Long knives – called seaxes or scramaseaxes by academics and reenactors – represent a largely neglected chapter of the Early Medieval arms tradition. In general, Scandinavian knives have the greatest popularity in the period, but half-truths and inaccurate information follow due to the absence of literature. We would like to bring this unhappy situation to the rightest point in the following article. The period we will be focused on is the Viking Age (very approximately 800-1100) and the era that immediately preceded this famous age. Our goal will be to propose the evolution of Scandinavian knives, which can explain the facts evident in the material culture of the Viking Age.
If you are a reenactor, you can skip to the final note for reenactors.
Long knives from Norway
In terms of Early medieval weapons, Norway is the richest country in Europe. This fact is extremely helpful in determining the chronologies, frequency and links between the various weapon types. In Norway, we record dozens of long knives from the so-called Merovingian period, which preceded the Viking Age. Petersen (1951: 188), who follows Gjessing (1934), writes that these knives can be considered combat, and states a criterion of at least 30 cm in length and 3 cm in width of the blade, recording a total of 27 knives that meet these criteria. Several knives of this type have visible pattern-welding. The dating of these knives dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries. The division of these knives is represented by Rygh’s types 496, 497, 498, 499, 500 (Rygh 1885), the newer classification with chronology is represented by Nørgård Jørgensen (1999).
In the 9th century, three traditions continue that are worth mentioning. The first one is the declining use of Merovingian seaxes, which are buried in the mounds of the older phase of the Viking Age. The most famous of these is probably a knife with a length of 40.6 cm from a mound found in Holvik (B1188), created in the first half of the 9th century (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 166). Another spectacular find is the G type sword from Gjøvik (C21660), which has an 8th-century seax blade; the total length of the weapon is 65.5 cm and it weighs 746 g (Vlasatý 2018b). The third specimen, preserved in a 19 cm long fragment, comes from an apparently female mound found in Grindeim (B5888), which can be dated to the second half of the 9th century (Petersen 1951: 188). The handle of this knife is completely preserved, including the wooden part with bronze bolsters at both ends. The frequently discussed fragment of the Merovingian seax from Borg (Ts 8339cu), which consists of a part of an tang and a blade, is dated between 600-750 and the context of its discovery does not allow to say whether it belongs to an older, Merovingian layer or could be used until the Viking Age (Munch et al. 2003: 180).
The second tradition, which begins in the Merovingian period and lasts until the 10th century, is represented by knives 20-50 cm long, which have a blade 2-3 cm wide and a straight or slightly bevelled, thick back. Probably the greatest effort to describe them was made by Jan Petersen (1951: 188-190), who does so rather chaotically, without complete lists of images and joins the Merovingian and Viking periods together. In total, he names about 55 knives falling into this category and dating. It can be expected that in the last 70 years new pieces have been discovered that are not included. A small group (7 pcs) of the smallest knives is characterized by a length of about 20 cm and a blade width of 2 cm, in some cases a copper alloy plate at the end of the handle or a handle wrapped in silver wire (Petersen 1951: 189-190). About 30 pieces have a total length of 23-30 cm and a blade width of 2-2.6 cm (Petersen 1951: 188-190). Another group (16 pieces) is represented by knives that have a heavier blade about 3 cm wide (Petersen 1951: 190-191).
Of the 55 selected pieces, about 20 can certainly be included in the period after 800 (Vlasatý 2016). From the group of the smallest knives, we can mention knives from Øvre Geitstad (C7128), having a length of 20 cm, a blade width of 2 cm, an oval copper alloy plate on the far part of the handle and dating from the first half of the 9th century (Petersen 1951: 189), and Lille Guldkronen (C22445) with a length of 21 cm, a blade width of 2.2 cm, two silver wire wrappings on the handle and dating to about 900 (Petersen 1951: 190). From the latter group, knives from the Asle locality (C2573, 29 cm, 2 cm, 2nd half of the 9th century; Petersen 1951: 189), Kirkhus (T12372, 24.5 cm, 2.3 cm, 1st half of the 9th century; Petersen 1951: 189), Nashaug (C2407, 23 cm, 2 cm, 10th century; Petersen 1951: 189), Bjørke (C9712, 27 cm, 2.6 cm, 10th century; Petersen 1951: 189), Markestad (C25936, length greater than 21.3 cm, 2.5 cm, 1st half of the 10th century; Petersen 1951: 189), Skarland (T13379c, length at least 25 cm , 2 cm; Vlasatý 2016) and Storborg (T12488b, length at least 23 cm, 2 cm, Vlasatý 2016) can be included in the Viking period. From the third group, knives from the Oseberg localities (C55000: 119, 32.5 cm, 2.3 cm, 1st half of the 9th century; Grieg 1928: 163, Abb. 101; Petersen 1951: 188), Røros (T236, 33.3 cm, 1.4 cm after grinding, 2nd half of the 9th century; Petersen 1951: 190), Lyngjem (T11315d, length greater than 23 cm, 2nd half of the 9th century; Petersen 1951: 190), Hendy (T19271b, length greater than 26 cm, 2 cm; Vlasatý 2016) and Rise (T9255, tang fragment with a piece of blade with a blade width of 2 cm; Vlasatý 2016) can be assigned to the period defined by us. From the last group, knives from the localities of Vad (B965, 2nd half of the 10th century; Petersen 1951: 191), Fly (C20962, 10th or 11th century; Petersen 1951: 191), Klæbu (T3790, at least 24 cm, 3 cm; Vlasatý 2016) and Ristad (T12080d, 27.5 cm, 3 cm, probably 9th century; Vlasatý 2016) come from the Viking period. The two longest knives dating back to the Viking Age are knives from Fiskvik (T3794) with a length of at least 39 cm and a blade width of 3 cm (Vlasatý 2016) and Vestre Englaug (C10736), which is 49 cm long, 3 cm wide, has a very thick back and a wooden handle with a bronze ferrule has been preserved on its tang (Petersen 1951: 189).
We can add that we know at least one well-preserved sheath that corresponds to this type of knife. The sheath with the catalogue number T5920 found in Trondheim is 22 cm long and 2.5 cm wide (Unimus 2020; Vlasatý 2016). It is torn in half, but otherwise it is almost complete. The side surfaces of the sheaths are decorated with embossed squares, which are lined with ladder-like lines along the upper edge. The sheath covered the knife with the handle, and the place where the handle reached is clearly separated by a vertical line. The shape of the sheath indicates that it was made for a knife with a straight back and a continuously tapered blade. The dating cannot be determined, but it will probably not be far from the end of the 10th century.
An example of a knife from Norway: Røros (T236, katalog UNIMUS).
An example of a sheath from Norway: Trondheim (T5920, catalog UNIMUS).
The third tradition, continuing into the Viking period, is the production of single-edged swords, which represent the last stage in the development of long knives in Norway (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 168). At this point, we call single-edged swords the types that Nørgård Jørgensen (1999) defined as SAX4, SAX6, SAX7 and SAX8. Their common denominator are blades with a total length of over 65 cm, which have a straight back and a slightly tapered blade. In general, their shape resembles the narrow knives we mentioned above.
