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Early medieval spear sheaths

Introduction to the problem

It can be assumed that a spear of the Early Middle Ages was kept very sharp (Old Norse even knows the word geirhvass, literally “sharp as a spear”; Jesch 2012: 680). The sharpening of spear blades is a widespread phenomenon that is not emphasized by archaeologists and is easily recognized by the blades, which are not convex or straight in shape, but concave. This shape is so characteristic that it is also visible from book drawings. Grinding is also evident on early medieval swords, knives (see Westphalen 2002: Abb. 54) and on the grindstones themselves (e.g. Kouřil – Gryc 2019: Fig. 38), but as far as we know, it has always been overlooked on spears. The visible grinding of the edges means that the spearheads may have been used for quite a long period of decades, during which – as can be assumed and seen from some written sources (e.g. Egils saga Skallagrímssonar 45) – the spearhead could change the shafts several times. Old Norse preserves a word that refers to the shape of a ground metal product – heinþynntan (literally “narrowed by grinding”; Finlay 2012: 259). Grinding, among other things, was to be done to get rid of the teeths in blades, which are found in a considerable number of preserved heads (Creutz 2003: 229-230).

Early medieval spears with various states of grinding.
Source: Kirpičnikov 1966: Tabl. VII.8; Świątkiewicz 2002: Tabl. VII.1; Evaldas Babenskas.

With such a sharp execution, it is easy to imagine that poorly stored weapons could have been taken by children and lead to a serious injury, as shown, for example, in the Egils saga Skallagrímssonar (40). In the same way, weapons could fall into the hands of workers without a permission, rebellious or encouraged slaves. For all these reasons, it can be assumed that the weapons were kept in one central, locked place and only the owners had access to them. In family sagas, this place is the bedroom. In Grettis saga (19) the spear is located above the householder’s bed and the bedroom also houses the sword, armour and helmet. In Njáls saga (77, 79), the householder’s spear is kept in a high place in the living room and is forbidden to be touched. Improper storage in a humid environment causes unwanted corrosion of the head, which not only detracts from the overall appearance, but subsequent cleaning may not be possible without removing the material, which can also damage decoration.

Knowing the above and at the same time with the increasing number of sharp and often expensive spears in the reenactment, a natural question arose whether there are early medieval spear sheaths that would resemble modern hunting spear scabbard and that would guarantee the safe handling of the weapon. In written sources, as far as we know, polearms are not equipped with any sheaths (Falk 1914; Kolias 1988). Since the core of period sword scabbards or axe sheaths is made of wood, antler or metal, our considerations went in the direction of looking for the remains of these materials on the preserved spearheads. The search for sheaths is made difficult by the absolute absence of mentions in the basic literature (Creutz 2003; Husár 2014; Kirpičnikov 1966; Petersen 1919; Sankiewicz 2018; Solberg 1984) and zero awareness in the academic and reenactor spheres. A difficult search led us to a grave from Voll, Norway, which was opened in 1873 and which contained two spear sheaths (AB 1874: 41-45; Vlasatý 2017).

By Norwegian standards of the 19th century, this grave was documented in quite a detail, and only the grave from Gokstad, about which a whole book was published (Nicolaysen 1882), can compete with it. As a result of this detail, the wooden components of grave weapons, which had been neglected until then, began to be understood as an object of study. The influence on a number of archeologists of the time is best evidenced by the fact that they directly referred to the Voll mound in their works (AB 1879: 331; Lorange 1876: 192). Unfortunately, the Voll grave fell into oblivion already at the beginning of the 20th century and over the following century, it appeared exceptionally in literature of a particularly local character (Petersen 1951; Sandnes 1965: 196–197; Groven 1968: 54–57; 1999: 98–101).

Searching in the Norwegian material, which is extremely rich in weapons (the breadth of which is best described by Petersen 1919; Nørgård Jørgensen 1999; Solberg 1984), is complicated not only by the age of the finds, but also by the inconsistent terminology of spears (spyd, spydodd, spydspids, spydspiss), sheaths (futteral, trebalg, træbalg, treslire, træslire, treskede, træskjede) or dimensions (Norway switched to the metric system in 1875). None of the Norwegian sheaths had been published in English prior to our intervention that happened in 2017, when we published the summary work „The man from Voll“ on the pages of this website, in which we presented the grave inventory and its parallels. Based on this study, we were subsequently contacted by other foreign researchers who were dealing with the problem. Five years later, we have solid archaeological material that allows for more general conclusions. We will publish these in the following text.

