Greetings, faithful friends of history and of this blog that likes to reveal the ancient secrets and brilliance of the past!
After a break, I am back with an article that not only presents my two-year collection of information in the Scandinavian environment, but also brings into the English language an international discourse on the forms of shields in the Viking Age and shows the work of my friends from the ranks of top reenactors. The catalog, which forms the core part of the article, is the only one that has ever been published in such an extent.
There is a general perception among reenactors and academics of the shield as a consumable item destined to be destroyed, and as such is devoid of all ornamentation, distinguishing it from shields of earlier periods. This assumption was made mainly because of the insufficient study of archaeological material, half-hearted attempts at reconstruction and insufficient experiments. However, a detailed reading of the original pieces, their faithful reproduction and correct use tells us the exact opposite: even the most high-class shields were extremely functional and demanding products, the manufacture of which required the mastery of three crafts at an advanced level. If we want to describe what a common shield of the Viking Age looked like, we can take a look at an experiment carried out in 2019 by the Danish archaeologist Rolf F. Warming in collaboration with the Museum in Trelleborg and the National Museum in Copenhagen (summary here):
Production of metal components:
Approx. 40 kg of iron ore was procured in Guldager near Esbjerg, Denmark. Historical sources of iron ore were swamps and various ore-rich soils. Metallurgist Jens Jørgen Olesen, working at the Hjerl Hede open-air museum, who has more than five hundred successful smeltings to his credit, smelted the ore in a clay furnace using hand bellows for 4 hours, another hour or so before the resulting bloom was mined from the furnace and divided into two halves using axes and clubs. The bloom weighed 4.5 kg and was expected to yield an ingot weighing 2-2.5 kg when forged by a blacksmith. This assumption was not confirmed – the Swedish blacksmith Tord Bergelin hammered the bloom and folded it many times to get an ingot weighing 1.5 kg. It should be noted that he performed the forging on a modern anvil, and a period anvil and hearth would present significant challenges. A shield boss corresponding to type R563 was forged from the ingot, which corresponded to the dimensions of the shield boss found in Trelleborg, Denmark. Viking Age shield bosses do not reach large dimensions, and it has been experimentally proven that the best bosses are those with an inner dome about 2 cm larger than the width of the user’s palm (see our article Dimensions of Continental and Scandinavian shield-bosses). Viking Age bosses copy the Danish blacksmith Jesper Jørgensen from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde forged a total of 15 nails with a maximum length of 5.5 cm from leftover iron.
Manufacturing metal shield components from iron ore smelting to finished products.
The Viking Shield project by the Society for Combat Archaeology.
The basic stumbling block of every reproduction so far has been the insufficient level of knowledge of whether the shields were coated, or with what and how. Therefore, the author of the project, in cooperation with experts, had to examine the finds of Scandinavian and Baltic shields from the period 300-1000 AD, which were assumed to preserve leather. The result was clear: all these shields were covered on both sides with a very thin layer of tanned leather. From the observed period, we also know textile coverings from the Cumwhitton, England, but Rolf Warming did not have an opportunity to examine it. Covering with linen or raw cowhide is also mentioned by the craftsman Theophilus in the 12th century as inferior materials in case of a lack of raw horsehide, but it must be noted that these mentions concerns kite-shields. In light of these findings, it appears that leaving the shield uncoated was not practiced. Details of Rolf’s analyzes has been published in a fifty-page study in 2020 (Warming et al. 2020). Leather cover of both sides of shields are also known from Anglo-Saxon England (e.g. Bullock 2011).
In the case of a shield fragment from grave Bj 850 from Birka, it was found that both sides of the shield were covered with lamb leather, while the edge itself was covered by a layer of cowhide fastened with clamps. Therefore, the same combination was chosen for the reproduction, 1-1.5 mm thick lamb leather and 2 mm thick cowhide. The leather was tanned by tanner Karl Karlsson using birch and pine tan, and as the author of the project adds, the difference in tanning has a fundamental effect on the functionality of the shield. Lamb leather appears to have been quite popular in the Viking Age, as the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan forbade shields to be covered with lamb leather under a fine of thirty shillings in his code dated 924-939 (Æthelstan’s Lawbook 16). The king’s code is probably aimed at strengthening the army, and the lamb leather, which the king’s code considers insufficient, was apparently intended to be replaced by cowhide. The Scandinavians probably liked lamb leather and had plenty of it. Apparently, a large piece of leather that could be used for the entire side of the shield was impossible to get, and the owners solved this problem by using two pieces (see assembly). This aspect was followed in the reconstruction.
The analysis of the preserved leather remains served as a guide to the preparation of the leather for reconstruction. The Viking Shield project by the Society for Combat Archaeology.
Production of wooden boards and assembly:
Wooden shield boards are among relatively well-documented artefacts. The board was made of planks that were split from logs and then planed smooth. Conifers were generally used, especially pine and fir, but it seems that oak also had a certain tradition in Denmark, which lasted from Roman times (Illerup Ådal) to Viking Age (Flintinge Å, Mølleparken). The author of the project decided to use both variants and ordered shields made both of Norwegian pine and Danish oak from the Danish craftsman Tom Jersø, who was in charge of production and assembly. The number of planks in the board was usually 6-8, for the reconstructions the number of seven was chosen, as is the case with the shield from Trelleborg. The board of the Trelleborg shield also served as a model for a slightly oval shape with a diameter of 89 cm and a maximum thickness of 0.8 cm. The diameter of Viking shields corresponded to roughly half the wearer’s height ± 6 cm. The boards were tapered at the edges to copy the original proportions: the planks of all 64 shields from Gokstad were narrowed from 8-9 mm to 3-4 mm, with 5-6 mm thickness around 6-7 cm from the the edge and showing the greatest narrowing at the last 2-3 cm from the very edge. The tapering resulted in a lighter and more practical product, which had more weight spread around the boss, thus allowing easier control. At the same time, the tapering was intended to make it easier to jam the weapon into the edge, which was a desirable feature, since the weapon remained stuck in the shield. However, it was necessary to strengthen the edges of the shield with leather or metal clamps so that the crack did not spread unnecessarily deep and the shield could be functional for as long as possible. The pine board, which was prepared from slow-growing Norwegian pine by carpenter Rene Lærke using hand tools, weighed 2.4 kg. The individual planks were glued together with rabbit glue according to Theophilus’ 12th-century recipe (Theophilus I:17).
The hole for the hand was created based on the shield from Trelleborg and had dimensions of 9.1 × 10.5 cm, thus exactly copying the shape of the fist. The edges of the opening have been ground down, as is the case with shields from Gokstad. The author of the project, Rolf Warming, noticed an important detail in one fragment from Gokstad: the shield had a tiny groove on the back, about 1 mm deep and about 2.5 cm wide, which was probably related to the handle that was slightly sunk into it for easier fixation of the handle and also due to less pressure on the handle during use. The handle was usually made of the wood of deciduous trees, beech was chosen for the reconstruction and its shaping and installation took place under exceptional supervision. The shape of the handle is as similar as possible to the handles of the Gokstad shields that show an identical bevel. As foreshadowed in the Leather preparation chapter, two pieces of leather were installed on each side, with a series of small holes in the board at the join line through which the leather pieces were sewn to the board and to each other. In the case of the shield from Tira Bog, the holes are located in the middle at the level of the shield boss, while in the case of one shield from Gokstad, a series of holes were discovered beyond the level of the shield boss approximately three-quarters of the length of the shield; this detail was also implemented in the reconstructions.
After the planks were glued together, the hand hole was cut and smoothed, and the groove for the handle recessed, the shield was glued on both sides with a thin layer of lamb leather. The edge was taped over with a strip of cowhide and fixed through holes placed in the edge. As the author of the project, Rolf Warming, points out, the thorough stitching of the edges all around was not found in the original shields. Rather, as he states, the holes were created in specific locations and related to the stitching of pieces of leather together. According to Rolf, the glue, in this case rabbit glue according to Theophilus’ recipe, is strong enough to hold the leather in place, and seams or possible metal clamps can provide even better structural cohesion. The weight of the complete shield with oaken board is 4.5 kg.
A subsequent experiment of combat properties showed that the tanned leather gave the shield tremendous strength against all types of weapons. The experiments not only highlighted the necessity of applying leather, but also the importance of correct period processes.
Production of the board and completion of the shield.
The Viking Shield project by the Society for Combat Archaeology.
