Axes are popular weapons and tools in Viking Age reenactment. However, their owners do not often care about them and we can see a lot of rusted axe heads during historical festivals. Every hiker knows that a sheath is necessary in order to keep the blade sharp and in good condition. Nevertheless, the best is, as always, a responsible owner.
I had been looking for axe sheaths for a very long time. All I had found were leather sheaths from High and Late Medieval Rybarczyk – Strzyż 2014), but no Viking Age material. Written sources do not mention anything (Íslendinga saga literally mentions an injury caused by an unsheated axe in the chapter 144) and sheaths from organic materials decayed – that was my way of thinking. I was shocked when I managed to find the information about organic sheaths.
After all, I decided to write an article about these finds for you. My friend Jan Zbránek, the leader of the group Marobud (the article about him can be seen here) made really nice replicas of both types from Haithabu. You can see them below, together with several other sheaths.
Organic sheaths had been used until Modern times. In a book about carpentry tools, we managed to find a 1130 mm long wooden sheath of the type 1 designed for a two-man saw (Schadwinkel – Heine 1986: Abb. 226). In total, we have 25 organic sheaths from the period of 9th to 12th century, distributed in the area from Ireland to western Russia. Sheaths were made of alder, beech, birch, juniper, oak, pine, spindle, spruce, yew and willow wood and elk antler. Sheaths were often decorated and had different methods of fixing. The typical lenght of slits (79–120 mm) indicate that sheaths belonged to axes with shorter (up to 100 mm) or middle long (101–140 mm) edges; one sheath from Schleswig could belong to a Petersen type M broad axe. Moreover, there are three metal sheaths that are described separately in the article Metal Axe Sheaths. Below you can find a catalog of all organic sheaths, which is supplemented by reconstructions. Together with the reenactors, we hope in popularization of this essential axe addition.
The biggest assemblage comes from the harbour of Haithabu, where thirteen finds were discovered. They can be divided into two types. The first type (10 pieces, Westphal 2007: Taf. 30: 1–6) is slightly bent in shape (HbH.432.001, HbH.432.003. HbH.432.006), has rounded (HbH.432.001–002, HbH.432.006–007) or straight ends (HbH.432.003, HbH.432.005, HbH.432.010) and there is a slit designed for the axe edge in the inner part. Sheaths of the first type are 126–145 mm long and 12–21 mm broad; the slit is 85–115 mm long a 4–6 mm broad. Sheaths could be fixed in various ways. In two instances, a leather cord could be fixed in two eyelets that stick out from the side of the wooden sheath (HbH.432.003–004). Some sheaths have holes in the ends (HbH.432.001, HbH.432.007, HbH.432.010), others are roughly profiled for better fixing (HbH.432.005). The method of two holes in the ends could be upgraded by small round piece of wood set in the lower role; this piece of wood fixed the axe edge from one side and the leather cord fixed it from the other side (HbH.432.001). A wedge was used in one case; the wedge was inserted between the slit and the axe edge and went through the sheath out (HbH.432.002). This particular sheath is decoraded with relief carving and the wedge is stylized in the shape of leaf.
The second type represents a sheath that covers a large surface of one side of the axe head (Westphal 2007: Taf. 31: 1–3). Three trapezoid finds belong to this type. They are 134–147 mm long, 40–73 mm broad and 19–20 mm thick (HbH.432.011–013). The slit is similarly long as the slit of the type 1 (95–120 mm); only one find of the type 2 (HbH.432.011) has the slit 5 mm longer than the longest slit of the type 1 (HbH.432.001). In two cases, the method of fixing can be recognized: in first instance (HbH.432.011), the sheath has two eyelets on the side as two examples of the type 1 (HbH.432.003–004), and in the second case, there is a hole in the slit and the leather cord was fixed in it and wrapped around the axe head (HbH.432.013). Regarding the material of sheaths from Haithabu, the most common kind of wood is willow (HbH.432.003, HbH.432.005, HbH.432.010, HbH.432.012), but yew (HbH.432.001), oak (HbH.432.013), beech (HbH.432.007), spruce (HbH.432.008) also occur. Materials of four sheaths could not be determined (HbH.432.002, HbH.432.004, HbH.432.006, HbH.432.009).
Axe sheaths from Haithabu, type 1.
1 – HbH.432.001; 2 – HbH.432.005; 3 – HbH.432.002; 4 – HbH.432.003; 5 – HbH.432.006; 6 – HbH.432.007. Taken from Westphal 2007: 171, Taf. 30.
Axe sheaths from Haithabu, type 2.
1 – HbH.432.011; 2 – HbH.432.012; 3 – HbH.432.013.
Taken from Westphal 2007: 172, Taf. 31.