Petersen registers 370 single-edged swords, representing 23.3% of swords he mapped (Petersen 1919: 6). The current version of the UNIMUS catalog records about 1,100 single-edged swords (after the removal of medieval and early modern single-edged blades), which also include Merovingian seaxes and which also do not reflect the actual number of discovered swords, which may be significantly higher than the number of cataloged pieces. If we accept that we know about 3,500 swords from Norway in the period 800-1100 (Aannestad 2018: 147), we will probably not be far from the truth if we say that about a quarter – 875 – can be single-edged.
The types defined by Nørgård Jørgensen (1999) can be differentiated in terms of dimensions and chronology as follows:
SAX4 – long single-edged sword with a wide blade
Overall length 68-99 cm, blade length 51-85 cm, blade width 5-5.9 cm (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 57). It can be dated from 740/50 and also appears in the first half of the 9th century (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 46, 149, 151).
SAX6 – long single-edged sword with a narrow blade
Overall length 74.1-90 cm, blade length 65-82.2 cm, blade width 4.5-4.8 cm (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 64). It appears in the first half of the 9th century and continues into the second half of the same century (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 151).
SAX7 – long single-edged sword with a very narrow blade
Overall length 72-96.8 cm, blade length 66-84.5 cm, blade width 3.7-4.4 cm (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 64). It probably began to appear in the second half of the 8th century and continued throughout the 9th century (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 150-1).
SAX8 – the longest single-edged sword
Overall length 102.5-106.5 cm, blade length 84.5-90.5 cm, blade width 4.5-4.7 cm (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 65). It can be dated from 830/40 to about the year 900 (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 151).
Development of single-edged swords of 8th-9th century (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 116).
These types of blades often appear without hilt components, including even the youngest versions (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 37, 39). Petersen mentions 245 swords without components (Petersen 1919: 56). The hilt components are important for determining the additional chronology. Petersen states that single-edged blades are combined with components of the following types: A (1 pcs; Petersen 1919: 59), B (8 pcs; Petersen 1919: 61), C (67 pcs; Petersen 1919: 67-8), D (1 piece; Petersen 1919: 73), E (5 pcs; Petersen 1919: 76), F (10 pcs; Petersen 1919: 82), G (3 pcs; Petersen 1919: 83), H / I (53 pcs; Petersen 1919: 94, 102), M (30 pcs; Petersen 1919: 118), Q (4 pcs; Petersen 1919: 137-8), X (2 pcs; Petersen 1919: 160-2, 166), Y (1 piece; Petersen 1919: 169-170), some special types (Petersen 1919: 86-7, 112, 121-2, 173). The result is that the oldest metal components mounted on the one-edged blades could date back to the 8th century; even though Petersen sees type A and B hilts as a transitional period between the Merovingian period and the Viking Age (Petersen 1919: 62), Nørgård Jørgensen (1999: 74, 150) places them deeper into the 8th century. Numerous groups of hilts C, H/I and M indicate a significant deposition of single-edged swords with hilt components in tombs in the 9th century, as evidenced by types D, E, F and G. In particular, type C is strongly tied to single-edged blades and forms 10 % of all Norwegian swords (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 169), but we must not forget the numerous type of H/I, among which single-edged blades make up a high proportion of 26.9% and which begins in the early 9th century (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 151; Petersen 1919: 89, 94). The tradition of using single-edged swords ends in the first half of the 10th century, as evidenced by both Q, X and Y hilt and the absence of a link to the new hilts of the second half of the 10th century (R, S, T and Z). It can be said that around the middle of the 10th century, single-edged swords disappear and are replaced by double-edged swords (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 169).
The significant production of single-edged swords in the first half of the 9th century is also evidenced by the spread of single-edged swords to Ireland, which were probably imported during the Norwegian expansion. All Irish single-edged swords are equipped with hilt of types C, F, H and K (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: III.32, 34, 42). In particular, the finds from the Kielmanham locality allow dating to the 9th century after 841 (Graham-Campbell 1976: 40). Other single-edged swords, whose origins can be traced to Norway, can be found in Scotland (Żabiński 2007: 54, 58). In Iceland, inhabited around 870-930, we do not record any one-edged sword (Eldjárn 2016: 330).
Apart from domestic tradition, there are two sheaths found in Trondheim, which testify to the use of Anglo-Saxon knives with a beveled blade, which can be dated to 10th-11th century (Lunde 1977: 136-7; Mold – Carlisle – Cameron 2003: 3379-3385; Okasha 1992; Vlasatý 2016). The sheath with the catalogue number T5918 is more interesting because it is the longest (42 cm), the widest (8 cm) and is richly decorated with embossed decor (Lunde 1977: Fig. 103a; Okasha 1992: Pl. V). The front is decorated with animal motifs, the back is decorated with ornaments and the Latin inscription +[Eofr?]ic me fec (“[Eofr?]ic made me”). Based on this inscription and shape, Anglo-Saxon origin can be assumed. Due to the width and noticeable shape, the sheath protected not only the blade but also the handle. The second sheath T5919 represents an incomplete sheath that is 28 cm long and the it is partially torn off (Lunde 1977: Fig. 103b). The shape of the sheath is similar to sheath T5918 and is decorated in a similar way. The sheath was fitted with leather straps for suspension.
Anglo-Saxon sheaths from Trondheim: T5918 (top, Okasha 1992: Pl. V), T5919 (bottom, Lunde 1977: Fig. 103a).
Long knives from historical Denmark
Regarding the long knives from historical Denmark, which can be considered today’s Denmark, Schleswig and Skåne, there is no literature that comprehensively processes the material. The difficult task of synthesizing the published literature lies in front of us. We must thank the Danish expert Anne Pedersen, who sent us the results of her own research, which helped us in writing.
From the period from the 6th to the second half of the 7th century, we know at least two knives up to 45 cm long from Denmark, which Nørgård Jørgensen (1999) assigns to the SAX “K” and SAX2 types. These knives come from Fruering (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 19) and Bilidt (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 21). Shorter knives from the island of Bornholm are known from the same period (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 19.2, 20.7-9).
In the period from the second half of the 7th century to the end of the 8th century, we encounter significantly more massive knives and swords, which are 45 to 90 cm long; Nørgård Jørgensen (1999) calls these types SAX 3, SAX 4 and SAX 5. The older shape (SAX 3) includes the seax from grave 1430 in Lindholm Høje (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 24; Ramskou 1976: 60, Fig. 186), which is 67.5 cm long. Another piece is a 62 cm long seax, found in a skeletal grave under the Connecting Wall in Haithabu, dating to the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 7th century (Arents 1992: 71; Jankuhn 1976: 102, Abb. 21, 22a-b). The 47 cm long knife found in the river Nørreå, which Nørgård Jørgensen (1999: 63, Abb. 35) connects with the Viking Age, also belongs to the same shape and the dating. The seax from grave 49 from the locality Nebel-Steenodde (KS 6151) with a length of 64.3 cm can also be assigned to the same dating (personal discussion with Anna Pedersen). The younger shape (SAX 4), dating back to the 8th century, includes very long blades, namely the long blade from Lake Alling near Viborg with a length of 72 cm (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 29; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 165), the find from grave A from Petersdal (NM C18812) with a length of 74 cm long (personal discussion with Anna Pedersen) and a massive specimen from Lake Søborg Sø that is 86.4 cm long (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 31). Long blades from the island of Bornholm are known from the same period (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Abb. 23.1-2, 26.1, 32.4). The find from Venestad is also marked as a long knife, but the form, size and dating is unknow due to the loss (personal discussion with Anna Pedersen).