You can see production videos in a similar way on Roland Warzecha’s channel:
We have just described the making of a basic Viking shield. We can see that there is tremendous preparation behind the production, the procedures are chosen with the highest regard for the quality of the material and the subsequent use, which requires tens of hours of work. The work, which today, due to the loss of tradition, is performed by six skilled craftsmen, was embodied in every early medieval landowner, who rightly deserves our admiration. Compared to the shield, the production of which we have just described, we can present even more expensive and time-consuming variants – shields that were decorated with paintings, metal clamps or fittings, artfully shaped shield bosses with contrasting metal and a richly decorated handles; shields that can truly be called works of art and that became gifts and loot among the highest class of society.
In the following catalog I will include all finds that could be described as decorative from a certain point of view. All metal components of shields will be included, including decorated shield bosses (undecorated shield bosses are omitted), but also carvings and paintings related to shields belonging to the Scandinavian cultural circle.
The most common form of additional metal components are clamps on the edges of shields. As suggested, the clamps had the task of holding the leather (e.g. Bj 850) or metal edge (Ness, Laxare, Tuna Alsike 4), but since they often appear in small numbers, we cannot exclude the possibility that they were repairs or methods of attachment edges where the strips of leather ended. The clamps are usually iron or copper alloy, a number of clamps especially from Birka are tin plated and the Scar clamp seems to be gilded. Some clamps are additionally decorated with edge lines, rows of embossed dots or pits surrounding the rivets. There were usually two rivets on the clamps, rarely three.
Distribution of edge shield clamps made of copper alloy (orange), iron (blue) or unknown material (black).
In addition to the standard types of shield bosses that are commonly found throughout the Scandinavian cultural circle (R562, R563, R564, R565), we find a relatively large variability of shapes and decorations, although it should be emphasized that shield bosses are typically undecorated and only in lower tens of decorated pieces are known. Decorated bosses are naturally divided into those whose brims are decorated by shaping or iron applications (type 1), and bosses with brims decorated with non-ferrous metals (type 2). From both dominant methods of decoration, it is evident that the logic of the decoration was aimed at creating the impression of rays, contrast and the play of light and shadow on the brims. This is achieved by shaping the material, openwork and applying a contrasting material (tin, copper alloy, silver, gold). In some cases, decorative rivets are used (Bj 467B, Vendel II, L’île de Groix).
Overview of European shield boss decorations in the period 800-1200 AD.
Prepared by Tomáš Cajthaml, grafikacajthaml.cz.
Significant findings were made regarding the handles of the shields. We can divide them into two basic groups – handles with an organic base and handles with a metal base. Handles with an organic base can be decorated with engravings and can be fixed with copper alloy trefoil terminals. Given the frequency of finds, this variant must have been quite common. Handles with a metal base are divided into two main groups: handles fixed with trefoil terminals (Vendel II, Valsgärde 2, Haithabu) and handles with widened, flattened ends (Bj 726, Myklebostad, Rends, Gokstad). The basis of both of these subtypes is an iron tube with a semicircular cross-section, which is narrowed towards the ends. Decorated bands of copper alloy are usually applied to the tube, sometimes also gold-plated, or the tube is covered with wires or covered with silver. The ends of these bands are tucked inside the tube, after which the tube is stuffed with wood filling. In the case of a handle with trefoil terminals, the ends create sharp points, in the case of a handle with widened ends, the ends are flared into oar-like flats and are riveted with two rivets and then covered with a sheet of copper alloy that masks the rivets. Handles with trefoil terminals are generally very short, around 30-40 cm, while handles with flared ends generally follow the entire diameter of the shield. Both types of handles may have eyelets that are attached with staples (for example, Bj 886). These metal components compare fairly well with both pre-Viking shield handles and Irish-type shield handles.
Short handles with trefoil terminals (left) and long handles with flattened ends (right).
Author: Michal Havelka, baba_jaga_atelier. Bigger resolution here.
Distribution of short metal handles with terminals (blue) and long handles with widened ends (orange).
Pre-Viking shield handles from Germany and Sweden.
Source: Arrhenius 1983: Fig. 7, Fig. 10; Arwidsson 1977: Taf. 5-7.
Irish type shield handle from Balladoole. Source: Bersu – Wilson 1966: Fig. 5.
From literary sources and scant archaeological evidence, it seems that a number of shields were painted with pigments. Red, white and dark blue colors appear to be popular. In the catalog we meet shields that are painted red (Nes), red, black and white (Ballateare), red, white and yellow (Gnězdovo), red and white (Trelleborg), red and blue (Tranås) and also dark blue, turquoise, white and red (Grimstrup). We know from iconography (Archer 2020) that geometric figures, lines, circles, but also figural painting were popular. Figurative painting is also explicitly mentioned in the poems – for example Haustlǫng by Þjóðólfr of Hvinir and Ragnarsdrápa by Bragi Boddason – that celebrate gifted shields painted with mythological scenes.
The painting had to be done by an experienced artist skilled in obtaining and applying pigments. Especially in the case of more complex compositions, it was desirable for the artist to work with an underpainting (which is evident in some paintings, however not specified further) on which they further layered paint. It can be traced that artists worked with up to eight pigments within a single painting. Pigments could be mixed, but mixing involved additional activities such as heating or adding binders. Analysis of the paintings proved that heat-treated linseed oil was used. In some paintings, brush strokes that were made from pig bristles are visible. The red pigment was usually obtained from cinnabar (HgS), the yellow pigment from a resin-based orpiment (As2S3), the black pigment was achieved with bone charcoal mixed with phosphorus. The white was lead-based and could also serve as an underpainting. The green was achieved using a verdigris.
Bj 45, Birka, Sweden
In the middle of the cremation mound, there was a burnt layer, the contents of which were two copper alloy shield components (Arbman 1943: 16-17). The first was a clamp measuring 25 × 25 mm, which was decorated with three rows of punches (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.6). The second fragment is a handle terminal, which is broken at the neck – we can find an analogous copy of it in grave Bj 850 (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.7)
Copper alloy shield fragments from grave Bj 45 at Birka, Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.6 a Taf. 19.7.
Bj 369A, Birka, Sweden
The cremation mound contained a vessel with cremated remains, and outside the vessel, among other objects, 6 iron clamps measuring 2.2-2.5 × 1.9-2.1 cm were found (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.3; Arbman 1943: 104-5). The thickness of the clamps at the point of riveting is 4 mm, which indicates the thickness of the edge of the shield board.
Shield edge iron clamps from grave Bj 369A at Birka, Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.3.
Bj 467B, Birka, Sweden
In one of the two graves in double skeleton grave 467, a badly damaged fragment of the flange of the shield boss was found, which is encircled with a copper alloy band in the manner of the find from grave 850 (Arbman 1943: 134, Abb. 80a). The fragment is provided with a rivet, which has a head with a beaded edge; the head is made of silvered copper alloy. The closest analogy to a rivet with a beaded edge can be found on a shield boss from the grave of Vendel II (Arbman 1943: 134, Abb. 80b). In grave 467B, an iron handle covered with a sheet of copper alloy was also found, the decoration of which is significantly damaged. The end of the handle was attached with terminals, of which only one survives, made of a copper alloy (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.5). Greta Arwidsson (1986: 39) states that the body of the shield was made of yew.
A fragment of the shield boss from grave Bj 467 in Birka and a boss with an analogous rivet from the grave of Vendel II. Arbman 1943: 134, Abb. 80.
Copper alloy handle terminal from grave 467B. Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.5.
Bj 504, Birka, Sweden
A fragment of an iron handle was found in skeleton grave 504/536, which is decorated with ornamented bands of copper alloy and wrapped in leather and textile (Arbman 1943: 146-147, Abb. 92-93). The closest analogy is the handle from grave Bj 736. An “iron band fitting 1.9 cm wide and 21.5 cm long” may also be related to the handle (Arbman 1943: 147). Greta Arwidsson (1986: 39) states that the shield was made of maple, but as only the handle is preserved, it is possible that the maple wood came from the filling of the iron handle, not the shield board, which was usually made of conifer wood in Birka.
Iron fragment of a handle covered with a decorative band of copper alloy and wrapped in leather and textile, grave Bj 504 in Birka. Arbman 1943: Abb. 92-93.
Bj 532, Birka, Sweden
A pair of shield handle terminals were found in skeleton grave 532 (Arbman 1943: 163-164). The terminals are 4.4 cm long and made of copper alloy (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.6). No other shield remains were found in the grave.
A pair of shield handle terminals from grave 532 in Birka. Catalogue SHM and Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.6.
