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Knife sheaths with openwork and stepped edge

Although it is an extremely interesting topic for reenactors and craftsmen, knives and their sheaths are an academically overlooked problem. Knowing that every Early medieval reenactor uses at least one knife, we decided to open the question of knife sheaths decorated with openwork and stepped edges. This type of fittings is relatively numerous in the area of central Sweden, Gotland and Old Rus and has numerous examples in the famous Birka, for instance.

The article thus follows up on the previous part Wire wrapped knife handles of 9th-12th century, in which we examined various aspects of wire wrapping of early medieval knife handles. The problem of openwork and stepped edges has been addressed in the past in the article Evolution of Scandinavian long knives, which develops the following text well. Following the publication of the article Horns decorated with openwork metal edges, which gathered all the openwork drinking horn fittings, the presented study of knife sheaths with the same decoration is a logical continuation that will allow a broader perspective. Finally, this is the first comprehensive revision of items of this type.

Decorated sheath of the long knife from grave 12, Valsgärde. Source: Matt Bunker.

Definition of the examined group

Our goal is to collect all potential finds belonging to the same production tradition. For this purpose, we have limited the collection to those fittings that have a right-angled stepped decoration and a right-angled perforation. Thus, several groups are excluded:

  1. cast sheath fittings with circular perforation, found for example in grave 877 from Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 180.5).
  2. Karelian type fittings of 11th-13th centuries, which are decorated with non-right-angled openwork (Kivikoski 1973: Abb. 1226; Kočkurkina 2010: 193).
  3. Baltic sheath fittings with rhombic perforation, for example from the locality Radzes (LA 1974: Tab. 60.28).
  4. Slavic sheath fitting with round holes (Feveile 2017; Bolander 2017: 181). Analogically, we do not work with fittings that have holes designed to accommodate the chain.

At the same time, we do not include fittings with rectangular or oval opening from Zalavár, which is obviously unrelated to the trend (Szőke 2019: Figs. 103, 105).

The time frame for the collected material is 9th-11th century.

Description of material

Taking into account the definition above, we collected 45 openwork fittings and 91 fittings with a stepped edge. For at least 28 fittings, the perforation and the stepped edge are used at the same time (the vast majority are long knives and their sheaths), so the two groups are closely intertwined. In some cases, the openwork is an extension of a stepped edge, other times (eg Stungiai) it appears separately.

Openwork is most often used on trapezoidal fittings close to the handles, sometimes also on the suspension rings and chapes. The openwork takes the form of letters L and T and variously shaped crosses, the walls of the ornaments are at right angles to each other. Especially for long knives, the perforations are associated with the use of a contrasting lining and a tin-plated surface.

Shapes of openwork ornaments on knife sheaths. Author: Tomáš Cajthaml.

The stepped edge, also using right angles, takes on heights of two to four steps. The four-step edge is not usual and we find it at the knife from Njubiniči.

Stepped edge shapes. Author: Tomáš Cajthaml.

The stepped edge is used only for trapezoidal fittings at the handle, and if it is accompanied by a perforation, the perforation is organized in one or two rows. The perforation, as has been said, can occur independently of the stepped edge and is used in one or two rows, exceptionally in three rows (Austers), on trapezoidal fittings.

Layout of the stepped edge and openwork in trapezoidal fittings.
Left: stepped edge without openwork (top), with one row of openwork ornaments (center) and with two rows of openwork ornaments (bottom).
Right: one row of openwork ornaments (top), two rows of openwork ornaments (center) and three rows of openwork ornaments (bottom). Author Tomáš Cajthaml.

The geographical distribution of the decorated sheaths is relatively uniform and ranges from Norway to Russia, from Finland to Ukraine, with a focus on central Sweden, Gotland and Old Rus. Finland and the Baltic States are only partially affected by this fashion, and in Poland and Denmark, for example, it is completely absent. However, the visual appearance of the fittings in the group is not uniform and we can distinguish at least two main subgroups:

  1. The fittings from central Sweden and the Old Rus localities of Gnězdovo, Šestovica and Timerevo are so similar that they could have been made in one, probably Swedish workshop. Fittings from this area lack sheet metal strips surrounding the handle, are not additionally embossed with triangular stamps and the perforation is often underlain by contrasting sheet metal. When using a contrasting underlay, the main fittings are tinned.