Spear sheaths. Produced by Martin Hrdlička.


Catalog of sheaths and their candidates

Voll, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway

During the opening of mound no. II in the locality Voll in 1873, among other things, a massive collection of preserved organic matter was found (AB 1874: 41-45; Vlasatý 2017), which can be dated into the first three quarters of the 10th century on the basis of the weapon typology (Hjardar – Vike 2016: 169, 175). The find included two spears with sheaths (T1197-1198; AB 1874: 43-44). The larger spear (T1197), belonging to Petersen type K or M, has a blade 34 cm long and 5 cm wide, and a long, partially preserved socket, into which the shaft is still inserted. The spear was placed in the grave with a well-preserved sheath, made of wooden plates, which were wrapped from the tip to the mouth with a narrow strip of birch bark in a way that the layers overlapped. The sheath has an oval cross-section, which is beveled in the center to copy the shape of the tip and give the sheath strength. Towards the tip, the sheath has a widening tendency and it extends at least to the end of the socket. A smaller spear (T1198), equipped with a shaft of around 2.5 cm in diameter, was covered by an identically constructed sheath. Both items are now housed in the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim, with the larger spear in good condition being displayed for visitors. The smaller spear is badly damaged and does not provide new information for the study of the sheaths.

The bigger spear from Voll. Source: Kari Dahl, UNIMUS.

Rypdal, Møre og Romsdal, Norway

A well-preserved sword scabbard, an axe, a shield boss, a knife, a sickle, whetstones and a spear (T11631) with a partially preserved sheath were found in the mound of Rypdal, which was explored in the summer of 1916 (Petersen 1918a: 166; Petersen 1918b: 25). According to Aksdal (2017: Tabell 3), the sword, whose scabbard is wrapped in a narrow leather strap, belongs to Variant IV of Petersen type L, which means that the grave can be dated to 750-850. Petersen dated the grave to the year 900 or slightly earlier. The spear was equipped with a partially preserved shaft, the material of which was determined to be spruce or fir. The wooden sheath was stretched over the blade and part of the socket. The length of the spear with the shaft is 53 cm, the length of the socket is approximately 20 cm, the width of the blade with the sheath is 4.5 cm. The sheath is now stored in the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim.

The spear from Rypdal. Source: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, UNIMUS.

Rypdal, Møre og Romsdal, Norway

In the same location, but in a different mound, among other objects, a 51 cm long spear (T11632) with a 27.5 cm long socket was found in 1916 (Petersen 1918b: 26). The spear typologically belongs to Solberg type VIII.1, which means that it can be dated to the 10th century (Solberg 1984: 116-7, 230). The widest part of the blade measures 3.7 cm. There are corroded pieces of wood attached to the blade, which are interpreted as the remains of a sheath. Some of them show signs of wrapping. Today, the spear is broken into numerous fragments, which are kept in the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim.

The spear from Rypdal. Source: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, UNIMUS.

Hodne, Rogaland, Norway

The mound from Hodne, Norway, concealed a stone cauldron, a whetstone, a bit and a Petersen type I spearheat (S1391), typologically belonging to the first three quarters of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2016: 175). The total length of the find is 60 cm, while the blade is 37.5 cm long and 4 cm wide. The shaft, which is still inserted in the socket, was fastened with at least twelve copper alloy wire rivets, nine of which survive today. The spear was placed in the grave with a well-preserved sheath, made of wooden plates, which were then wrapped in an unknown material, possibly birch bark. The sheath has an oval cross-section, which is beveled in the center to copy the shape of the tip and give the sheath strength. The sheath reaches the shaft. Today the object is stored in the Stavanger Museum.

The spear from Hodne. Source: Åge Pedersen, UNIMUS.