Bj 544, Birka, Sweden
An iron shield boss, 14.2 cm in diameter and 6 cm high, found in skeleton grave 544 (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.1) was decorated in a unique way – around the entire flange it is decorated with tin sheet in an approximately three-staged pattern, which is irregular and in large somewhat fallen off (Arbman 1943: 170), but one can notice the right-angles and the arrangement into points (Arwidsson 1986: 42)
Shield boss decorated with tin sheet from grave Bj 544 in Birka.
Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.1, SHM catalog, reconstruction made by the group White Lynx.
Bj 547, Birka, Sweden
In skeleton grave 547, two fragments of an iron handle were found that had been coated with a thin sheet of copper alloy (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.10; Arbman 1943: 171-2). The sheet is decorated with a regular braided ornament. No further indications of the shield presence were found in the grave.
Fragment of a shield handle from grave 547 in Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.10.
Bj 561, Birka, Sweden
In skeleton grave 561 we find a shield that was placed on the head of the deceased¨in such a ways that its center was exactly above the face (Arbman 1943: 180-1). An undecorated shield boss with a diameter of 12-13 cm and a decorated handle have been preserved from the shield to this day (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.8). The handle has an iron core which is covered with decorated bands of copper alloy strikingly similar to those of grave 736. The handle was terminated by flared flat finials, only one of which survives; it is lined with a decorative line and was probably tinned (Arbman 1943: 181). The total length of the handle in its preserved condition is 56 cm. According to the SHM catalog, one piece of iron clamp was also preserved.
Extended flat end of handle from grave 561 in Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.8
Bj 573, Birka, Sweden
Several shield fragments were found in the male part of skeleton double-grave 573 (Arbman 1943: 186). First, it is a shield boss with a diameter of 16 cm and a height of 7.5 cm, the edge of which is decorated with small teeth (Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.9). The other recorded fragments are roughly 10 iron clamps, which are no longer available. An object with two downward-pointing rivets, which was apparently a handle terminal, is also not available (Arbman 1943: 186)
Shield boss decorated with a jagged edge from grave Bj 573 in Birka.
Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.9 and catalog SHM.
Bj 581, Birka, Sweden
Medially well-known grave 581 contained 2 undecorated shield bosses, 13.5 and 15.5 cm in diameter and 6 cm high (Arbman 1940: Taf. 16.5-6; Arbman 1943: 189). In one of the bosses, thanks to the bent rivets, it was possible to determine the thickness of the board, which is measured at 5-6 mm (Arwidsson 1986: 40) or 8 mm (Arbman 1943: 189). Four metal clamps, apparently iron, which have not survived to this day, were found near one of the bosses – it is not known which one.
Bj 624, Birka, Sweden
Similar to the previous case, two shields were placed in skeleton warrior grave 624, from which damaged, undecorated shield bosses and two clamps were preserved (Arbman 1943: 205-6). The clamps are interesting finds as they show signs of white metal (Arwidsson 1986: 43). They were probably made of iron band and had a sheet of tin applied to them.
Bj 628, Birka, Sweden
Another pair of richly decorated shields was found in skeleton grave 628. Right next to the head of the deceased, the remains of overlapping shields were found, similar to grave 736 (Arbman 1943: 208-9). A larger shield boss, 16 cm in diameter and 5.5 cm high, had a flange decorated with a toothed copper alloy plate (Arbman 1940: Taf. 16.1, 17.7). According to Greta Arwidsson (1986: 42), this jagged edge masks the rivets. A smaller shield boss with a diameter of 14.8 cm was not decorated (Arbman 1940: Taf. 16.2). At least one shield had a handle with an iron core that was partially covered with ornamentally decorated copper alloy sheets (Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.11). According to the SHM catalog, the decorative sheets were gilded. Inside the iron core, according to Greta Arwidsson (1986: 41), there was a filling of juniper wood 1.8 cm thick; elsewhere Arwidsson (1986: 39) mentions an alder handle, so it is questionable whether this is a mistake or whether she is referring to the handle of the second shield. Drawings and descriptions suggest (Arwidsson 1986: 41; Arbman 1943: Abb. 166) that the handle was terminated with a flared flattened finial like the handle from grave 736, but it appears to be significantly wider from the drawing. Given the absence of a copper-alloy terminal in the preserved material, its use seems less likely.
A total of 16 iron sheet clamps were found in the grave, measuring 2-2.5 × 3-3.5 cm (Arbman 1940: 18.8-9; Arbman 1943: 208). 14 clamps were found in a row next to each other forming the edge of the shield, the other two were found loose. The SHM catalog lists the total number of clamps as 17. Fragments of double-sided leather covering were found under the clamps (Arwidsson 1986: 40). The clamps are edged with two lines and, according to Greta Arwidsson (1986: 43), were further decorated with white metal, probably tinned. The overall diameter of the shield is estimated at 95 cm, with the length of the handle close to 75-85 cm (Arwidsson 1986: 41).
Preserved shield fragments from grave 628 in Birka.
Arbman 1943: Abb. 166; catalog SHM; Arbman 1940: 18.9; Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.11.
Bj 643, Birka, Sweden
In skeleton grave 643, two shields were found, from which the bosses and two iron clamps were preserved (Arbman 1943: 220-221). The bosses have diameters of 14-15 and 14 cm and heights of 7 and 6.5 cm. The clamps have dimensions of 2.7 × 2 cm.
Bj 644, Birka, Sweden
In the richly equipped skeleton grave 644, we encounter a shield from which an undecorated boss with a diameter of 15.5 cm and a height of 6 cm and two rings on staples have been preserved (Arbman 1943: 221-6). The rings with staples are located very close to the boss at a symmetrical distance from the center, almost beyond the edge of the flange. The handle was probably wooden and has not survived.
Remains of a shield from grave 644 in Birka. Arbman 1943: Abb. 183.
Bj 727, Birka, Sweden
The shield from skeleton grave 727 consisted, similarly to the previous case, only of a boss 14 cm in diameter and 5.6 cm high and rings attached to staples (Arbman 1943: 252-253). As in the case of grave 644, the 2.8 cm diameter rings are located very close to the boss. The handle was probably wooden and has not survived. The thickness of the handle together with the board was no more than 3.5 cm, as shown by the length of the rivets. Greta Arwidsson (1986: 40) states that fragments of leather from the board covering were found on the shield.
Bj 731, Birka, Sweden
A 15.5 cm diameter, 6.5 cm high boss is mistakenly assigned to material from skeletal grave 731 (Arbman 1943: 253-255; Arwidsson 1986: 42). An iron band with a jagged edge is riveted to the edge of this boss (Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.8).
The edge of a boss mistakenly assigned to grave 731 from Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 17.8
Bj 736, Birka, Sweden
Probably the best-preserved shields from Birka are the pair found in skeleton grave 736. Similar to grave 628, two shields, referred to in the literature as “northern” and “southern” (Arbman 1943: 259-261), lay on top of each other. The bosses, which have diameters of 15 and 14.5 cm and heights of 7 and 6.5 cm, are undecorated (Arbman 1940: Taf. 15). The handles are almost complete – they consist of an iron core, which is covered with decorated bands of copper alloy and filled with wood (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.9). Arwidsson (1986: 39) states that the handles are made of poplar wood. The width of the handles is 1.1 cm at the narrowest point, over 2 cm at the widest point. A ring with a staple was found in one of the handles, which was attached in the same way as the ring in grave 886. The length of the handles corresponds very approximately to 77-80 cm, which reflects to the maximum diameter of the shield. The edges of the shields were densely covered all around with iron clamps, of which, according to the SHM catalog, there were 54 on the northern shield and over twenty on the southern shield. The clamps are tinned according to the SHM catalog. Fragments of double-sided leather covering were found under the clamps (Arwidsson 1986: 40). The flared ends of the handles do not seem to be riveted together with the clamps – the ends rather avoid the clamps.
Metal shield components from grave 736 in Birka.
Arbman 1940: Taf. 15; Arbman 1943: Abb. 210; catalog SHM; Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.9.
Detail of the shield handle from Bj 736. Photo author: Viktor Brolund.
Bj 750, Birka, Sweden
Indeterminate metal fragments of unclear function in grave 750 may be associated with a shield (Arbman 1943: 267-272). We can safely say that a boss with a diameter of 16 cm and a height of 6 cm, and apparently also a ring without a staple with a diameter of 2.8 cm belonged to the shield.
Bj 842, Birka, Sweden
Skeleton grave 842 contained a shield, which consisted of a 14 cm diameter boss, a 2.9 cm diameter ring with the remains of a staple, and approximately 45 edge clamps (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.10; Arbman 1943: 314-316). The clamps are made of iron and decorated with lines. According to the SHM catalog, there are traces of white metal, probably tin, on the clamps. It can be seen from the drawing of the grave that the clamps were spaced at a certain distance.