In the 9th century, this tradition of long single-edged blades further developed into single-edged swords with hilt components, typically belonging to the H/I type. In total, we know of three finds from Denmark corresponding to single-edged swords of the H/I type: two finds come from the localities of Sørup (NM C24550) and Tudeå (NM C24554), both of which are over 90 cm long and were found in water. The third find is incomplete and comes from an unknown site (personal discussion with Anna Pedersen). It can be assumed that single-edged swords of this type belong to the production, which we are also able to record in mainland Sweden and Gotland and which ends at the beginning of the Viking Age (Androshchuk 2014: 158) or during the 9th century.
The only type of long knife that was used in the Danish area during the period was a narrow knife with a thick straight back, which according to Nørgård Jørgensen (1999) is classified as type SAX 5. These knives are usually 35-45 cm long, have a wide blade 1.8-3.1 cm and thickness of the back 0.4–0.5 cm. A total of four knives can be included among these. The first of these was found in grave 6 of Råga Hörstad (LUHM 29210); it has a total length of 36 cm, a heavily sharpened blade and is dated to the 9th century (Svanberg 2003: 161, Fig. 67.4). The second knife is an undated piece found in Haithabu with a length of 42.3 cm, which has a heavily sharpened blade 1.8 cm wide and 0.5 cm thick at the back (Westphalen 2002: 227, Nr. 5779, Taf: 85:1). Two other fragments also come from Haithabu – a piece of knife 29.9 cm long, 3.1 cm wide and 0.4 cm thick (Westphalen 2002: 227, Nr. 5780, Taf: 85:2) and a fragment that is 10.8 cm long, 3 cm wide and 0.5 cm thick at the back (Westphalen 2002: 227, Nr. 5781).
An example of a knife from historical Denmark: Haithabu (Schietzel 2014: 229).
Long knives from Sweden
Long knives from the mainland Sweden are known in the richly furnished mounds of the Vendel period, dating to 7th-8th century (Helander 2009; Olsén 1945; Persson 2003). In the Viking Age, this tradition does not seem to have continued, but we know of at least 10 single-edged swords (Androshchuk 2014: 261; Vlasatý 2018b). Swords with such a constructed blade are often associated with the H/I type hilt and most likely belong to the same group as single-edged swords from Gotland, which can be dated to the 9th century and represent the fading tradition of the Vendel period, which ends at the beginning of the Viking Age (Androshchuk 2014: 158). The only Swedish single-edged sword type G can also point to this dating (Vlasatý 2018b). It cannot be ruled out that limited number of long knife blades were recycled during the 9th century.
Surprisingly, during the 10th century, a fashion appeared in central Sweden (Västmanland and Uppland counties) that did not follow the previous tradition and which is reflected in the archaeological material by at least 54 long knives, often accompanied by decorated sheaths (Stjerna 2007). The most significant work in the field of Central Swedish knives is the article by Greta Arwidsson (1986), which describes the findings published by Arbman (Arbman 1940-1943) and which was subsequently expanded by Niklas Stjerna (2007). Below we will use Stjerna’s work in particular.
The knives are 28.6–57 cm long (most often between 35–50), 1.7–2.5 cm wide, 0.6–2.5 cm thick and weigh between 102–330 g (Stjerna 2007: 248, Table 1). Some blades have longitudinally grooved backs. The sheaths, which cover the entire knives including the handles, are decorated with chapes, grooved clamps, fittings of the widened part of the sheath and hanging mechanism. The ring hangers and the fittings of the widened part of the sheath have a characteristic stepped edge decoration and are perforated so the contrasting plates under them are visible. In order to be able to pull the knives out of the sheaths, they have small rings at the ends of the handles, originally filled with a leather strap.
Stjerna (2007: 247-8) believes that sometimes professional, sometimes less qualified blacksmiths were involved in the production of knives. The author interprets the uniform quality of knives with decorated sheaths in such a way that they had to be made by specialized craftsmen working with bronze and copper, while the same craftsmen made knives and sheaths, thanks to which they could control the overall quality. At the same time, Stjerna is of the opinion that the production took place in Birka and that the craftsmen did not come from Sweden. He considers knives to be the products of craftsmen who had a good knowledge of Baltic knives. Elsewhere, Stjerna (2007: 247; 2010) expands the idea – in his opinion, ruler owned the workshop and distributed the exclusive products among the retinue.
As for the more accurate dating of Swedish knives, Stjerna believes that the oldest knife is a knife from the grave Bj 944 from Birka, which can be dated to the year 900. At the same time, he estimates that knives with decorated sheaths took place in one or two decades of the first half of 10th century and the latest knives appear in the Valsgärde graves, dated to second half of the 10th century. We can broadly agree with this dating, but we believe that there is no need to see a dramatic time lag between the dating of the grave Bj 944 and other tombs from Birka of the first half of the 10th century. Androščuk (2009: 74) places the grave in the younger phase of Birka (900-970) and his text shows that the grave dates to the first quarter of the 10th century. Analogous swords of the H/I type with identical chapes from the graves of Bj 643 and 750 lead to a similar dating (Androshchuk 2014: 119). The dating to the year 900 is performed by Stjerna under the influence of Thunmark-Nylén (1991: 126) due to the bronze comb handle, which ignores the wider dating of this type of object (Ambrosiani 1981: 68-70). In addition, Thunmark-Nylén (2006: 259, 692) concluded in her subsequent work that the bronze comb handles from Gotland were put to graves in the second half of the 10th century. As a result, the distance between Bj 944 and other graves from Birka is not so striking.
Apart from the small knives, which are common and which have a similar sheath decoration, no direct analogy can be found in Sweden that would explain the sudden increase of the large group of uniform and expensive knives. We believe that this fact deserves a comment, which is so lacking in the literature. But first, let’s look at the situation in the surrounding regions.
Examples of two knife from Sweden: Valsgärde 12 a 15 (Pedersen 2014: Pl. 63).
Long knives from Gotland can be considered well summarized thanks to the series Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands (Thunmark-Nylén 1995; 1998; 2000; 2006), which maps Gotlandic material from the years 800-1200. Earlier long knives were gathered and published by Olsén (1945), Nerman (1969: Taf. 56-7, 135, 203-4, 206, 253, 294), Nørgård Jørgensen (1999: 46-55) and Persson (2003).