Tjøtta, Nordland, Norway

In addition to an axe, an object (B996) was found in the mound of Tjøtta in 1828, which was initially thought to be a sword and was later re-evaluated as a long spear in a wooden sheath (Lorange 1876: 191-2; Solberg 1984: 198). The spear belongs to Solberg type VII.2 and Petersen type I, so it can be assigned to the 10th century. The length of the blade is around 29 cm, while the length of the socket is close to 16 cm. The sheath is difficult to see in the only known photograph, but it is clear that it also covered the socket. The item is stored in the Bergen Museum.

The spear from Tjøtta. Source: Per Rasmussen, UNIMUS.

Valøen, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway

A mound grave of a 20-30-year-old man from the site of Valøen, academically recorded in 1954, contained a K type spearhead (T17487), datable to the 10th century (Beverfjord – Binns 1989: 327, 345; Sjøvold 1974: 26). Today, the head is 29 cm long, with the socket roughly the same length as the blade. Two separate wooden fragments were attached to the blade that were the remains of a sheath. The spear is kept in the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim.

The spear from Valøen. Source: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, UNIMUS.

Brandsvik, Nordland, Norway

In 1878, a mound was opened in Brandsvik, which gave a single object – a heavily corroded spear (C8885) with a length of about 25 cm, on the surface of which there are thin layers of wood and birch bark (Wika 1961: 33, 45, Fig. 22). These are interpreted as the remains of a sheath. Wika gives a typological dating to the year 800. The spear is located in the collections of the Cultural and Historical Museum in Oslo.

The spear from Brandsvik. Source: UNIMUS.

Hadsel, Nordland, Norway
A mound opened near Hadsel in 1878 contained an axe, arrows and an iron spear, badly corroded and broken at the blade (C9087). Its lower part of the socket had fallen away. According to the description, it belongs to the Petersen type I spear, which is characterized by the abundance of copper alloy rivets, which makes it possible to date it to the 10th century. In this case, at least 4 such rivets are preserved. The surface of the socket between the rivets is decorated with lines, possibly inlay of non-ferrous metals. There are remains of wood on both sides of the spear, which are interpreted as a sheath. According to the UNIMUS catalog, the length of the spear at the time the find was described was an incredible 99 cm, which is hard to believe. A similar length can be caused either by an error or by the inclusion of organic components. The object is registered in the collections of the Cultural and Historical Museum in Oslo.

Horstad, Nordland, Norway

The mound from Horstad (T16368), discovered in 1944-5, in addition to an H type sword with cast components, a B type axe and a bit, also contained a Petersen E type spear up to 55 cm long, the point of which was covered with wood, interpreted as the remains of a scabbard (Sjøvold 1974: 1-2). The socket of the spear, which today is broken into several pieces with a total length of 46.5 cm, was decorated with four large hemispherical copper alloy rivets, common in the Vendel period. Based on the inventory, a dating to the early 9th century (Sjøvold 1974: 2) or the period 830/40-900 (Ystgaard 2014: 363) is suggested. The grave goods are stored in the NTNU University Museum in Trondheim. The spear has never been photographed and its current condition is unknown.

Fitje, Vestland, Norway

In 1878, a mound was discovered in the locality of Fitje, which, in addition to a sword, an axe and other objects, was equipped with a 43 cm long spear (B3246) with a 17 cm long socket with a diameter of 2.5 cm and a blade width of 3.3 cm (AB 1879: 331; Solberg 1984: 198). The appearance of the spear is unknown, but it is evident that it defies typologies. Nevertheless, it dates back to the Viking Age. There are four lines on the socket. The point of the tip is broken. The tip was covered by an unspecified wooden sheath, which also covered the socket. If the spear has survived to the present day, it is kept in the Bergen Museum.

Oise river, France

In 2011, a remarkable and previously unpublished spear was found at the bottom of the Oise River in Picardy, France. The winged spear belongs to Westphal type V (Westphal 2002: 260-1) and can be dated to around the 9th-10th century. What makes the find extraordinary is the well-preserved piece of shaft and sheath. The sheath covered almost the entire length of the spearhead and was made of wood. Leather cover was not detected. The tip of the sheath was covered with a chape made of lead sheet, which was attached by a system of holes. At the moment, the spear is stored in the museum of Laon and is about to be published by Béline Pasquini and Pauline Bombled, PhD students from the Sorbonne, Paris, who kindly shared the information with us. The dimensions can be seen in the following table. In the depository, the spear is still stored in part of the soil, and for this reason it was not possible to measure all parts of the find.

