While self-learning about swords from Early Medieval Norway, I noticed quite a number of specimens having well-preserved organic remnants of hilts and sheaths. Because normally these components do not remain, I considered useful to gather these materials into coherent articles to enrich sword enthusiasts. In this article we will follow up on Norwegian sword hilts from the Viking age, however we think that the Norwegian material can be used for pointing out all the sword hilt types used in Early Medieval Europe.
We start by quick recapitulation of how we define the hilt and handle of these swords. The sword is composed of a blade and hilt components which are mounted on the blade’s tang. The hilt components are the lower guard (fremra hjaltit) and a pommel, which can be one-pieced or two-pieced. In case of the one-pieced pommel, the tang goes through and is riveted at its top. However, in case of the multi-pieced pommel, the tang is usually riveted to the upper guard (efra hjaltit) and then the cap of the pommel is riveted to the upper guard by two rivets. Uncovered part of the tang between the lower guard and the pommel provides the space for a handle (meðalkafli). Now we will explore the ways of covering the tang to enable comfortable and smart use of the sword.
Viking Age sword terminology. Created by Jan Zbránek and Tomáš Vlasatý.
During a fairly thorough exploration of the Unimus catalogue I was able to find four main hilt forms. We can notice that most of the hilts are anatomically shaped, widening towards the lower guard.
A tang covered with a wooden handle of an oval cross-section – that seems to be the most common variant used in the Viking Age, which also has great variability. The handle could be made of two identical scales, a cylinder with a burnt-in gap or a cylinder with a cutting that would be covered with a narrow piece of wood when mounted on the tang. The material seems to be the wood of broad-leaved trees (i.e. T16054 and T20736, and the pre-Viking B4590 seems to have a birch handle as well). In contrary to Pre-viking periods, the profiling of the handles in terms of finger copying bumps is not documented. Some swords seem to have only an unwrapped wooden handle, in other cases the wooden handles are wrapped in leather, fabric, metal or a combination of these.
We have evidence that the wooden base was wrapped with a leather cord (C57001) or a strip of leather (T14613). The shape cannot always be reconstructed exactly, at least in one case the wrapping leather does not have a specified shape (C23127, Ts2954). Identical leather wrapping can be found on Swedish and Icelandic swords.
We can sometimes detect thread (S3821), textile strap (B5161) or cloth plus iron wire wrapping (T3107). Some of the finds are wrapped in unspecified textile (S11782, T12962, T21998). Identical methods of cloth wrapping can be found on Swedish swords as well.
Silver, gold or copper alloy wire was a quite popular and very spectacular option for wrapping (C5402, C22138, C23486, C58882, T19225) as manifested on S and Æ types. This variant is also mentioned in written sources (vaf), specifically in the context of elites around the ruler and rich farmers (Falk 1914: 23). As we can see, the wrapping was typically executed with orderly separation of thin wires and two pairs of coiled wires opposite to each other, thus creating the fishbone effect. The wires are often entwined into curls of thicker wire at the ends of the handle. Wooden handles were quite minute under the wire, making the resulting handle rather subtle. This can arise some questions regarding possible special designation of such swords, for example combat swords fit for stabbing (personal debate with Roland Warzecha).
Metal ferrules on the handle
Usage of bronze pre-cast or plated ferrules at the ends of wooden handles was equally popular (B1481, B11477, C1194, C1977, C5464, C8095, C9981, C11301, C16107, C18494, S5371, T8257, T16054, T20913). Pre-cast ferrules are crown-shaped and their tongue-like protrusions often depict animal or humanoid heads. These ferrules are probably mentioned even in written sources under the name véttrim (Androshchuk 2014: 31). Some hilts have simple ferrules spread on the inner surface of the handle (B878, B11477).
As far as I know, there was only one sword in the Viking age (S2453) with its grip made of antler scales. Handles made of this material are very rare in neighbouring Sweden too, where only two specimens (Androshchuk 2014: Jä 12; Holm 2015) were found. The antler scales of Swedish swords were riveted on the side with tiny iron rivets.
Antler handles from Norway and Sweden.
S2453 (left), SHM 12426 (right).
Straw / bast wrapping
According to the Unimus catalogue, a single-bladed sword was found at Tussøy (Ts3639) whose handle was wrapped in straw or bast. This modification seems to be completely unique and I know of no parallels to it. Due to insufficient description, we can provide no detailed information. In addition, Sveinulf Hegstad, the photo archivist University of Tromsø, provided me with a current photo of the object and there is no organic trace left.
Pre-cast or forged handles are found on some of Peterson’s type D swords in Norway (i.e. B5774, C4072. C8095, C24887, T14309). These swords, being among the heaviest of all Viking swords, can be dated to 800-950 AD. They are composed of triple-lobed, two-pieced pommel, guard and typically also a metal handle. These handles are massive products of metal casting or smithing and their surface is covered with geometric or animal decor. The lower layers of the profiled decoration are decorated with copper alloy, the upper layers with silver. These handles are also sometimes decorated with ferrules on the handle tops (véttrim). According to Petersen, there were 11 swords of this type in Norway in 1919 (Petersen 1919: 70-75), while Hernæs filed up to 16 specimens by 1985 (Hernæs 1985).
Androshchuk, Fedir (2014). Viking Swords : Swords and Social aspects of Weaponry in Viking Age Societies, Stockholm.
Falk, Hjalmar (1914). Altnordische Waffenkunde. NVAOS. No.6., Kristiania.
Hernæs, Per (1985). De østnorske sverdfunn fra yngre jernalder : en geografisk analyse. Magistergradsavhandling i nordisk arkeologi – Universitetet i Oslo, Oslo.
Holm, Olof (2015). A Viking Period sword from Skäckerfjällen with a decorated antler grip. In: Fornvännen 110:4, 289-290.
Petersen, Jan (1919). De Norske Vikingesverd: En Typologisk-Kronologisk Studie Over Vikingetidens Vaaben, Kristiania.