From the defined period, we know a total of 18 long knives (out of a total of 800 knives) in Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 1023-7). The sites with the most finds include Hellvi (Ire, 5 pcs.), Visby (Land, 4 pcs.), Väskinde (Gällungs, 3 pcs.). The knives have an average length of 35-45 cm (approximately 7.5-10 cm long tang), a 2-3 cm wide blade and a thick back (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 245). Thunmark-Nylén performed a very precise dating of Hellvi knives, which shows the following result: the knives do not appear in the 2:1 phase (900 – 950), they appear only in the 2:2 phase (950 – 1000) and their components can be found in the form of stray finds also in phase 3 (11th century); the author adds that long knives appear in the second half of phase VIII: 2 (900/910 – 990/1005) and at the beginning of phase VIII: 3 (990/1005 – 1090/1110) (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 250, 688-694). In other words, 18 Gotlandic long knives were placed in graves in the second half of the 10th century and appear in the early 11th century at the latest.
The knives were worn more or less horizontally over the abdomen or hips and were attached to a belt by means of two to three rings on which the preserved leather loops were located (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 243, 247, Abb. III:25:1). The rings are always the same in one set, but otherwise they differ by each knife; they are usually cast. Knives and their sheaths show signs of wear, which leads Thunmark-Nylén to the conclusion that they are utility knives (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 243). The sheaths correspond to the type that used for smaller knives, but they are adapted to the larger size of the knife (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 243, 246). The handles are sometimes covered with one to three bronze bands, which in some cases are underlaid with a bronze plate on the visible side (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 247). Compared to the Central Swedish sheaths, the sheaths from Gotland are rated as simpler (Kainov 2019: 112).
A relatively large number of single-edged swords have been preserved in Gotland; in total we know at least 22 pieces (Androshchuk 2014: 261). Swords with such a constructed blade are often associated with the H/I hilt, and based on grave finds from Hellvi, it is possible to date them to the 9th century. Androshchuk (2014: 158) literally says that Hellvi’s single-edged swords represent the fading tradition of the Vendel period (see Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: Fig. 26.5-7), which ends at the beginning of the Viking Age.
An example of a knife from Gotland: Hellvi Ire (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 314b).
Lithuanian archeology understands a long knife as a product that is longer than a regular working knife, but shorter than a sword. In the material culture of Early Medieval Lithuania, three basic shapes of long knives are used, namely knives with a pointed tip, knives with a straight back and wide knives (Tautavičius 1996: 137). For the purposes of this article, we will only deal with knives with a straight back. Knives of this shape can be considered relatively well researched. It is obvious that they began to be used among the tribes in the territory of today’s Lithuania already in the first half of the 1st millennium, in 5th-6th century at the latest (Bertašius 2007; Kazakevičius 1988: 82-92; Tautavičius 1996: 138).
In the focused period of 8th-12th century, long knives were buried in graves only in the western, coastal part of Lithuania (Kulikauskas – Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė – Tautavičius 1961: 434). In 9th-11th century, they appear massively in the Curonian tombs (Griciuvienė 2009: 235). They were also partially used by the Semigallians and Skalvians in 10th-11th century (Griciuvienė 2005: 125; Tautavičius 1996: 138-9). The placing of long knives into graves vanishes in the 12th century (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 1981: 37). They are usualy stored together with spears, swords and axes in graves, which are interpreted as male graves. The most characteristic position in the graves is the placement on the pelvic bone, which indicates attachment to the belt. In some graves, there are even two knives, which are either attached to the same belt or to two separate belts (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 1981: 38).
Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė (1970: 217) defines long knives with a straight back of this period as products 30-40 cm long and about 3 cm wide with about 10 cm long handles. Kazakevičius (1988: 82) defines a combat knife as a knife with a minimum length of 20 cm in the period of 9th-13th century. Tautavičius (1996: 138) states that the width of the blades is between 2-3 cm and the thickness is up to 0.9 cm. The handles have wooden, less often bone handles (Kulikauskas – Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė – Tautavičius 1961: 433). In the Curonian graves, knives appear in richly decorated sheaths made of leather or wood, which have been covered with brass or tin fittings. The sheaths also covered the knife handles. The standard components were chapes, fittings of the widened part of the sheath, metal strips surrounding the handle and rings for suspension. The surface of the sheath was further decorated with geometric shapes made of sheet metal and embossing. The oldest knives with decorated sheaths that we were able to find can be dated to the 9th century.
The exact number of discovered knives with a decorated sheath cannot be determined. The maximum is the number given by Kazakevičius (about 220 pieces), which, however, relates to all long straight-backed knives found in Lithuania in the Early Middle Ages (Kazakevičius 1998: 53). The minimum is then the number given by Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė (1970: 218), which names at least 25 knives. It seems likely that the real number will be around 40 or more pieces.
Kazakevičius (1981: 45) believes that long knives evolved into Baltic single-edged swords, which replaced them in the grave inventory of western Lithuania in the following centuries (Tautavičius 1996: 139). Lithuanian single-edged swords were processed by Kazakevičius (1996).
Examples of knives from Lithuania: Anduliai-Kretinga (Jablonskis 1974), Laiviai (Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė 1970: 37. pav.; Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 21. pav.).
Former East Prussia
Long knives with decorated sheaths are absent in the basic literature (Kulakov 1990). Even though some commentators (Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 31) describe the Prussian knife with a decorated sheath from Leisten as a long knife (Gaerte 1929: 337, Abb. 271c), a closer look shows that the knife may be longer than 20 cm and it belongs to the long knives with a pointed tip, which we discarded from the evaluation. In addition, the knife was found in the territory that today corresponds to Lithuania.
The division of long knives from Latvia is very similar to the Lithuanian one, from which it is partly derived. The main researcher in the field of long knives was Atgāzis (1998: 81–94), who divided knives into four groups: a knife or sword with a narrow blade and a circular bolster (20-75 cm, 6th-7th century), a shorter knife with a wide blade (usual length 35-40 cm, width 5-6 cm, 8th-9th century), a longer knife with wide blade (length up to 60 cm, width 10 cm, 9th-10th century), shorter knife with straight back and narrow blade. In this work we will focus on the last group. From the mentioned information, it is clear that long knives have been used in the territory of today’s Latvia since the 6th century.
The group of knives with a straight back and a narrow blade is defined by shape analogously to Lithuanian parallels – they have a length of 30-60 cm, while the most common length is 40-45 cm. The blade is up to 3 cm wide. The back is up to 1 cm thick and is often grooved. The decoration of the sheath has a similar or identical form as in the case of Lithuanian pieces. Latvian knives with decorated sheaths appear in the early 10th century, spread in the second half of the 10th century and last until the 11th century; we no longer meet them in the 12th century (Atgāzis 1998: 66, 71; Jērums 2011: 140).