The remains of a shield from grave 842 in Birka.
Arbman 1943: Abb. 262; Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.10; catalog SHM.
Bj 850, Birka, Sweden
Another highly informative shield comes from skeleton grave 850 (Arbman 1943: 323-5). The base of the shield was a board that was made of fir (Arwidsson 1986: 39) or spruce (Warming et al. 2020: 174). As found out by Rolf Warming, the board was covered on both sides with a thin lamb leather with a thickness of approx. 1-1.5 mm. The boss, which was 13-14 cm in diameter and 7.5 cm high, had a flange decorated with a thin plate of copper alloy, which was attached to the boss with bands and rivets of the same metal (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.2). The iron handle, most likely also filled with a wooden core, was at least 40 cm long and, unlike analogous pieces, was not coated with copper alloy bands. At the ends of the handle, there were copper alloy terminals, one of which was found (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.1). A strip of tanned cowhide with a thickness of about 2 mm was pulled over the edge of the shield. The strip was partially held in place by three copper alloy clamps measuring 2 × 2.2-2.6 cm (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.4-5). The clamps are decorated with three rows of pits.
Fragments of a decorated boss, clamp and handle handle from grave 850 from Birka.
Viktor Brolund, Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.5 and 19.1.
Bj 872, Birka, Sweden
In skeleton grave 872, a boss was found near which there are rings with staples at approximately symmetrical distances from the center (Arbman 1943: 341-2). It is very likely that these are the remains of a shield that was equipped with two suspension rings. The diameter of the rings is 2.8 cm.
Schematic drawing of shield fragments from grave 872 in Birka. Arbman 1943: Abb. 286.
Bj 886, Birka, Sweden
The shield from grave 886 certainly belongs among the finds with an important informative value (Arbman 1943: 344-6). As indicated by the find of leather on the underside of the boss, the shield was covered with leather (Arwidsson 1986: 40). The boss was approximately 15 cm in diameter and 7 cm in height. The most interesting fragments of this shield are probably the handle remnans, consisting of an iron core, into which twisted copper alloy wires are applied at regular intervals of approximately 1.5 cm so that the resulting effect creates a herringbone motif (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.13). These clusters consist of six inlayed wires. One of the handle fragments records the way the ring was attached – the copper alloy ring is held by a staple that is inserted into a hole in the iron handle where the legs of the staple diverge. The staple was thus very likely not inserted directly into the shield board. The method of attachment of the handle to the shield at the ends of the handle is unknown, but a copper-alloy terminal does not appear to be a likely method. On the edge of the shields, there were apparently a smaller number of clamps (approx. 5), which have not been preserved.
Remains of a shield from grave 886 from Birka.
Arbman 1943: 344-6; catalog SHM; Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.13.
Bj 914, Birka, Sweden
In cremation grave 914, a badly damaged boss with a diameter of approx. 12-13 cm and one iron clamp were found (Arbman 1943: 356-357).
The remains of a shield from grave 914 in Birka. Arbman 1943: Abb. 307, 4-8.
Bj 942, Birka, Sweden
In skeleton grave 942, the remains of a shield were found, which consisted of a boss ca 14 cm in diameter and an iron handle (Arbman 1943: 364-5). Both of these items are in very poor condition, but the handle is believed to have been coated with copper alloy bands. The only fragment that survives is the handle terminal, which is made of a copper alloy (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.3).
Handle terminal made of copper alloy, grave 942 from Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.3.
Bj 944, Birka, Sweden
The remains of an expensive shield were also discovered in one of the richest graves of Birka, skeleton grave 944 (Arbman 1943: 368-371). The shield consisted of an undecorated boss measuring 13.5 × 15 cm, a copper alloy clamp measuring 2 × 2.9 cm (Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.7), and a copper alloy handle terminal measuring 3 × 3.4 cm (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.2). The terminal has a deep depression on the underside (Arbman 1943: 368).
Shield fragments from grave 944 from Birka. Catalog SHM.
The clamp found in grave 944 in Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 18.7.
Bj 1098, Birka, Sweden
Skeleton grave 1098 contained fragments that are interpreted as the remains of shields (Arbman 1943: 458-9). Next to the boss of 15.5 cm diameter and 8.8 cm height lay a piece of fitting similar to a clamp, but unusually long. According to the drawing of the grave complex (Arbman 1943: Abb. 428), it was found complete, in a slightly bent state and was broken into fragments later. The SHM catalog shows that the fitting is lined with decorative lines. The grave was made in a sunken pit 90 cm wide, which is the upper limit of the size of the shield. Greta Arwidsson (1986: 40) states that fragments of leather from the board covering were found on the shield.
Shield fragments found in grave 1098 in Birka. Catalog SHM.
Bj 1151, Birka, Sweden
The last grave find from Birka is a shield from grave 1151 (Arbman 1943: 474-476). Leather was found under the boss, which is fragmentary, indicating that the shield board was covered (Arwidsson 1986: 40). The handle consisted of an iron core that was partially decorated with plastic bands of copper alloy (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.12). The bands are decorated differently – one band is decorated with two heads facing each other, while the other band is decorated with a geometric ornament. The handle was attached to the board using copper alloy terminals, found in the grave (Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.4; Arbman 1943: Abb. 449). The handle was relatively short, similar to the Valsgärde 2, and was apparently wrapped in textile, like the Bj 504.
Shield fragments from grave 1151 in Birka. Arbman 1940: Taf. 19.4,12; Arbman 1943: Abb. 449.
Grave A129, Birka, Sweden
In 1988, grave A129 was opened, which was a skeleton double grave of two men (Gardeła 2013: 116-7). A man aged 40-50 was surrounded by war gear, which consisted of a shield that was placed on the body of the deceased. The shield was provided with an R564 boss of unknown size and at least four copper alloy clamps that were placed on opposite sides (Holmquist Olausson 1990: 177-9). It is clear from the location of the clamps that the shield had a diameter of 100-110 cm. Judging by the clamps, it can be said that the thickness of the edge was 0.5 cm. It is dated to the second half of the 8th century.
Shield remains from grave A129 from Birka. Holmquist Olausson 1990: Fig. 3, 5.
Svarta Jorden, Birka, Sweden
The end fragment of a handle made of iron was found in the so-called Black Earth in Birka and is marked with the signature SHM 5208:253 (Sörling 2018: 31). It is strikingly similar to the find from grave Bj 561. The fragment is 9.4 cm long and is equipped with two rivets. Three molds for casting handle terminals (SHM 35000 : 71810-65) were also found in Black Earth under Fedir Androshchuk excavation (Nosov et al 2017: 319).
End fragment of a shield handle from the Black Earth in Birka. SHM 5208:253. Catalog SHM.
Garnison, Birka, Sweden
Among other military-related objects found in the banquet hall in Birka, a number of fragments were found that are interpreted as the remains of shields. In addition to the bosses, which are not decorated (e.g. Bäckheden 2006), two identical copper alloy handle terminals (Hedenstierna-Jonson 2006: 315) and an undetermined number of metal clamps have been found – two listed by Stjerna (2001: Fig. 2) and another suggested by Hackelberg (2007: Fig. 7). The archeological situation in the hall is very complex, the objects were apparently damaged in dramatic situations and scattered throughout the entire hall complex. It is expected that there was more than one shield in the hall.
One of two terminals found in Birka’s hall. Hedenstierna-Jonson 2006: Fig. 3.
Shield clamps found in Birka’s hall. Stjerna 2001: Fig. 2; Hackelberg 2007: Fig. 7.
Grave II, Vendel, Gamla Uppsala, Sweden
An excellent idea of what the shield with its handle looked like in its original state is given by the find from the grave of Vendel II, or rather by the drawn reconstruction made by the archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe (Stolpe 1927: 18-19, Pl. XI). The shield was created by a boss 15.25 cm in diameter and 7.5 cm high, and was fitted with six rivets, which had pearl-edged heads; heads were made of copper alloy. The closest analogy of this boss can be found in grave Bj 467B. The perfectly preserved handle was 37 cm long. It consisted of an iron core covered in five places with decorated strips of copper alloy, which were riveted to the core and wooden filling. The handle was tapered to points that were attached by copper alloy terminals, one of which was discovered in the grave. The handle has the closest analogy in the handle that was found in Helgö.
Components of the shield from the mound of Vendel II. Stolpe 1927: Pl. XI.
Finding situation of the shield from the mound of Vendel II. Stolpe 1927: Pl. XI.