Spear from the Oise River and a schematic drawing of a Westphal type V spear.
Source: Béline Pasquini; Westphal 2002: 261, Textfigur 6.

Parchim-Löddigsee, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany

In 1984, a 19.5 cm long object was found in the site of Parchim-Löddigsee, which is made of three 0.5 cm thick ash parts and is subsequently wrapped at least fourteen times with a 2 cm wide strip of birch bark (Keiling 1989: 595; Paddenberg 2012: 90, 283, Taf. 50.5031). The cross-section is oval; gradually narrowing in both directions. At the mouth, the object is 6.2 cm wide and at the opposite end, which is broken off, only 4 cm. Birch bark is wrapped from the mouth towards the opposite end so that the layers overlap. In the existing literature, the find is evaluated as part of a signal trumpet, which is not an impossible interpretation, but the size, cross-section and tapering course are more likely to point to a spear sheath. As it is a settlement find, the dating cannot be established better than 10th-11th century (Paddenberg 2012: 125-7). The find remains in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern State Office for Culture and Monument Care in Schwerin, inventory no. ALM 1984/1.

Drawing of a potential sheath from Parchim. Source: Paddenberg 2012: Taf. 50.5031.

Photo of the potential sheath from Parchim. Source: Keiling 1989: 595.

Serçe Limani, Turkey

On an 11th-century Byzantine shipwreck from Serçe Limani, which yielded a number of amazing organic finds, a bundle of four spears was found with the remains of shafts with spearheads being wrapped in a rough cloth that protected the heads and held them together at the same time (Schwarzer 2004: 372). The bundle was found on deck, not below deck.

Bundle of spears found on the ship of Serçe Limani. Source: Schwarzer 2004: 372.


Analogies

Leaving aside sword scabbards and axe sheaths, which are constructed in a similar way and from similar materials, and focusing exclusively on spear sheaths, we find evidence of use before and after the Early Middle Ages. From older finds, we were able to name at least five sheaths from the 5th century BC – 1st century AD, which are stored in the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Two of them are of openwork copper alloy and have a pair of eyelets; one of them comes from Andrejevka, Mordovia. It is obvious that these are the chapes of organic sheaths that have not been preserved. The other two are bone or antler, while the openwork piece comes from the site of Borševa. The last piece is made of wood or birch bark.

A spear belonging to the Sarmatian culture (5th-4th century BC) and a spear from Andrejevka (1st century AD). Source: Are Pedersen and nav.shm.ru.

Spear belonging to the Sarmatian culture (5th-4th centuries BC), sheaths from an unknown locality and Borševo. Source: nav.shm.ru, Goskatalog.ru.

Interesting information is provided by written sources of the High Middle Ages, especially rules or religious orders, for whom the covering of spears was a surprisingly pressing problem. A French translation of the Templar Rule of about 1270 forbids the use of covers on spears with the following words:

On Lance Covers. Let no brother have a cover on his shield or his lance, for it is no advantage, on the contrary we understand this would be very harmful.” (Upton-Ward 2008: 32)

The Teutonic Order obtained an exception from the Pope in 1244 allowing spear covers, which is why we read in their rule:

Spears, shields, and saddles shall not have covers, but polished lances may be covered with a sheath so that they be kept sharp for wounding the enemy.” (Sterns 1969: 227)

It is, of course, a question whether the mentioned “covers” mean blade sheaths or cases of whole spears (similar to, for example, modern bags and tubes for athletic javelins), as would follow from the description of the covers of shields, saddles or even crossbows (Rybarczyk – Strzyż 2014: 200). Cases of full lances would certainly not be advantageous in some situations, which would meet the Templar reproach. Finally, we see that sheaths were not unknown among Teutonic knights and can be evidenced from other sources as well (Nowakowski 1994: 93).