In present-day Latvia, long straight knives with a decorated sheath were used by four tribes. The first of these are the Semigallians, with long knives known, for example, from the localities Podiņi – Rušiņi, grave 76 in Mežotnes centrs, graves 11 and 20 in Ciemalde (Jērums 2011: 152). The knife with a decorated sheath from a girl’s grave 324 from the Dreņģeri-Čunkāni (Atgazis 1992: Fig. 2; Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 62), which is described as a long knife by commentators (Stjerna 2007), has a total length of less than 20 cm, but is very close to the described group of knives. This type of militaria began to be used by the Semigallians in the second half of the 10th century and continued into the 11th century (Jērums 2011: 151-2).
The second tribe that used them were the Livs, as evidenced, for example, by graves 307, 359 and 400 from Laukskola (Zariņa 1988: 36. att; Zariņa 1997: 3. att, 5. att). The same tradition includes smaller knives with a decorated sheath from graves from Laukskola and other localities (Spirģis 2006: Pielikumi; Zariņa 1988: 37. att, VII tab.). Livs also began to use them in the second half of the 10th century (Zariņa 1997: 100).
The third tribe that used the long straight knives were the Latgalians. Knives are preserved, for example, in graves 30 and 42 from Priekuļi Gugeri (Apala – Zariņa 1991), in Radzes (LA 1974: Tab. 60.28) and Ludza (MAR 14: Табл. XII.13). The same tradition includes shorter knives with a decorated sheath from Ludza (MAR 14: Tabl. XII.1,12) and other localities (LKS 1937: Tab. XLIX.10). The partially preserved sheath from Ābrami (LA 1974: Tab. 49.26) testifies to the use of Curonians in the territory of Latvia, but we were not able to find other finds.
The exact number of long knives with a decorated sheath cannot be determined. We will probably not be far from the truth if we say that there are dozens of them. Latvian researchers conclude that in the 9th century, single-edged swords evolved from combat knives, which coexisted with long knives until the 11th century, as in the case of Lithuania (Jērums 2011: 151-2).
Examples of knives from Latvia: Laukskola (Zariņa 1988: 36. att), Priekuļi Gugeri (Apala – Zariņa 1991: 4. att), Ludza (MAR 14: Табл. XII.13).
Estonian knives are well summarized by Tvauri (2012: 186-8), according to whom any knife with a length of over 25 cm can be considered a long knife. This author divides Estonian long knives into 5 groups: knives with a curved back (5th-6th century, length up to 40 cm), straight-backed knives with grooved sides (Migration period, length up to 30 cm), knives with a broad blade, straight back and curved edge (7th century, analogies to Finnish pieces), shorter knives with a wide blade (analogies of Latvian pieces) and finally knives with a narrow blade and a thick back. In this article, we will be interested in the last group.
Knives of this group reach a length of 27.3-54.5 cm, but usually have a length of 40-50 cm and a back thickness of 0.6-1 cm (Mandel 1977: 240). About 50 knives of this type have been found in Estonia (Tvauri 2012: 188). Most knives have grooves on the back (Mandel 1977: 240). Knives are found in the context of cremation graves in all parts of Estonia except the southeastern mainland. The dating of this group points to the 10th century (Tvauri 2012: 188), although some new findings may prove dating to the 9th century in the future (Mandel 2017: 90).
All the knives we know, with one exception, were found without decorated sheaths. The exception is the knife from a skeletal grave in Laadjala, which had a bone handle and a sheath with fittings corresponding to Lithuanian and Latvian models and which was found between the knees of the deceased (Tvauri 2012: 188, Fig. 156). Only one Estonian knife was found with a sword (locality Püssi; Mandel 1977: 243, 249). Although some commentators (Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 31) rate some other Estonian knives with decorated sheaths as long knives, closer examination shows that none of these knives is longer than 20 cm (Tallgren 1925: 114-115, Abb. 144-6, Taf. VIII.2-3). It is possible to agree with the conclusion of Volkaitė-Kulikauskienė (1970: 219), who evaluates these short knives as integral parts of women’s costume. A knife with a richly decorated sheath, hanging from a belt, brooch or chain, was one of the most distinctive elements of the Baltofinnic woman’s clothing in the 10th and 11th centuries (Mägi 2018: 206).
An example of a knife from Estonia: Laadjala (Tvauri 2012: Fig. 156).
Combat knives had a long tradition in Finland in the Early Middle Ages. The third quarter of the 1st millennium AD was characterized in Finland by a knife with a tapered, pointed blade, which we know in more than 60 finds (Kivikoski 1973: 77, Abb. 523–524). The period of 9th-10th century is characterized by two different shapes of knives: knives with straight backs and widening blades (roughly 60 finds, Kivikoski 1973: 77, Abb. 526) and knives with straight backs with straight blades (roughly 60-70 finds, Kivikoski 1974: 77, Abb. 525). The finds are concentrated in the regions of Satakunta, Pirkanmaa and Southwest Finland (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982b: 19; Salmo 1938: 160; Salmo 1952: 393-4; Stjerna 2007: 256), ie in the south-western part of Finland. The knives given by Tallgren (1925: 114-115) belong to women’s short knives with a decorated sheath.
The generally best known and most researched knives with a straight back are the three knives from Luistari (graves 90, 281, 348), which have a length of 28-44.2 cm, a blade width of 1.8-2.6 cm and a back thickness of 0.6-0.9 cm (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982b: 18-19). The knife from grave 281 is provided with a well-preserved bone or antler handle. The is only one long knife knife accompanied with a sheath fitting in Finland – the knife that was found in the tomb CA from Kjuloholm / Köylio, whose sheath was decorated with a fitting of the widened part of the sheath and a metal strip surrounding the handle (Cleve 1978; Stjerna 2007: 246). For further comparison, it is interesting to note that some knives have a back decorated with two to three grooves (Salmo 1938: 160).
As for dating, it was stated above that the oldest pieces can be dated to the 9th century. Salmo (1952: 394) states that narrow straight knives are already common in the 10th century. Knives without ornate sheaths from Luistari can be dated to the first half of the 10th century, and are often associated with type X or Y swords and type E spears (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982b: 19). The knife from tomb C 2 from Köyliö dates back to the second half of the 10th century at the earliest (Cleve 1978: 195), while the knife from grave 19 from Yläne dates back to the end of the 10th century or the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries (Hirviluoto 1963: 78).
In contrast to Lithuania and Latvia, single-edged swords did not prevail in Finland, yet we exceptionally find them in the period of 8th-11th century (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982b: 18; Finna 2020; Nykänen 2019).
An example of a knife from Finland: Luistari (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1982a: Pl. 70).
In the grave 59 in Långnäsbacken, Åland, a broken long knife about 40 cm long was found without a decorated sheath, which was buried together with the spearhead of type E and a comb of type B. The grave probably dates to the 9th century (Kivikoski 1980: 39, Pl 9.8).
An example of a knife from Åland: Långnäsbacken (Kivikoski 1980: Pl. 9.8).