Grave 2, Valsgärde, Gamla Uppsala, Sweden
Grave 2 at Valsgärde yielded interesting but poorly explored remains of a shield (Dyfverman 1929). The shield consisted of an undecorated metal boss (Dyfverman 1929: Fig 37) and a handle, which is of the same type as in graves Bj 467B, Bj 942, Bj 1151 and Vendel II – the base is an iron core which is continuously covered with decorated bands of alloy copper and which is attached at the ends with terminals, of which only one survives (Dyfverman 1929: Fig 39). The terminal is copper alloy and has figural decoration, but the rivet heads are described as silver. The handle was roughly 30 cm long (Arwidsson 1986: 43). Dyfverman reports that a buckle also belonged to the shield (Dyfverman 1929: 178-9).
Shield remains from Valsgärde grave 2. Dyfverman 1929: Fig 37 a 39.
Ship burial, Gamla Uppsala, Sweden
In the summer of 2019, a burial ship was found in Gamla Uppsala equipped with a number of militaria (long knife, sword, spear, axe and shield) and equestrian equipment (Arkeologerna 2023). The find has not yet been published, but it is clear that the shield was edged by a large number of iron, possibly also tinned clamps, which held the leather rim. The shield board shows leather and red and white painting. The find can clearly be dated to the 10th century.
Fragment of a shield rim from the ship grave from Gamla Uppsala. Arkeologerna 2023.
Graves 11 and 12, Valsgärde, Sweden
Peter Beatson, who collaborated extensively with the museum in Old Uppsala in 1990s, notes several observations on the shields from graves 11 and 12 from Valsgärde on his blog (Beatson 1995-2010). These shields have apparently never been archaeologically examined and published. The shield from grave 11 is damaged, according to Beatson, and this damage is repaired by 13 thin strips of copper alloy. The strips measure 15-30 × 6-7 mm and were attached to the shield by nails. The shield from grave 12 had an edge reinforced with 19 iron clamps (Arwidsson 1986: 42), which were placed at certain intervals. Their dimensions are 3-3.5 × 2.3-2.5 cm.
Grave 14, Valsgärde, Sweden
The newly published Valsgärde grave 14 contained an interesting shield find that is well documented (Nordahl 2018). The board was made of spruce planks and was probably around 1 meter in diameter. Leather covering was not recorded, but it is possible it was attached with small nails that were found during preservation. The shield boss with a diameter of 16.8 × 14.4 cm was not decorated. On the edge, which was tapered to 6 mm, there were three clamps of an unspecified metal. The shield was equipped with two rings for suspension. Of interest are the two approximately triangular fittings that were attached to the front in the boss area – the fittings are openwork, the windows are diamond shaped and the fittings were attached with a series of tiny round headed nails. The closest parallel of these fittings would be found in the shield from Valsgärde grave 7, which is roughly 200 years older (Arwidsson 1977: Taf. 6-11), but also fittings depicted in Frankish illuminations.
Openwork ironwork from Valsgärde grave 14 (left) compared to ironwork from Valsgärde 7.
Nordahl 2018: Fig. 12; Arwidsson 1977: Taf. 6-10.
During the detector survey of Valsgärde in 1996, a shield handle terminal was found, probably of copper alloy (Lindbom 1997: Fig. 5). The object has the find number 1010.
Fragment of handle terminal from Valsgärde. Lindbom 1997: Fig. 5.
Sandby and Klinta, Öland, Sweden
An interesting shield handle terminal with a length of 3.5 cm was found in the 19th century near the village of Sandby on Öland (Digital Museum 2020). In 1885 it was purchased by the Kalmar Museum, in whose possession it is now (cat. no. KLM 174). The handle is made of copper alloy, but it appears that a contrasting metal has been applied to it. On Öland we find one more probable shield fragment – a copper alloy fitting that apparently came from a shield was found in the spectacular cremation double grave from Klinta (Beskow Sjöberg 1987: 104; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319).
Metal handle terminal from Sandby on Öland. Digital Museum 2020.
Vedby, Västerås, Sweden
In the grave in Vedby (SHM 20671), in addition to a boss with a diameter of 16 cm and a height of 7.2 cm, a handle terminal made of a copper alloy was also found. There are two preserved rivets in it.
Shield remains from Vedby. Catalog SHM.
In grave 41 in Söderby, a cross fitting was found, which is interpreted as a handle terminal for a shield (Petré 2011: 66-68, 182). The terminal measures 27 × 29 mm and is made of gilded copper alloy. However, it could just as well be part of a horse bridle, which is commonly found in this shape. Iron clamps were also found in the grave, which may have come from the edge of the shield. A buckle was found in grave 20, which is interpreted as a shield buckle (Petré 2011: 46-47, 147).
Fittings interpreted as shield remains, grave 41 at Söderby. Petré 2011: 182.
Buckle interpreted as a shield buckle, grave 20 in Söderby. Petré 2011: 147.
In 1948, a grave was unprofessionally opened in the site of Tranås, Skåne, which contained a spear and the probable remains of a shield (Pedersen 2014a: 98-99; Svanberg 2003: 297). This is judged on the basis of a 22 cm long iron fragment, which according to the description corresponds to a shield handle, and the remains of red and blue paint, which apparently came from the painting of the shield. The artifacts are currently in a private collection.
At least 5 metal shield fragments were discovered during the archaeological survey of the island of Helgö (Holmquist 1961: 119, Abb. 24, Taf. 38.11; Androshchuk 2007: Fig. 2.8, Fig. 6.6-7). First of all, it is about half of the handle, which is very similar to the handle from the grave Vendel II – it consists of an iron core, on which decorated bands of copper alloy are applied in five places that were riveted on the upper side. Another handle fragment is considerably smaller and consists of a bent iron band (Holmquist 1961: Abb. 24.5). In grave A37 in burial ground 116, a cross-shaped terminal of a shield handle was found, which has no closer parallel (Androshchuk 2007: Fig. 6.6). In grave A31 at the same cemetery, another terminal was found together with a clamp from the edge of the shield (Androshchuk 2007: Fig. 6.7).
Shield fragments from Helgö. Holmquist 1961: Abb. 24.1; Androshchuk 2007: Fig. 2.8, Fig. 6.6-7.
Grave 30, Kvarnbacken, Åland, Sweden
Two copper alloy shield handle terminals were found in grave 30 in the Kvarnbacken grave in Åland (Kivikoski 1963: Taf. 7.22-23). Unfortunately, we do not have any further details available.
Terminals from grave 30 from Kvarnbacken. Kivikoski 1963: Taf. 7.22-23.
Ulvsta and Björke, Gästrikland, Sweden
An iron boss and a pair of copper alloy shield handle terminal were found in a heavily damaged Ulvsta cremation grave (SHM 16220) in 1914 (Rydh 1918). The closest analogy to the terminal is the piece from grave A31 at Helgö. On the underside of the terminal there are rivets that are 14 mm long (Arwidsson 1986: 43). According to Lena Thunmark-Nylén (2006: 319), one clamp originating from a shield was found in Björke (Rydh 1918: Abb. 9).
The remains of a shield from the barrow in Ulvsta. Catalog SHM.
Kråkberg, Dalarna, Sweden
Three shield bosses, fragments of at least two metal handles and edge clamps were discovered in a badly damaged cremation grave in Kråkberg (Arwidsson 1986: 43; Serning 1966: 41, 156, Taf. 24.3-6, Taf. 33.7-9). The original length of the handles, which have a semicircular cross-section, cannot be estimated.
Two of the four handle fragments. Serning 1966: Taf. 24.5-6.
Graves 2 and 6, Gräfsta, Uppland, Sweden
In mounds 2 and 6 from Gräfsta (SHM 19464) 2 and 4 clamps were found, 2.1 and 2.6 cm wide respectively. The clamps are square or rectangular, fixed with two rivets. Some of them still retained parts of the wood at the time of discovery. They have noticeable indentation on them. No bosses were found in the graves.
Iron clamps found at the Gräfsta site. Catalog SHM.
Trotteslöv and Ivla Ödegård, Småland, Sweden
Cremation grave 30 from the site of Trotteslöv contained, among other things, a shield-boss and 14 clamps (Svanberg 2003: 185). The grave dates to the 10th century. A 10th-century cremation mound from Ivla Ödegård contained a shield-boss, six iron clamps, and reportedly also a long edge iron fitting (Svanberg 2003: 192).
Iron clamps found in the site of Ivla Ödegård. Digital museum 2023.
Bäck, Ljungby and Värnamo, Småland, Sweden
A total of three iron sheet clamps were found in burial grave 15 (SHM 20739) (Svanberg 2003: 189; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319). They have a noticeable indentation on them, probably caused by the leather edge of the shield. Another find from Småland may represent an iron clamp found in a cremation grave at Vassmolöse (SHM 23007; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319). In mound 2 from the site of Värnamo, 4 clamps were found (Svanberg 2003: 213).
