armours. The main arguments for usage are:
- Low production price
- More protection
- Faster production
- Great look
While these arguments are understandable, it has to be stressed that lamellar armour is in no way suitable for Viking Age reenactment. The argument that this type of armour was used by Rus can be counteracted by the fact that even in the time of the greatest expansion of lamellar armours in Russia, the number of chainmail armours was four times higher. What is more, lamellar armours were imported. If we keep the basic idea that the reenactment should be based on the reconstruction of typical objects, then it must be clear that the lamellar armour is only suitable for Nomad and Byzantine reenactment. The same applies to leather lamellar armour.
On the other hand, the finds from Birka and Snäckgärde suggest that this type of armour could occur in the eastern part of Scandinavia. Before any conclusion, we have to take into consideration that Birka and Gotland were territories of strong influences of Eastern Europe and Byzantium. This is also the reason for accumulation of artifacts of Eastern provenance, otherwise not known from Scandinavia. In a way, it would be strange if we had not these finds, especially from the period when they were popular in Byzantium. However, this does not mean that the lamellar armours were common in this area. Lamellar armour stands isolated from Norse warrior tradition and armours of this type sometimes occured in Baltic region until the 14th century (Thordeman 1939: 268–269). Chainmail armour can be identified as the predominant form of armour in Viking Age Scandinavia, like in Old Russia. This statement can be verified by the fact that the chainmail rings were found in Birka itself (Ehlton 2003). Regarding the production of lamellar armour in the Scandinavian and Russian territory, there is no evidence to support that this was happening and such a production is highly improbable.
If lamellar armour should be tolerated in Viking reenactment, then
- the reenactor has to reenact Baltic area or Rus area.
- it has to be used in limited number (1 lamellar armour per group or 1 lamellar armour per 4 chainmail armours).
- only metal lamellar armours are allowed, not leather ones or visibly lasered ones.
- it has to correspond to finds from Birka (or Gnezdovo or Novgorod), not Visby.
- it can not be combined with Scandinavian components like buckles.
The armour has to look like the original and has to be supplemented by appropriate gear, like Russian helmets. If we are in a debate between two positions “Yes to lamellar armours” or “No to lamellar armours“, ignoring the possibility “Yes to lamellar armours (without taking aforementioned arguments in account)“, I choose the option “No to lamellar armours”. And what is or opinion?
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Bugarski, Ivan (2005). A contribution to the study of lamellar armors. In: Starinar 55, 161—179. Online: http://www.doiserbia.nb.rs/img/doi/0350-0241/2005/0350-02410555161B.pdf.
Carlsson, Anders (1988). Penannular brooches from Viking Period Gotland, Stockholm.
Ehlton, Fredrik (2003). Ringväv från Birkas garnison, Stockholm. Online: http://www.erikds.com/pdf/tmrs_pdf_19.pdf.
Dawson, Timothy (2002). Suntagma Hoplôn: The Equipment of Regular Byzantine Troops, c. 950 to c. 1204. In: D. Nicolle (ed.). Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour, Woodbridge, 81–90.
Dawson, Timothy (2013). Armour Never Wearies : Scale and Lamellar Armour in the West, from the Bronze Age to the 19th Century, Stroud.
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Stjerna, Niklas (2001). Birkas krigare och deras utrustning. In: Michael Olausson (ed.). Birkas krigare, Stockholm, 39–45.
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Stjerna, Niklas (2007). Viking-age seaxes in Uppland and Västmanland : craft production and eastern connections. In: U. Fransson (ed). Cultural interaction between east and west, Stockholm, 243–249.
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