Russia and Ukraine
Long knives with a straight back found in the territory of Old Rus (Kievan Rus region) belong to the well-researched objects. The important work in this regard was done by Kirpičnikov (1966: 72, 102), who mapped 9 finds. Artemjev (1998) expanded this list to 14. Another find of a well-preserved knife in a decorated sheath was discovered in Šestovica in 2006 (Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 190, Fig. 133a–b). Vlasatý (2015) summarized these fifteen findings together with the iconography and loose sheath fittings. The work published by Kainov (2019: 102-112, Табл. 8) represents a quality summary and an addition of another find from Gnězdovo and other sheath fittings. Elsewhere, Kainov mentions another long knife from Michalovskoye (Kainov 2018: 235). Another addition is the work of Stasjuk and the team (Stasjuk – Michailov – Salmin 2018), which presents 7 new finds of long knives. One long knife with a typical decorated scabbard was also found in grave 5 of the Rusenichinskij cemetery and fragments of a sheath are known from Veselovskij cemetery (Akilbajev 2020). The total number of long knives has now stabilized at 25 pieces and approximately the same number of sheath fragments. At least 7 knives were found along with the decorated sheaths. In the literature, long knives from the South Russian site of “Shatuxatku Ljatuhat” are also mentioned, but their authenticity and origin cannot be verified (Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 60).
While Kainov states the length of the knives is 37-54 cm, the length of the blades is 28.5-42 cm, the width of the blades is 1.8-3 cm and the thickness of the backs is 0.7-0.9 cm (Kainov 2019: 110), Vlasatý mentions the length of the knives is 27-54 cm, handle length is 9-13 cm, blade width is 2-3.8 cm and back thickness is 0.7-1.3 cm (Vlasatý 2015). The blades of the most recently published knives from the Pskov region fit into these ranges, but have a back thickness of 0.47–0.97 cm (Stasjuk – Michailov – Salmin 2018: 267-9). The sheaths, which cover the entire knives including the handles, are decorated with chapes, grooved clamps, fittings of the widened part of the sheath and hanging mechanism. The ring hangers and the fittings of the widened part of the sheath have a characteristic stepped edge decoration and are perforated so the contrasting plates under them are visible. In order to be able to pull the knives out of the sheaths, they have small rings at the ends of the handles, originally filled with a leather strap.
As for dating, Kirpičnikov (1966: 72) dates the knives to the 10th century and states that they no longer appear in the 11th century. The chronology of knives from the Yaroslavl Volga region and the Šestovica complex allows dating to the 10th century (Kainov 2019: 111). The new knives from the Pskov region do not contradict this dating (Stasjuk – Michailov – Salmin 2018: 266). It is important to note that all Gnězdovo finds of long knives and sheaths can be dated to the period from the middle of the 10th century to the second half of the 10th century (Kainov 2019: 109).
Long knife can be considered an unusual object in the area of ancient Russia, the frequency of which is clearly illustrated by Kirpičnikov (1966): in contrast to nine knives, he was able to collect data on 109 swords, 290 spears and 211 axes from the period from 9th-11th century. Kainov defines four main concentrations of occurrence: Šestovica, Gnězdovo, Michailovskoye, Timerevo (Kainov 2019: 109). From the map published by Stasjuk and his team (Stasjuk – Michailov – Salmin 2018: Рис. 1), it is clear that the finds are concentrated around the Gulf of Finland and the rivers Velikaya, Volkhov, Dnieper and Volga, ie around the main trade routes. Knives preserved together with decorated sheaths were discovered in Šestovica, Gnězdovo and Timerevo, the largest archaeological complexes of Kievan Rus of the 10th century. Virtually all commentators agree that the origin of these objects should be traced outside Russia, especially in Scandinavia (eg Arne 1931; Arbman 1936; Androščuk 1999).
In the territory of today’s Poland, a few long knives are known, dated to 7th-8th century (Makiewicz 1996). We do not find long knives in the defined period. At this point we must mention that the blade found in the tomb E58 in Bodzia should not be attributed to long knives (Buko 2014: 177-181), and rather it can be assigned to swords with organic hilt (Vlasatý 2018a; Vlasatý 2020).
We know of at least four single-edged swords in Poland. Three of them can be assigned to the type H/I with the dating to the 9th century (Klimek et al. 2011: 305-7; Sarnowska 1955: 285-6, 295, 299, Rys. 20, 29, 36), one to the Baltic type Z (Kurasiński – Pudło – Rychter 2011). Single-edged swords of the H/I type were found in the northern part of Poland. At this point it is also worth mentioning that a single-edged sword of type B – ie the sword of the older type – was also found in the northern German site Menzlin (Schoknecht 1977: 104-6, Tab. 43.1), not far from Poland.
An attempt to summarize the development of long knives in the Early Middle Ages
The development of long knives in this period is described mainly in the German literature, which calls these knives seaxes. There are two theories about the origin of long knives – one is of the opinion that the oldest specimens come from the Merovingian environment, where they develop from knives of Germanic tribes (Hübener 1988; Jērums 2011: 140; Westphal 2002: 174; Westphal 2004: 541), the other is that knives were brought by Huns to Central and Eastern Europe (Kiss 2014; Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 44). All commentators agree that the advent of seaxes can be dated to the first half of the 6th century at the latest, but rather to the 5th century (eg Koch Waldner 2019: 141).
The evolution of seaxes seems to vary slightly in individual regions, and a comparison of lengths and periods of occurrence would be pointless at this point. An identical conclusion of all works will suffice – seaxes are continuously prolonging in the regions of occurrence during the period of 6th-8th century. An example is the sequence given by Koch Waldner (2019: 141-143):
Narrow seax (Schmalsax)
The earliest form is a long narrow seax of the second half of the 5th century. This type has a blade length of approximately 33-46 cm and a width of approximately 2.6-3.2 cm.
Short seax (Kurzsax)
In the last quarter of the 5th century, we come across shorter knives that have a blade length of 18-30 cm and a width of 2.5-3.5 cm. At the end of the 6th century, the blades began to expand to 3.5-4 cm, in some cases up to 5 cm.
Light broad seax (Leichter Breitsax)
At the end of the 6th century, a light broad saex was developed, which was used until the middle of the 7th century. This type is typical with a blade length of 26-42 cm and a width of 4-5 cm.
Heavy broad seax (Schwerer Breitsax)
The heavy broad seax was developed in the 7th century and is characterized by a blade length of 34-46 cm, a blade width of over 5 cm and almost always a tang longer than 25 cm.
Long seax (Langsax)
From the last third of the 7th century to the end of the 8th century, long seaxes with a blade length of approximately 48-65+ and a width of 3.8–4.8 cm were used.
Chronological arrangement and development of seaxes in the period of 500-700. Schmitt 2005: Abb. 10.
Chronology, dimensions and numbers of Merovingian seaxes. Hübener 1988.