Two more find comes from Schleswig. One of them is 140 mm long, 26 mm broad, 15 mm thick and the slit is 100 mm long and 7 mm broad. The sheath is made of spruce wood, has holes in the ends and it resembles the type 1. This sheath is decorated with a carved animal in Urnes style. Under the animal, there are “two axes facing each other that clearly suggest the function of this object” (Hilberg 2022: Abb. 110; Saggau 2006: 264; Abb. 44: 13; Abb. 45). The second is a 271 mm long sheath made of juniper wood was discovered in Schleswig as well, and it probably served as the sheath for a cleaver or a mezzaluna knife (Hilberg 2022: Abb. 107; Saggau 2006: 264; Abb. 44: 14). Based on 235 mm long slit, which corresponds to Petersen type M axes, Hilberg and Kainov interpret this sheath as a protection for a two handed axe (Hilberg 2022: 186; Kainov – Singh 2016: 200). The dating points to 1090s (Hilberg 2022: 186). Another unpublished sheath comes from Schleswig, discovered in 1976 at Plessenstraße 83/3, house no. 8, structure 41. The material of this sheath is unknown. One side is equipped with a hole, the other is broken off. Personal verification at the museum leads us to believe that the sheath is fitted with a blade slit. The end of the sheath is slightly raised on the visible side. According to Volker Hilberg, the dating points to the period from 1100 to the second half of the 12th century.
Decorated axe and cleaver / mezzaluna knife / two-handed axe sheaths from Schleswig, type 1.
Taken from Saggau 2006: 262, 264; Abb. 44: 13–14; Abb. 45.
The sheath from Schleswig, found in 1974. Schleswig, inv. no. KS D 382.009.
Taken from Hilberg 2022: Abb. 110.
The sheath from Schleswig, found in 1976. Schleswig, inv, no. KS D 382.008.
Taken from Hilberg 2022: Abb. 107.
Unpublished sheath from Schleswig, found in 1976.
Own photos taken in Schleswig.
In Dublin, two more decorated sheaths of the type 1 were found. They are made of pine and alder wood, have rounded ends and the literature (Lang 1988: DW 61) describes them as “Scraper handles”. The shorter sheath is 90 mm long, 28 mm broad, 12 mm thick and the slit is 87 mm long, while the longer sheath is 92 mm long, 27 mm wide, 12 mm thick and it has 79 mm long and 7 mm broad slit.
Axe sheaths (“Scraper handles”) from Dublin, type 1. Taken from Lang 1988: 72, Figs. 3, 81.
Fragments of two wooden sheaths were also found in Norwegian graves from Voll (T1204) and Horstad (T16368; Sjøvold 1974: 1-2). Both belonges to bearded axes that had ca. 130 mm long edges. It is suggested that the sheath from Voll was made of conifer wood (Vlasatý 2017).
Axe with sheath from Voll, T1204. Photo source: UNIMUS catalog.
Two unpublished wooden sheaths come from Trondheim, Norway, specifically from the Folkebibliotekstomten site, where they were discovered in 1974-1976. Both belong to the same type. The first, approximately 16 cm long case is incomplete, it has only one hole and the opposite side is broken off. This sheath is dated to the 2nd half of the 11th century and has inv. no. N36384. The second sheath (inv. no. N27478) is complete, 17.5 cm long, provided with two holes and dated between 1225-1325.
The sheath from Trondheim, inv. no. N36384. Photo source: UNIMUS catalog.
The sheath from Trondheim, inv. no. N27478. Photo source: UNIMUS catalog.
Two more interesting sheaths of the type 1 were found in Sigtuna, Sweden. The first of them (F8800) was discovered during the excavations by Anders Wikström in 1999 (Kitzler Åhfeldt 2011; personal communication with Anders Söderberg). The sheath is 182 mm long and 37–40 mm broad. It is torn in half and before the destruction and throwing away on a street, the sheath was repaired with two iron plates and two rivets. The slit for the axe is ca. 130 mm long and 10–18 mm deep. Due to the incomplete state, it is difficult to define the width of the slit or the thickness of the complete sheath; the slit could be ca. 10 mm broad, while the complete sheath is 20–22 mm thick in the midde, ca. 10 mm near the ends and ca. 8 mm in the ridge. There is a hole on the frond side, probably for a leather thong, similarly to one sheath from Haithabu (HbH.432.013). Moreover, the sheath is decorated with palmette motives that belong to Pr3 style (after Gräslund), which is dated to 1050–80 AD. The stratigraphy of the find suggests the dating to ca. 1055-1075. Based on the density of annual rings and on black knots, Anders Söderberg from Sigtuna Museum thinks the object is made of juniper wood (personal communication with Anders Söderberg). The second find is a massive sheath made of elk antler (Sf: 317:d; Floderus 1941: 102; personal communication with Anders Söderberg). The sheath is ca. 70 mm long. The slit is unevenly broad and it reaches the edge of the sheath on one side. There are two holes on the front side, drilled in a slanting angle. At least one side is decorated with circular carved ornaments. The sheath cannot be dated better than 980–1350, as it comes from old, poorly documented excavations. However, the most of finds from Sigtuna date to 11th and 12th centuries (personal communication with Anders Söderberg).