  2. Gotlandic and Baltic fittings in some cases use strips surrounding the handle and triangular stamps, but are not tinned and backed with contrasting sheet metal. The idea that the tinned and stamped fitting from Dreņģeru-Čunkāni, which has a strips surrounding the handle, comes from central Sweden, seems problematic (Atgāzis 1994: 25).

Distribution of studied sheaths. Bigger resolution here.
Orannge = openwork; black = stepped edge; green= openwork and stepped edge combined.

The vast majority date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. One of the oldest finds may be the fitting from mound no. 1 in Borre, Norway, which was built around 900 or at the beginning of the 10th century (Myhre – Gansum 2003). Graves 369A, 581, 644, 703, 834, 944 and 955 from Birka can be put in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the 10th century, as well as graves from Gnězdovo (Kainov 2019: 109) and Šestovica. Knives from graves 12 and 15 from Valsgärde belong to the 3rd quarter of the 10th century (see Long knife from the grave Valsgärde 12). All of below-mentioned Hellvi Ire knives can be dated to the second half of the 10th and 11th centuries (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 250, 688-694). The youngest and most distant in terms of appearance and geography is the knife from the locality Inari Mihkalijärvi, dated between the years 1050-1150 (Ruusuvuori 2010: 46).

Knives with a total length of over 30 cm have a significant portion in the set (perhaps up to 30 pieces). We stated elsewhere (see Evolution of Scandinavian Long Knives) that in Scandinavia, these long knives with decorated sheaths cannot be dated before the first half of the 10th century. In central Sweden, Gotland and the Baltic countries, the production of short and long knives was most likely closely intertwined.

As many as 16 specimens from our collection were equipped with a knife with a wire wrapping of the handle, which can be understood as a much more widespread phenomenon geographically and numerically (see Wire wrapped knife handles of 9th-12th century).

Distribution of wire-wrapped swords. Bigger resolution here.
Purple = iron; orange = copper alloy; black = silver; green = combination of silver, copper alloy and iron; yellow = gold; blue = unknown.


It is important to understand that decorations using right-angled openings and stepped edges are used to give the resulting fittings the impression of zigzag lines. This logic also applies to items with other types of decoration, especially hammered items stamped with triangular punches – knife sheaths (eg Andersen 1993: Fig. 9; Spicyn 1905b: 146), bracelets and necklaces (eg Graham-Campbell 2013: 143-145; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 144, 156), brooches and pins (e.g. Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 89-92), belt buckles (e.g. Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 125-126), rings (Arbman 1940: Taf. 111), but also for inlays of weapons (Kainov 2012: 43-45, 48-52) or cut comb motifs (Tempel 1969: Abb. 25b). The zigzag line is a leitmotif from which the entire Nordic and Baltic early medieval production benefits to a large extent. From some explicit cases, it is clear that this line imitates a zigzag line on the back of a viper and the entire ornate object refers to a snake’s body. The symbolism of snakes in Old Norse culture does not have a simple interpretation – snakes are interpreted as protectors of wealth and other ways (Brunning 2015; Gardeła 2021: 50-52; Mandt 1996).

Selection of objects using zigzag line symbolism and comparison with the viper’s back.
Source: Brunning 2015: Fig 2.1; Kainov 2012: Fig. 34; Spicyn 1905b: 146; Tempel 1969: Taf. 32.1; Graham-Campbel 2013: 16.

In general, the closest group of objects to the knife sheaths we follow are horns with a sheet metal mouth – even in this group, stepped edges and openings are widely used (see Horns decorated with openwork metal edges). Although these fittings are made primarily of silver, the geography and chronology are similar, except that openwork horn mouths are also found in Denmark and that mouths are often stamped.