Iron clamps found at the Bäck site. Catalog SHM.
Iron clamp from the Vassmolöse site. Catalog SHM.
Benestad, Skåne, Sweden
At least three iron clamps dating to the Viking Age were found in cremation mound 27 from the site of Benestad (Svanberg 2003: 221).
Iron clamp from the site of Benestad. Catalog SHM.
Skopintull, Uppland, Sweden
In the primary grave at the site of Skopintull on Adelsö (SHM 16171) there was an urn, at the bottom of which was a cut lock of hazel-brown hair, 30-35 cm long, which was covered with the ashes of two people, many animals, jewellery and other metal objects. Among them, there were also 7 complete and 9 incomplete iron clamps, which vary in size from 2.2-2.5 × 1-2.1 cm (Rydh 1936: 120, Fig. 313). Some of them belonged to a shield due to the characteristic indentation.
Clamps found at the Skopintull site. Rydh 1936: Fig. 313.
Bönders, Gotland, SHM 6091
At site of Bönders, Gotland, in a context that did not indicate the presence of a grave, 23 iron sheet clamps were found in 1877 (Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 263.5; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 480-1). Clamps vary in size from 2-2.1 × 2.2-2.4 cm. They bear the indentation mark that is characteristic of the clamps that covered the leather edge of the shield (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319).
Clamps from Bönders. Catalog SHM.
Grave 13, Mangsarve, Gotland
An iron clamp interpreted as a shield clamp, but without an indentation pointing to a leather edge, was found in grave 13 at the site of Mangsarve on Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 123; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319). The dimensions of the clamp are 2.2 × 2.3 cm.
Grave 223, Ire, Gotland
In grave 223 at Ire, Gotland (SHM 20550:223), around 25 complete and partial iron sheet clamps were discovered (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 174.13; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 411). The best-preserved clamps measure 2.5-2.6 × 1.9-2.1 cm, have a clearly visible indentation suggesting a leather edge of the shield, and are decorated with frilling along the edges (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319)
Clamps found in grave 223 in Ire. Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 174.13.
Grave 7, Laxare, Gotland
The shield fragments from grave 7 at Laxare (GF C 10038 Gr.7) are very likely parallels to the shields from Tuna Alsike IV and Nes. A bent, roughly 22 cm long, rectangular iron fitting was discovered in the grave, which very likely represented the edge of a shield (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 10.3; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 63). This fitting was apparently held in place by six 2.2 cm wide iron sheet clamps (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 10.4). Lena Thunmark-Nylén personally tried to fit the bent fittings into the clamps to see that they fit exactly (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319). Thunmark-Nylén calculated that the shield would have to have a diameter of 44-45 cm, which is probably the lower limit we can see on Gotland image stones (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 319).
Shield fragments from grave 7 at Laxare. Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 10.3-4.
Grave IV, Tuna Alsike, Sweden
In the grave of Tuna Alsike IV, an iron fitting was found which is analogous to that found in the grave at Laxare (Arne 1934: 30, Taf. X.6). It has a length of 16.1 cm and a square cross-section with a side of 7 mm. Based on the analogy from Laxare, it could be the edge of a shield that had a circumference of around 50 cm.
Possible shield edge from the grave of Tuna Alsike IV. Arne 1934: Taf. X.6.
An atypically shaped copper alloy handle terminal was found at site of Stånga, Gotland (SHM 11902; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 263.6). The neck of this terminal is shaped similarly to the piece from Ulvsta. The length of the piece is 4.5 cm (Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 651).
Handle grip from Stånga. Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 263.6 and catalog SHM.
Grave 11, Laxare, Gotland
Grave 11 at the Gotland site of Laxare (SHM 11902; Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 7.3; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 63) contained a copper alloy handle terminal that is essentially identical to the Stånga find. The length is 4.8 cm.
Handle grip from Laxare. Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 7.3.
Unknown site, Gotland
A beautifully modeled copper alloy handle terminal was found at an unknown Gotland site (GF Dep. C 665; Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 263.7). It is cruciform in shape, with the side arms wavy and reminiscent of wings. The four holes are stylistically closest to the find from Bj 532.
Handle terminal from an unknown Gotland site. Thunmark-Nylén 1998: Abb. 263.7.
Hillersta, Södermanland, Sweden
A copper alloy handle terminal discovered during the 1971 excavations in a cremation grave from Hillersta (SHM 31056) is 3.5 cm long. Iron rivets are still found in two of the holes. Among other objects, a dirham was found in the grave, thanks to which we can date the grave to tpq 810/811.
Handle terminal from Hillersta. Catalog SHM.
The closest analogy to the handle finial from grave Bj 736 is a fragment found in the well-known mound in Gokstad (C10455; Nicolaysen 1882: Pl. X.20). The fragment is 9.4 cm long and 2.3 cm wide at its widest point. The iron core is covered with a very thin decorative copper alloy sheet, which is broken in a number of places and the iron core can be seen. According to Kim Hjardar, who personally examined the fragment, the sheet metal is merely bent around the iron core, essentially masking the rivets that are hidden underneath. Anne Pedersen (2014a: 101) reports that the fragment is gilded.
We must also mention the fact that the shields from Gokstad, which were mentioned in the introduction, were supposed to be coloured yellow and black (Nicolaysen 1882: 62-3). Fragments of leather coverings have not been preserved, but a perforated edge can be noticed on a few fragments, so it can be assumed that the shields were covered in the manner described in the introduction and then painted. The painting was done in such a way that the black and yellow shields alternated on the sides of the ships.
Fragment of a handrail from Gokstad in drawing, photo and reconstruction.
Nicolaysen 1882: Pl. X.20 and catalog Unimus.
An excellent specimen of a well-preserved handle, which is analogous to the find from Bj 736, is the artifact from the mound of Myklebost (B5730), which is still listed in the literature and in the Norwegian museum catalog Unimus as an “unknown object” (Shetelig 1912: 186, Fig. 423 ). The handle consists of a curved iron core, which is covered with copper alloy strips along its entire length. The interior is empty, originally it could have been filled with wood. The total length of the item is approx. 70 cm, i.e. very similar to Bj 736. The strips, which are decorated with an ornament analogous to Bj 504, Bj 736 and Rends and which have a width of 2.5 cm, count 21 pieces on the handle. The ends are approx. 6 cm long and are equipped with two rivets, which in the current state have exposed heads and emerge from the overlying metal ornament. The finials appear to have been deliberately torn from the shield and bent at right angles, which may be the reason for the damage to the sheet metal overlay of the rivets. The middle, the thickest part, has a thickness of 2.5 cm, and gradually narrows to 1.3-1.4 cm. In addition, eight undecorated bosses were found in the mound. The find was described in more detail in the separate article, The shield handle from Myklebost.
Drawmn reconstruction of the handle from Myklebost. Shetelig 1912: Fig. 423.
The current state of preservation of the handle from Myklebost. Catalog Unimus.
Two shields found in the mound in Ness, Norway (Ts12156), represent an archaeologically unpublished, but extremely interesting and important find. The grave, found in 2011, hid the body of a 50-60 year old man who was placed in a ship; the ship was surrounded by a palisade (Arntzen 2015). The man wore a tablet-woven band and was laid on a woolen blanket. A twentycentimeter ringed pin was found at the thigh. With the man, a bit, two gilded buckles and strap-ends, a 10 kg anchor, a cauldron, beads, a button made of braided silver wire, an arrow and a weight were sent to the other world. At his feet, there were two shields. In an email conversation, conservator Johan Arntzen confirmed that the shields were covered on both sides with red-painted hide. Furthermore, two R562 type bosses were found, together with at least one almost complete handle with an iron core, which was covered with strips of copper alloy sheet metal. The strips were about 2.5 cm wide and decorated with circles. The edge of the shield was decorated with a continuous layer of thin and in some places decorated copper alloy sheet, which was attached at regular intervals with iron clamps. The rivets in these clamps were iron. The closest parallel to this continuous strip is the shield from Tuna Alsike IV and Laxare. The grave dates back to the 10th century (Vedeler 2014: 42). Our article Decorated shield from Ness, Norway reports on this find.
Decorative bands applied to the shield handle from Ness. Johan Arntzen.
Remains of the handle from Ness (Ts12156). Source: catalog Unimus.