The longest variant – the long seax – seems to appear in graves in the second half of the 8th century at latest, but according to the vast majority of researchers the use does not exceed the 9th century (Hübener 1988; Nørgård Jørgensen 1999: 150; Westphal 2002: 220; Westphal 2004: 545 ). The only researcher who holds the view of the transition to the 9th century is Böhner (1958: 181). In the 9th century, long seaxes do disappear from Frankish finds, but the main reason is the end of burials with militaria. There is no doubt that seaxes certainly disappeared from the Frankish fashion, in which they were traditionally popular, in the 9th century, but their withdrawal from living culture could have been slower, as depicted by the image from the Stuttgart Psalter (WLB Cod.bibl.fol.23, 005v), dated to 820-830. Also in Norway, long seaxes still appear in the mounds of the 9th century.
While short seaxes can be understood mainly as additional weapons to swords, broad seaxes and long seaxes are rather separate main weapons. It is not uncommon for long seaxes to be buried in graves along with double-edged swords, but it is double-edged swords that have established as the dominant trend in the subsequent development of weapons. The formal end of the era of seaxes in the Frankish Empire can be linked to the Carolingian reforms, under the influence of which central workshops were established for the production of tens of thousands of double-edged swords, combining both better blade production and more progressive types of hilts (personal discussion with Jiří Košta). In the light of this weapons revolution, the seaxes were already somewhat archaic, a development that we can then see throughout Europe.
After 800 in Europe, including Denmark and Norway
Although the end of seaxes production can be expected in the Frankish Empire in the second half of the 8th century, this does not mean that the development of long knives ended in the periphery of the empire and in other regions where they were traditionally popular. One of these regions is the eastern border of the Frankish Empire – the territory of today’s Austria (Szameit 1987), Moravia (Dostál 1966: 74; Galuška et al. 2018: 74-5; Hrubý 1955: 174), Slovakia (Hanuliak 2004: 143) and Hungary (Ruttkay 1976: 295; Sós – Bökönyi 1963: 45, 47; Szőke 2010: 41, 47) – where long knives were still used in the first half of the 9th century (Galuška 1996: 52; Hanuliak 2004: 143; Ruttkay 1982: 177; Szameit 1987: 164). As the register of these knives is not in good condition, it is not clear whether these are western imports or local products, new weapons or antiques.
Another group of long knives on the periphery of the empire, but very poorly researched, can be found in the territories of Polabian Slavs. Except for the long seaxes, which we find in graves dated to the period from 7th/8th century to 8th/9th century (Rempel 1966: 31, Taf. 42A, 44A5, 45C, 45D4, 94.2; Stroh 1954: 24, Taf. 12H3), we can trace several knives dated to the period 9th-11th century. An example is a 36.3 cm long pointed knife from the Carlewitz (9th century), a knife with a straight back and a complete carved handle from Demmin with the total lenght of 55.4 cm and dating to the second half of the 11th century, or a knife with a pointed blade from Pastin, which has a complete length of 48 cm and falls into the period of the second half of the 11th century / the first half of the 12th century (Hollnagel 1969; personal discussion with Reiner Liebentraut). In the 12th century, very long blades and single-edged swords also appeared in this region; one long pointed knife 80.6 cm long was found in the Behren – Lübchin and can be dated to the last third of the 12th century (Schuldt 1959: 143), while a single-edged sword 84.5 cm long and dated to 1080-1150 was found in Usadel (Retzlaff 2000).
The third region with a significant proportion of long knives in the period of 9th-11th century is Anglo-Saxon England, whose knives are characterized by a bevelled back (so-called broken back). The most famous specimens include richly decorated pieces from the Thames (the so-called Beagnoth’s seax; Wilson 1964: no. 36, Pl. XXII) and Sittingbourne (Wilson 1964: no. 80, Pl. XXX), another recent find of a decorated long knife comes from Cumwhitton (Paterson et al. 2014: Fig. 93). Gale (1989) presented a good summary work that maps English long knives, and we can also refer to the list prepared by Archer (Archer 2016). In addition to long knives, we also know at least a dozen sheaths (Cameron 2000: 64) and iconography (eg Bayley 1980: Pl. 14). The presence of two sheaths in Trondheim suggests that Anglo-Saxon long knives have been limitedly used in Norway.
Scandinavia can be considered the fourth region in which long knives developed in the 9th and probably the 10th century. One line of development is the emergence of a narrow knife with a straight back – Norwegian knives are 20-50 cm long, but the most finds are 20-35 cm long and 2-3 cm wide, while Danish knives are 35-45 cm long, 1.8-3.1 cm wide 0.4–0.5 cm thick. At least in the case of Norway, this type of knife seems to have been developed as early as the 8th century, which is in line with the theory put forward by Nørgård Jørgensen (1999: 149-150), who calls this shape type SAX5 and dates it to mid-8th century. Knives seem to appear throughout the 10th century. It should be noted that in comparison with other weapon finds, these knives are marginally represented, namely 4 pieces in Denmark and about 20 pieces in Norway. A similar frequency applies to knives in Anglo-Saxon England. Due to their frequency and anatomy, long knives can be considered tools for killing and slicing meat, rather than additional weapons (Gale 1989: 80). A long knife from Oseberg, which was found together with kitchen utensils, points to a similar function (Grieg 1928: 163, Abb. 101).
The second line of development of long knives in Scandinavia are single-edged swords, which use a similar blade shape as the above-mentioned Scandinavian knives – they have a straight back and a slightly tapered blade. The coexistence of long knives and single-edged swords in Norway does not last longer than 200 years. The oldest variant appears around the middle of the 8th century, the youngest in the first half of the 10th century. The blades of these swords appear in several designs, leading to a longer and narrower blade over time – an analogical developement can be seen in the Baltic and West Slavic single-edged swords. They are used both with and without metal hilt components. Norwegian single-edged swords can be considered domestic products, which were especially popular in the first half of the 9th century, when they were exported to the British Isles. In the total volume of Norwegian swords they represent about a quarter of all weapons. The single-edged swords seem to have given way to the classic double-edged swords. The emergence of Petersen’s type M, ie a very simple, undecorated and extremely popular double-edged sword, around the middle of the 9th century may have had some effect on the gradual abandonment of this tradition.
After the year 800 in the Baltic area
The following chapter is an attempt to describe the phenomenon of narrow long knives with a thick back in the area around the Baltic Sea and is based on the excursions to the material culture of individual countries we presented above. Stjerna (2007) was the closest to the presented view of the phenomenon, but in the past the research struggled with the limits of local libraries, which resulted in Baltic researchers having no idea about Swedish material and vice versa.
In the Baltic area, there are narrow knives of the same construction as the Norwegian and Danish analogies, but the relationship between the two groups cannot be satisfactorily explained. Narrow long knives appear in Sweden (including Gotland), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland (including Åland) and Russia. Their unifying parameters are the total length of 27-60 cm (most commonly 35-50), the width of the blade 1.7-3 cm and the thickness of the back 0.6-2.5 cm (most commonly around 1 cm). The length of the handles, which were made of wood, bone or antler, was 9-13 cm. The weight of the blades without handles is 100-330 grams. Longitudinal grooves have been found on the backs of knives from Sweden, Latvia, Estonia and Finland and they are results of the production of a three-part or five-part package with a high-quality steel core (Arrhenius 1974: 105; Tvauri 2012: 187-8); therefore they are marks of quality. However, the flat and non-grooved back does not mean that the knives are of significantly lower quality, as they probably all had a steel core. Back grooving seems to suggest a different strategy in knife presentation, as it is not found on knives that have decorated sheaths (Stjerna 2007: 245).