Distribution of horns with openwork metal edges. Bigger resolution here.

Openwork T-shaped decoration is not an unique phenomenon. In two-row version, we find it on bracelets (Graham-Campbell – Sheenan 1995: 772; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 154), axe-shaft metal wrapping (MAR 14: Табл. XV.3) and combs (Wideen 1955: Fig. 154). A similar stepped decor can be found in textiles (Hedeager Krag – Ræder Knudsen 1999: Fig. 1) and at least two spears from the late 10th or early 11th century – these are spears from Garder, Norway (C15917; Hjardar – Vike 2016: 179) and Svenskens, Gotland (Androshchuk – Källström 2020). For both spears, the interior of the stepped decorations is made of copper alloy wire, while the surrounding space is filled with silver wire.

Examples of items with openwork two-row decoration in the shape of the letter T.
Source: Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Taf. 154.6; MAR 14: Табл. XV.3; Wideen 1955: Fig. 154.

Spear from Garder (C15917). Source: catalog UNIMUS, Hjardar – Vike 2016: 179.

Spear from Svenskens.
Source: Androshchuk – Källström 2020: Fig. 2, reproduction made by Dmitrij Chramcov.

Another close parallel from the same area is the iron shield boss found in the inhumation grave Bj 544 in Birka (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.1), which was decorated in a unique way – the entire edge is decorated with tin metal sheet in three-step pattern, which is irregular and largely damaged (Arbman 1943: 170), but right-angled shaped and spikes can be noticed (Arwidsson 1986: 42). The grave can be dated to 940-970.

The boss decorated with tin edge from the grave Bj 544, Birka.
Source: Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.1, catalogue SHM, reproduction made by White Lynx group.

On the functional objects of the Early Middle Ages, we find a number of similar ornaments that are rather random and unrelated to this group – let’s name game pieces (Schulze-Dörrlamm 2011: Abb. 7), enamel brooches (Buckton 1986: Fig. 4-5), chest fittings (Muhl 1990: 258; Rydh 1936: Fig. 309; Tomtlund 1978) and hammer amulets (Staecker 1999).


Regional distribution and comparison with other products suggest that the chosen group is a good indicator of the Scandinavian material culture of much of the 10th and early 11th centuries. The question that we cannot fully answer at this point is how and when this method of decoration developed. The most satisfactory answer we can suggest at the moment is that, given the fact that a stepped edge with openwork appears in different places independently (eg Kubik – Radjuš 2019: Рис. 7, 9), the possibility cannot be ruled out that this form of decoration is a distinctive Scandinavian achievement and a Scandinavian response to the general demand for the serrated edge, which is also recorded in Anglo-Saxon England (Evans 1994: 64-6; Graham-Campbell 1973) and Lithuania (eg Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 21 pav; Simniškytė 1998: 17 pav.). This version would be indicated by the fact that two- and three-step openings already occur in central Sweden during the Vendel Period (Stolpe-Arne 1912: Pl. XL.2-3, Pl. XLIV.20).

The more massive use of right-angled openwork decoration and stepped edges in the Swedish environment occurs when long knives with decorated scabbards were introduced into fashion, probably under the influence of today’s Latvia and Lithuania, in the first third of the 10th century at the latest. The production of sheaths for shorter knives, horn mouths and other associated items was closely linked to the production of long knives and their sheaths.

Comparison of Lithuanian serrated decoration on the example of a knife and horn remains.
Source: Gintautaitė-Butėnienė – Butėnas 2002: 21 pav; Simniškytė 1998: 17 pav.

Catalog of openwork knife components

Reproduction of the knife from the grave of Bj 1067, Birka. Manufacturer: King’s craft.

Catalog of knife components with stepped edge

Reproduction of the knife from the grave of Bj 967, Birka. Manufacturer: King’s craft.


We thank Alexandra Ščedrina, who helped us to find the Old Rus examples. We are also grateful to Tomáš Cajthaml, who selflessly created graphics.

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.


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