Four norwegian bosses
A total of four shield bosses survive from Viking Age Norway, which have a serrated brim edge, as does the shield from Bj 731. The first of the shield bosses comes from the site of Kolkjøn (C19723), has a diameter of 15.1 cm and a height of 5.7 cm, and its teeth are relatively coarse (number of teeth 35). The second boss comes from the site of Mælum (C1927) and its teeth are small and dense (number of teeth approx. 90). The third, very poorly preserved shield boss was found in a grave from Strandå (Ts964), has a diameter of 15.5 cm and has similarly sparse teeth as the Kolkjøn shield boss. The fourth such find comes from a grave from the site of Framstad (C7273).
Shield boss from the Kolkjøn site (C19723). Catalog Unimus.
Shield boss from the Mælum site (C1927). Catalog Unimus.
Boss from the grave from Strandå (Ts964). Unimus catalog.
Boss from the grave of Framstad (C7273). Unimus catalog.
In a cremation grave from Torshov, Norway (9th century, C20168), discovered in 1901, four shield bosses, two axes and riding equipment were found. It also contained a strange metal object, preserved in six fragments with a total length of about 120 cm. 5 fragments with a length of 107 cm have been preserved to this day. Due to the tapered nature of the ends and curved profile, these were believed to be the remains of a bow (Liestøl 1979). During the dismantling of the exhibition, the fragments were examined with the result that it is the remains of at least one shield handle, which is similar in shape to the find from Vendel II. If the objects were originally decorated with relief strips, these were destroyed during cremation and no traces of them are visible. Liestøl states that all five extant fragments have eight holes that have been drilled and are 4 mm in diameter. Two holes are filled with staples, one of which could serve as an eyelet to hold an 18 mm thick object. Due to the larger number of attached shield bosses (4), it seems possible that the fragments come from several shields and not just one, which would have to have a diameter of about 120 cm.
Remains of the handle from Torshov (C20168). Catalog Unimus.
Drawn reconstruction of the handle from Torshov, created by Vegard Vike.
A luxuriously executed shield of type Bj 736 and Myklebostad was also found at the site of Rends, Denmark (Brøndsted 1936: 122-3; Pedersen 2014a: 100-1; Pedersen 2014b: 98-99, Pl. 44). It consists of an undecorated boss with a diameter of 16.5 cm and a handle, which consists of an iron core with a wooden filling and a characteristic coating of ornamental bands of copper alloy. The handle is broken into several fragments, but the overall shape and length of approximately 70 cm can be deduced. The coating on one end is not preserved, exposing the rivets.
Shield remains from Rends, Denmark. Pedersen 2014b: Pl. 44.
Grave 1112, Lindholm Høje, Denmark
Grave 1112 in Lindholm Høje, Denmark contained a number of fittings, among which was an iron clamp measuring 3.1 × 2.6 cm (Ramskou 1976: 38-9, Fig. 92). The clamp is equipped with three rivets and according to the description is 1 cm thick. Peter Beatson personally examined this clamp in 1994 and discovered that the rivets were highlighted by encircling punches (Beatson 1995-2010). According to his findings, the clamp was 5 mm thick at its narrowest point, which could correspond to the thickness of the edge.
Clamp from grave 1112 in Lindholm Høje. Ramskou 1976: Fig. 92; Beatson 1995-2010.
A larger corpus of shield remains comes from the area of the Trelleborg fortress, which includes at least four bosses, two fragmentary metal handles and one complete board (Nørlund 1948: 139, Taf. XL; Warming 2016). Now let’s focus on the metal handles. The more fragmentary of these, which is 11.6 cm long, 1.8 cm wide and 1.5 cm high, is still attached to the bottom of the metal boss by two rivets and may have been placed asymmetrically off-centre (Warming 2016: 121, 123). A more complete handle of unknown length, which unfortunately appears to be lost today, resembled the Helgö find and was decorated with transverse bands (Nørlund 1948: 139, Taf. XL.3).
The board from Trelleborg is described in some detail at the beginning of this article, but now we would like to focus on its handle, which is not described in the introduction. The handle was intensively studied by Rolf Warming (2019), who notes that the handle is currently approx. 35 cm long and 2.1 cm thick. The assumption that the handle was long, like the shields from Gokstad or Tira Bog, has not been confirmed – the ends of the shield would have to be broken off fairly symmetrically, which is not likely. A deep notch and chamfer can be seen at one end, which Warming explains as the way the handle was anchored to the plate, personally leaning towards the metal terminal option. According to Warming, the opposite side of the handle is slightly broken, and according to him the overall length of the handle was about 39 cm. The center of the handle is decorated all around with a braided ornament and a zigzag line, in which we must see analogies to the decorations that appear on metal handles of the Viking Age. The shield board bears signs of the use of white and red paint for painting (Dobat 2013: 164).
Handle of the Trelleborg shield. Dobat 2013: Fig. 166, Fig. 151.
Side view of Trelleborg shield handle. Jacob Nyborg Andreassen, SoCA.
Metal handle from Trelleborg. Nørlund 1948: Taf. XL.3.
A unique object was discovered in an equestrian grave in Grimstrup, Denmark – a 90 × 90 cm object made of wood and probably also leather was placed over the upper half of the deceased’s body, which was painted in dark blue, turquoise, white and red in complicated ornaments resembling intertwined animal bodies (Stoumann 2009: 33-40). Due to the missing components, the object is interpreted as an unfinished shield, or another part of the burial chamber’s inventory.
Finding situation of the painted layer. Stoumann 2009: Fig. 18.
Detail of the painted layer. Stoumann 2009: Fig. 19.
Detail of the painted layer. Stoumann 2009: Fig. 20.
Danish handle terminals
At least 6 handle terminals were discovered during detector surveys at various Danish locations in 2008-2020. Four of them come from the Havsmarken site, where they were found by detectorists Steen Agersø and Poul Andersen. One of them has a unique appearance, inv. no. NM C739117 and dimensions 2.4 cm × 3.15 cm (Warming 2016: 89). Another is very similar to the piece from Arkona. The fifth was found by Allan Faurskov near Bejstrup in 2020. The sixth piece, 3.5 cm long and discovered near Frederikssund, was published in 2022 and is of particular interest because it is transformed into a trefoil brooch. In addition to these, at least three other candidates were found, two of which were also found at the Havsmarken site.
Handle terminals and their candidates from Danish sites.
Terminal found near Frederikssund.
Rurikovo gorodišče, Russia
A handle terminal made of copper alloy was also found during excavations in Rurikovo gorodišče, Russia in 2011 (Nosov et al 2017: 138-9, Рис. 56). The closest analogue of this piece is the handle from Bj 467B in Birka and grave 3 in Świelubie.
Handle terminal from Rurikovo gorodišče. Nosov et al 2017: Рис. 56.24.
Staraja Ladoga, Russia
In one of his works, Sergei Kainov (2002: 6) stated that a metal handle terminal was found in Staraja Ladoga. Unfortunately, it is in a private collection and is not described in more detail.
Sergei Kainov said in a personal communication that one handle terminal was found by a detectorist in the Šnitkino locality in the Tver Oblast. From a digital model taken by Vasily Novikov, it appears to be a uniquely shaped gilded copper alloy terminal (Novikov 2016). This one has not yet been published in press.
Handle terminal from Šnitkino. Novikov 2016.
Gnězdovo material, Russia
In his monumental dissertation dedicated to the military finds from the Gnězdovo agglomeration, Sergei Kainov perfectly describes the issue of shields (Kainov 2019: 204-210), which until then had only been summarized by Kirpičnikov (Kirpičnikov 1971) and Rudziński (Rudziński 2009).
One of the finds was made in Great barrow 20/41, which was explored by archaeologist Sizov. In this mound, one of the two shields with metal bosses was accompanied by an unspecified number of iron clamps. Iron clamps in the number of 1-3 pieces were also found in a total of eight Gnězdovo mounds, which did not contain shield bosses: C-74 (Sizov 1896-97), C-74 (Sergejev 1901), Dn-86 (Sergejev 1901), L- 7, L-113, C-99, C-106, C265 (modern numbering). The absence of shield bosses indicates that they were either not attached to the shields or were organic. In addition to these clamps, we know of two separate finds of clamps from the settlement. Kainov describes all Gnězdovo clamps as simple, folded strips of iron sheet about 2 cm wide, which are riveted with two rivets.
To make our list complete, it should be mentioned that in 2017, a magnificent shield with a diameter of about 85 cm was found in grave L-206, named Svjatogor (Novikov 2017a; 2017b). The wooden board was poorly preserved. The original assumption that it was covered with textile was not confirmed – the textile apparently came from the clothing of the deceased. No signs of leather covering were found on the shield, not even under the boss. However, the board bore signs of being painted with lead white and other pigments (red, yellow). The boss was attached with six rivets. The edge of the shield was densely studded with about sixty clamps. Contrary to the original hasty interpretation that there was a special method of strapping on the back used to hold and carry the shield, it turned out that the shield was equipped with a standard wooden handle. This find is still awaiting its official publication, which will be undertaken by Sergei Kainov, who kindly provided us with this information.