The decorated wooden axe sheath from Sigtuna, type 1. Taken from Kitzler Åhfeldt 2011: 56; Fig. 18, 19.
The decorated wooden axe sheath from Sigtuna, type 1. The archive of Anders Söderberg.
The decorated antler axe sheath from Sigtuna, type 1. The archive of Anders Söderberg
Almost unknown sheath made of spindle wood was found in the locality Fribrødre Å, Denmark, in 1982 (Skamby Madsen – Klassen 2010: 272-3). The sheath, dated to the 11th century, is 21.5 cm long and belongs to type 1. In the original work, it is interpreted as a sheath of a long blade, either a knife or an axe. There are no mounting holes on it. The slit is open on one side.
Wooden sheath from Fribrødre Å, type 1. Taken from Skamby Madsen – Klassen 2010: Fig. 177.
A completely new find is a juniper sheath of the type 1, that was found in Troitskiy excavation site in Novgorod, Russia (Kainov – Singh 2016). The sheath dates back to 1030–1040 AD. It is 132 mm long, 39 mm broad, 11 mm thick and it has 100 mm long, 5 mm broad and 34 mm deep slit. Both holes have the diameter of 3.5 mm. The sheath from Novgorod shows a very interesting fixing method; it was pinned through holes to Kirpichnikov type IV axe, an bearded axe with a hole in the blade.
The sheath for Kirpichnikov type IV axe, found in Novgorod, type 1. The archive of Sergei Kainov.
The system that we have just described can be detected at a Kirpichnikov type IV axe from Ukraine, dated to the 11th century (personal discussion with Sergei Kainov). There is a preserved pin in the hole. The pin has a small eyelet, to which a chain made of two rings is still attached. The logic here is to make the pinning and pulling out easily. The sheath was apperantly made of organic material and it could be of the same design as the Novgorod find.
The pin preserved in a Kirpichnikov type IV axe. Found in Ukraine. The archive of Sergei Kainov.
As incredible as it is, at least one manuscript has survived that depicts an axe in a sheath. It is the manuscript Harley 2802, stored in the British Library in London. The axe is depicted on folio 190, in the initial T, which depicts a carpenter holding a tree trunk. A broad T-shaped carpenter’s axe on a relatively short shaft is located behind the wearer’s belt, and its long blade is protected by a rectangular sheath. No form of fixation is indicated. The sheath most closely resembles the find from Fribrødre Å. The manuscript is dated to the 1170s.
Scene from the manuscript Harley 2802, fol. 190. Source: bl.uk.
Haithabu, type 1. Made by Jan Zbránek.
Haithabu, type 2. Made by Jan Zbránek.
Schleswig, type 1. Made by Stephan Meinhardt.
Petersen type E axe, type 1. Made by Dominik Schörkl.
An axe with a sheath of the type 1. Made by Martin Hrdlička.
The axe from Shestovitsa 61/2, type 1. Made by Ferenc Tavasz.
A bearded axe with a sheath of the type 1. Made by Erik Panknin.
Great Moravian axes with sheaths of the type 1. Made by Michal Bazovský.
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.
Floderus, Erik (1941). Sigtuna: Sveriges äldsta medeltidsstad, Stockholm.
Hilberg, Volker (2022). Haithabu 983-1066. Der Untergang eines dänischen Handelszentrums in der späten Wikingerzeit. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 19, München.
Kainov – Singh 2016 = Каинов, С. Ю. – Сингх, В. К. (2016). Деревянный чехол топора с Троицкого раскопа // Новгород и Новгородская земля. Вып. 30, 196–203.
Kitzler Åhfeldt, Laila (2011). Några träfynd i Sigtuna under runstenstid. In: Situne Dei 2011, 49–60.
Lang, J. T. (1988). Viking-Age Decorated Wood, Dublin.
Rybarczyk, Anna – Strzyż, Piotr (2014). Medieval axe cases from excavations in Elbląg. In: AMM X, 191-202.
Saggau, H. E. (2006). Gehauene und geschnitzte Holzfunde aus dem mittelalterlichen Schleswig. In: Holzfunde aus dem mittelalterlichen Schleswig (Ausgrabungen in Schleswig. Berichte und Studien 17), Neumünster, 199–304.
Schadwinkel, H.-T. – Heine, Günther (1986). Das Werkzeug des Zimmermanns, Hannover.
Sjøvold, Thorleif (1974). The Iron Age settlement of artic Norway : a study in the expansion of European Iron Age culture within the arctic circle, Vol. II, Late Iron Age (Merovingian and Viking Periods), Tromsø.
Skamby Madsen, Jan – Klassen, Lutz (2010). Fribrødre Å: A Late 11th Century Ship-handling Site on Falster, Højbjerg.
Vlasatý, Tomáš (2017). The man from Voll. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [2022-03-21]. Available from: https://sagy.vikingove.cz/en/the-man-from-voll/.
Westphal, Florian (2007). Die Holzfunde von Haithabu, (Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 11), Neumünster.