Curonian knives with decorated sheaths seem to be the chronologically oldest and at the same time their production occured in the longest period of time, which points to a strong tradition. Curonia, as a coastal territory, most likely played a significant role in the spread of this fashion of decorated knives in the area between Gotland, central Sweden, southwestern Finland, Estonia and Latvia. Although this type of knife seems to have received very rapid adoption in Finland, more precisely dated finds from more recent literature do not allow the older dating than the first half of the 10th century. It is the first half of the 10th century that can be perceived as a period when the knives spread to the entire monitored area. In some regions, such as Gotland and the Liv and Semigallian territories, they began to be buried in the graves only in the second half of the 10th century. Outside of Curonia, however, this fashion had not been maintained for more than a century.
It is very difficult to say exactly how the fashion was adopted in Sweden. Stjerna suggested the production by foreign artisans, but we believe that we cannot rule out the production by locals. Although the basic logic of sheath decoration was taken from the Baltic models (especially the two-point or three-point fastening, chapes and grooved clamps), the decoration was not duplicated. Rather, knives seem to have been ingeniously incorporated into domestic tradition in Sweden. The chapes and grooved clamps correspond to the procedure used for smaller knives, while the fitting of the widened part of the sheath and the ring holders have been modified so they do not have embossed but engraved decoration and have been supplemented with openwork decoration. The openwork decoration was also lined with contrasting sheet metal, a technique that is absent in Lithuanian and Latvian sheaths. In contrast to the Lithuanian, Latvian, Gotland and Finnish finds, the Swedish pieces lack metal strips surrounding the handle (except for a short knife from Bj 837, Birka). Furthermore, Swedish pieces, in contrast to knives from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, lack the decoration of the sheath side (rhombic plates or toothed fittings). Some of the Swedish sheaths had cast chapes (Stjerna 2007: 245), which is also a feature we do not encounter elsewhere.
The Old Russian finds from Gnězdovo, Šestovica and Timerevo are so similar to the Swedish pieces that we can speak of the same workshop. Kainov is also of the opinion that long knives with decorated sheaths from Old Rus come from the same place as knives from central Sweden (Kainov 2019: 112). We can note three interesting details about knives from ancient Russia. The knife found in Šestovica in 2006 has a wire-wrapped handle, which we do not know in Sweden, but for shorter knives it is a relatively common practice. The ring holder from the tomb Л-73/1950 from Gnězdovo is decorated with filigree, which has no analogy (Kainov 2019: рис. 35.6). Kainov (2019: 109) notes that some of the Gnězdovo sheaths show signs of repairs that could have been made locally. The spread of knives to today’s Russia can be explained by Duczko’s interpretation that Gnězdovo was probably governed by a family connected to the Swedish ruling dynasty (Duczko 2004: 179, 256). The author literally says that this family and its faithful arrived from Sweden in the 930s, lived in Gnězdovo in an imported Scandinavian culture, and were subsequently buried with its products. As for Šestovica, Duczko is of the opinion that it is a funeral complex with a very obvious presence of the Scandinavian elite, which he interprets as retainers of the rulers of Kievan Rus (Duczko 2004: 245).
In the academic literature, two theories about these knives collide, although they actually complement each other well – the first looks at long knives as prestigious, the second as utility objects. Stjerna (2007: 247) evaluates knives as prestigious gifts distributed by the monarch. Mandel (1977) believes that knives are well made and are not inferior substitutes for swords, but are side weapons of high-ranked warriors. Stasjuk et al. (2018: 273) argue that sophisticated production technology testifies to their high value, while their combat characteristics are rather specialized; the author tends to believe that these are weapons used only in a certain social group. In contrast, Thunmark-Nylén (2006: 243) notes the wear of knives and thinks they are not weapons, but rather hunting knives. Kainov (2019: 109) also reports on abrasions, repairs and replaced components, which according to him testify to constant use.
In addition to long knives, we must comment on a related topic – the use of single-edged swords. During the focused period, we can follow two lines of single-edged sword production around the Baltic Sea, each using differently shaped blades and connecting them with different types of hilts. The first – we can call it Scandinavian – is a continuation of the tradition of the Vendel period, during which single-edged swords evolved from long knives. Its manifestations can be seen both in mainland Sweden and especially in Gotland and the northern part of Poland and Germany. This line seems to cover a certain part of the 9th century and we do not register it in the Baltic in the following century. The second line – let’s call it Baltic – has its roots in Lithuania and Latvia in the 9th century, where it evolved from long knives, along which they coexisted into the 11th century and eventually replaced the tradition of long knives. The Baltic line of single-edged swords is also limited in Poland and Finland.
A Note for Reenactors
In the Early Middle Ages reenactment, the long knife is usually seen as a typical part of the armament of the Scandinavians of the Viking Age. Being commonly named seaxes, long knives are used as primary weapons of novices or as side weapons of spearmen or swordmen. The knives are usually around 3 cm wide and have a straight or bevelled back. They are usually worn on the side or on the back. The handles are normally not covered with a sheath and are often, due to aesthetics, composed of several materials (metal bolsters, leather, wood, antler) or are made of untreated, curved antler.
The presented material rather does not support this perception. If we look at long knives from a longer perspective, the main use of long knives in Europe lies in 6th-8th centuries, while in the following centuries they are on decline and appear rather sporadically in ones or dozens of pieces. Nothing can outline the situation more clearly than the situation in present-day Denmark, where we do not have a single find of a long knife (the pieces found were discovered in Haithabu and Skåne) compared to more than a hundred swords. In the academic literature, the name seax is used for Continental blades before the 9th century and for Anglo-Saxon knives with a bevelled back, so the term is not suitable for the Scandinavian knives. The length of up to 50 cm and the width of the blade of 2-3 cm, together with the frequency of finds, points to the fact it was not an established weapon, and it could be, for example, a slicing and hunting knife. In contrary to Anglo-Saxon knives, Scandinavian long knives do not have beveled backs. We are able to find the wearing the long knife on the front of the body or on the sides, but not on the back. The sheaths covered all or a large part of the handle, and for this reason the handles were almost always fitted with a ring with a strap so that the knife could be pulled out; the handle itself was made of treated wood or antler and provided with a plate at the end of the handle (not a bolster), or a wire wrapping.
In general, we recommend to avoid the use of long knives as the main or auxiliary weapons for a Scandinavian, Baltic or Rus portrayal of the 9th-11th century, but we approve their sharp variants used for hunting and meat processing. On the contrary, we welcome the use of single-edged swords for the reconstruction of the regions and centuries in which they were used.
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The mentioned grave from Petersdal, Denmark, is published:
Hello Ole, thank you very much. I know your publication.