Among the early modern analogical pieces, we can mention spear sheaths from Africa, Latin America and Asia, which are found in ethnographic collections all over the world. They are made of wood or leather and some are wrapped with straps or equipped with tassels. In some cases, sheaths are made of two separate pieces of wood with a hollow, which are attached to the blade on both sides and then tied with a strap. In museum collections we also find sheaths for European hunting spears, made of the same materials (Amundsen – Lund 1981: 64-5). It is true that metal chapes are not standard. Japanese spear scabbards (saya) fulfill the above except that the sheaths are often decorated and express clan affiliation (Knutsen 1963: 68-70). We might add that Arisawa Nagasada (1638–1715) devotes an entire chapter to spear cases in his account of samurai gear (Cummins 2015: 74).

Spear sheaths from Africa and Latin America from the collections of Norwegian museums.
Source: UNIMUS.

Older bayonet scabbards, especially from the 19th and early 20th centuries, also show a surprisingly similar construction (e.g. Brophy 1985: 369). In this period, scabbards are often made of leather or wood, sometimes a combination of these materials. Metal chapes appear quite often. Although over time this construction was abandoned and metals and plastics became the dominant materials for the production of scabbards, wooden ones were still used in World War II and occasionally later (Harriman 2021: 15). Plastic is also the material for the hunting spear sheaths used today.

Japanese military bayonet with a scabbard. Source: horsesoldier.com.


Conclusion and acknowledgments

In the catalogue, we have described up to 14 potential early medieval finds from 12 French, German, Norwegian and Turkish sites. Such a low frequency is mainly caused by the decomposition of organic material and the general lack of interest of the academic community. The graves in which spear sheaths are found, other organic parts are usually well preserved (Rypdal, Voll), and these graves are therefore very beneficial for the study of the Early Middle Ages. The surviving sheaths shed light on all other weapons placed in graves in the Early Middle Ages; it is very likely that a large part of the weapons – if not all – were placed in the graves with covers, which are rarely preserved.

Spear sheath based on the find from Voll. Produced by Are Pedersen.

As it follows from the catalog, the core of the sheaths were two to three thin wooden plates, which were then wrapped with birch bark, leather or other materials. Whether the plates were glued, we do not know at this moment. It does not appear that the sheaths were lined inside with a substance that could be filled with oil, but we cannot exclude this possibility due to the small size of the corpus and the state of preservation. The sheaths follow the shape of the weapon and cover the entire blade, and in some cases reach to the shaft, even in the case of the largest class of spears. We have no idea how the cases were fixed – for a long spear, the sheath can held in place by itself, but smaller sheaths should be fastened with a leather cord to the socket (and structures such as e.g. wings) or to the shaft. Fixation could have been aided by the structure itself (e.g. a small slider, peg) or an eyelet created during the creation of the wrap/cover. The tip of the sheath may sometimes have been reinforced with a sheet metal chape. In the case of transporting a large number of spears, it was possible to make a bundle of several weapons and wrap them in a strip of cloth that formed an improvised sheath. In a number of early medieval graves, we find corroded textiles attached to the spearheads, which we cannot interpret more closely; in some cases it may be the remains of clothing or bedding of the deceased, in other cases it is clearly a deliberate wrapping of the spearhead (e.g. Hrubý 1955: 384).

Spear sheaths with pegs. Manufacture Václav Maňha, Dřevo krásné, dřevo mé.

The basic logic of the sheaths is clear – they are used to minimize damage to the edge and decoration and to prevent injuries associated with transport and storage. As in the case of axes, spear sheaths do not give the appearance of too strong products, and their design allows the owner, for example, to pierce the sheath during a sudden attack and not bother with removing it. All of this has significant implications for the presentation of spears in the media, museums, academic literature, and of course also for reenactors who should protect their spears for reasons of safety and authenticity.

This article would not have been possible without the help of the researchers who shaped my thoughts over the years and helped to consult the collected material. They are Michal Bazovský, Martin Hrdlička, Johan Johansson, Sergey Kainov, Roman Král, Béline Pasquini, Are Pedersen, Václav Maňha and Ján Strašifták. To them goes my great recognition and thanks.

Spear sheath with a slider. Production by Michal Bazovský.


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