Fragments of shields from Gnězdovo. Kainov 2019: Рис. 75-6.
Shield fragments from Ladoga region, Russia
Brandenburg (1895) mentions two grave finds that come from shields. The first of these comes from grave 45 in Ščukovščina and consists of an iron boss with a diameter of 15.6 and a height of 7.8 cm, which was accompanied by an unspecified number of copper alloy bands (Brandenburg 1895: 107-8, Tabl. XIII.6; Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. No. 1). A similar find, but with iron clamps, comes from grave 39 from the Kirilina site (Brandenburg 1895: 119-120; Kirpičnikov 1971: Cat. no. 3).
Grave 1, Michalovskoje, Russia
In mound 1 in the Volga region site of Michalovskoje, the remains of a shield containing 15 iron clamps were found in 1902 (Smirnov 1963: 61). Zozulja (2007), who corrects the count to at least 16 clamps, published a photo from which it is apparent that the clamps are approximately 2.7×2 cm in size and bound a material roughly 0.5 cm thick.
One of the clamps from Michalovskoje. Source: Zozulja 2007.
Chamber grave I, Kyiv, Ukraine
In 1988-9, a team led by the archaeologist Borovskij explored the elite burial ground on Velkaja Žitomirskaja Street in the heart of early medieval Kyiv and discovered a magnificently decorated mound, now referred to in the literature as Chamber grave I. This mound had been robbed in the past, but it still contained the remains of a shield, a possible helmet, decorated wooden vessels, a belt and other objects (Borovskij et al. 1989; Androšchuk – Zocenko 2012: 81). The remains of the shield consist of an undecorated boss, 12 cm in diameter and 6 cm high, and numerous U- and L-shaped iron clamps, most likely related to the edge of the shield. Inside these clamps, wooden fragments were found, consisting of two mutually perpendicular layers, which apparently formed the board of a composite shield. However, more detailed documentation is missing. Additional silvered and gilded fittings with palmettes were found in the grave, which may have come from either the shield or the helmet.
Shield boss from Kyiv. Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 46; Borovskij et al. 1989: Рис. 36.
Grave 83, Šestovica, Ukraine
In mound 83 (formerly IX) in Šestovica, among many other military items, a boss and two iron clamps from the edge of a shield were discovered (Blifeld 1952: 128, Tabl. II.6; Blifeld 1977: 75, 165).
Shield boss and clamps from grave 83 in Šestovica. Blifeld 1952: Tabl. II.3,6.
Świelubie, Kamień Pomorski and Janow Pomorski (Truso), Poland
The Scandinavian tradition was also manifested in six situations in the Polish seaside. Four finds were found in Świelubie graves (Łosiński 1966; Rudziński 2009). Grave no. 3 contained four iron clamps (size 26 × 21 × 8 mm) and one handle terminal made of a copper alloy, which is analogous to the finds from Rurikovo gorodišče and Bj 467B (Rudziński 2009: 46, Fig. 5.2,14-17). Another copper alloy fitting was found in grave 6 (Rudziński 2009: 46, Fig. 5.3). One clamp measuring 18 × 15 × 5 mm was found in grave 21 (Rudziński 2009: 46) and around ten clamps in grave 65 (Rudziński 2009: 48). The fifth find was made at site 4 during excavations in Kamień Pomorski, but the clamp has not been described in detail archaeologically (Rudziński 2009: 48). The sixth find is a cross-shaped handle terminal made of a copper alloy, found in 2007 in the Janow Pomorski (Truso) site, which is similar to one of the handles from Helgö (Strobin – Żołędziowski 2021: 71, 267, Tab. XXII.1). There are still rivets for fastening to the base in three arms of the mounts, the remaining arm is hollow. Length 36 mm. Inventory number of this mount: MAH 1650/2007.
Fragments of shields from four mounds from the site of Świelubie. Rudziński 2009: Rys. 5.
Handle terminal from Janow Pomorski. Strobin – Żołędziowski 2021: Tab. XXII.1.
The so-called Ship chamber grave from Haithabu contained two undecorated iron bosses and handle fragments that are analogous to Vendel II and Valsgärde 2 (Müller-Wille 1976: 79-80, Abb. 44.4-6). Narrowed ends have been preserved from the heavily fragmented handle, which indicates that the core of the handle was iron, hollow and filled with wood. The surface of the handle was plated with silver. At the very tips, the handle was narrowed to 0.9-1.2 cm, in the widest places the handle is 2.5 cm wide. The handle was attached to the board with copper alloy terminals measuring 3.3 × 2.8 cm, of which only one survives. It is quite likely that the handle belonged to a boss labeled Bc 1 (diameter 15.3 cm, height 7.5 cm), on the surface of which we found fragments of non-iron decoration, as discussed in our article Decorated shield boss from Haithabu. In general, the shield could thus be similar to the finds from Bj 467B and Bj 850. The date of the grave goes to the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 9th century.
Shield handle from the Ship chamber grave of Haithabu. Müller-Wille 1976: Abb. 44.4-6.
A fragment of the decoration on the boss and an approximate reconstruction.
Made by Tomáš Cajthaml, grafikacajthaml.cz.
In addition to seven shield bosses, a total of four copper alloy shield clamps were found on Cape Arkona (Ruchhöft 2018: 116, Abb. 144). They are 2.1 cm wide, 2.3 cm high and attached with a pair of rivets around the 0.8 cm thick edge. The clamps are interesting with a stamped ornament in the shape of masks. In addition, a handle terminal made of copper alloy was found at the site, which has the classic shape of the letter Y, three rivets and a curved lower side (Ruchhöft 2018: 117, Abb. 145). The arms of this terminal resemble bird heads.
Decorative shield elements from Arkona. Ruchhöft 2018: Abb. 144-5.
Grave 341, Nebel-Steenodde, Germany
In grave 341 at the Nebel-Steenodde site, in addition to stirrups and an H type sword, the remains of a shield were found (Eisenschmidt 2004: 146). The shield was fitted with a Carolingian high boss and several iron edge clamps. Due to the provenance of this equipment, it is not possible to determine whether the shield belonged to the Scandinavian material culture or was produced by another cultural circle.
Scar, Orkney Islands, Great Britain
In a boat grave from Scar, Orkney, a gilded copper alloy fitting was found, which was interpreted as a clamp from a bowl or shield, the second possibility being more likely according to the author of the study (Owen – Dalland 1999: 132, Fig. 91).
Possible shield clamp from Scar. Owen – Dalland 1999: Fig. 91.
Ballateare, Isle of Man, Great Britain
In a prominent grave at Ballateare, among other objects, the remains of a shield were found (Bersu – Wilson 1966: 58-61). These consisted of a simple iron boss with a diameter of 15.4 cm and fifteen fragments of wood and leather, indicating that the wooden board was covered with leather. What’s more, the leather is painted with an ornament that has been reconstructed: the black and white field is separated by four white lines filled with red dots.
Remains of the shield from the grave from Ballateare.
Bersu – Wilson 1966: Fig. 36; Hjardar – Vike 2011: 187.
Bosses from L’île de Groix, France
A Scandinavian ship burial of spectacular proportions discovered in L’île de Groix, Brittany contained 4 types of bosses that show signs of decorative treatment (Müller-Wille 1978: 51, Abb. 4). Three of these types have rivets arranged in groups of three, the fourth type has a flange studded with a series of small rivets. The flange has either a circular shape, a circular shape with lobes, a hexagonal shape or a hexagonal shape with lobes.
Non-standard types of bosses from the grave of L’île de Groix. Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 4.
Mullutu, Saaremaa, Estonia
My friend and reenactor Edvards Puciriuss pointed out to me the copper alloy handle terminal, which is stored under the catalog number SM 10863:24 in the Saaremaa Museum. All we can say at this time is that the terminal was found during a preliminary survey of the site of Mullutu on the island of Saaremaa, which is likely to be further explored in future years. Along with the terminal, other finds of various dates were found. This is the only such artifact in Estonia. The terminal is approx. 37 mm long, the closest analogues are the examples from Bj 942 and Bj 1151, compared to parallels the neck of this piece has a more prominently modeled head, above which there is a large hole for a rivet.
Handle terminal from Saaremaa. Photo courtesy of Marika Mägi.
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