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The mail from Gjermundbu, Norway

The armour found in Gjermundbu, Norway, is one of the most famous mails in early medieval Europe. The reason is both good publication in the past and the fact that it is the only grave find of body armour from the European continent from the period after the 8th century, if we omit Eastern Europe. The following article is a general overview of the published information.

The position of Gjermundbu on the map of Europe.


Finding situation and dating

During April and May 1943, the mound on the Gjermundbu farm, which measured 25 × 8 × 1.8 meters, was hastily archaeologically examined. This mound hid two graves and two other depositions inside (Stylegar – Børsheim 2021: 98). Cremation grave no. I is one of the best furnished Norwegian burials of the Viking Age – it contained a mail, a helmet, Petersen type S sword with Androščuk type 6b chape, two Petersen type K axes, Petersen type G and K / M spears, 4 Rygh type R563 shield bosses, 8 arrows, 2 spurs, 2 Braathen type C2 stirrups, 5 horse bits, a sledge and rattles for them, a kettle, a chest, a pan and many other tools (Grieg 1947; Pedersen 2014: Pl. 59-60, Cat. no. N43). Due to cremation and corrosion, the mail is broken into more than 80 larger or smaller fragments, between which the remains of the aventail can be mixed. There is no doubt that the mail was part of the cremation and was placed in the mound in such a way that it was folded and placed on a cauldron that covered the helmet and other objects under it.

Video about the finding context. Source: Ragnar L. Børsheim, Vimeo.

The grave can be dated to the second half of the 10th century. Hjardar and Vike are of the opinion that the whole is dated between 950-975 (Hjardar – Vike 2016: 188), while Stylegar and Børsheim suggest dating to the end of the 10th century (Stylegar – Børsheim 2021: 98). In terms of inventory, mounds from Hafurbjarnarstaðir, Iceland (Eldjárn 2016: 325, 159-160. mynd) and mounds 12 and 15 Valsgärde, Sweden (Pedersen 2014: Pl 62-3) appear to be the nearest graves. Generally speaking, combinations of S type swords and C2 type stirrups suggest that 970s-990s dating is the most likely (Braathen 1989; Pedersen 2014).

Part of the inventory of grave I from Gjermundbu. Source: Müller-Wille 1972: Abb. 22-23.

The armour has inventory number C27317i and is now stored in the Cultural History Museum in Oslo. Until 1992, it was presented only in fragments, but subsequently it was carefully put together and attached to a plastic support, on which it remains to this day (Vike 2000: 8).

Fragments of armour before the assembly. Source: Grieg 1947: Pl. VII.2.


Description

About 85 fragments of mail from Gjermundbu represent a better part of the original armour, which was short and had short sleeves. The current reconstructed length is 55 cm, which must be understood as the lower limit (Wilson – Roesdahl 1992: 255, Cat. No. 108). In its current form, it weighs 5.5 kg and consists of approximately 25000 rings. It is assumed that the original armour weighed 8-10 kg (personal discussion with Vegard Vike).

The current form of armour from Gjermundbu. Source: Vegard Vike, UNIMUS.com.

Detail of the mail from Gjermundbu. Source: Hjardar – Vike 2016: 192.

The linking style is the classic “four in one”. The mail is a combination of riveted and punched rings. The riveted rings are made of wire with a circular cross-section, which is 0.1-0.14 cm thick. The outer diameter of the rings is 0.75-0.87 × 0.74 – 0.82 cm. The lenght of the overlap of the is 0.39 – 0.42 cm, at this point the ring is up to 0.24 cm thick. The direction of the overlap is counterclockwise. The holes, which are conical, were made from the inside so that the burrs of the holes are stuck together. Conical rivets with an oval foot were inserted into the hole prepared in this way and were riveted on the visible side into highly arched heads with a diameter of 0.05-0.12 cm. The rivets are 0.16-0.19 cm long. The material of the punched rings is square, 0.13-0.18 cm thick. The outer shape of the rings is close to the circle, the inner shape is strongly irregular, rather square. The outer diameter of the punched rings is 0.75-0.84 cm, the inner diameter 0.48-0.52 cm (Tweddle 1992: 1185; Vike 2000: 18).

Diagram of both types of rings. Source: Vike 2000: 18.

Details of riveted rings. Source: Vike 2000: 12.

Details of solid rings. Source: Vike 2000: 13.

The edges of the solid rings had to be ground after punching. For this purpose, a rod with a half-round handle was used in the Middle Ages, on which the rings were pushed on and the rings were ground against a grinding stone (Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: 167). However, the rings of the Gjermundbu mail suggest a different approach – the punched rings were inserted into a two-part mold with rounded grooves, and by mechanical press the edges of the rings were formed according to the walls of the mold. At least one ring of mail indicates that it was inserted into the mold incorrectly. However, the defective piece was used in the result anway.

Procedure for rounding the edges of solid rings: 1 – inserting a ring with sharp edges into the mold; 2 – correctly rounded result; 3, 4 – poor placement in the mold, causing bad result. Source: Kainov – Ščedrina 2021: Рис. 10.

Both types of rings were subjected to metallographic research, which showed that in both cases a homogeneous ferrite was discovered. The material was therefore non-carburized iron. The riveted rings have minimal slag inclusions, which are visible in the punched rings due to the production process. Riveted rings, to a limited extent also punched rings, contain an unusual nitrogen alloy as a result of exposure to fire during cremation (Kedzierski – Stepiński – Zielińska-Lipiec 2010; Kucypera 2017). On the surface of the riveted rings, there are traces of copper alloy, which come from a corroded object, probably scabbard chape. The armour, as far as we can tell from its charred remains, did not have copper alloy hems.

Cross sections of a solid ring. Source: Vike 2000: 14.

Cross sections of a riveted ring. Source: Vike 2000: 15.

X-rays of two fragments. Source: Vike 2000: 9-10.

Ultimately, the mail from Gjermundbu is still the best preserved and documented Scandinavian armour of 9th-11th century. In the Scandinavia, it can be compared with small fragments from Denmark (see Mail fragments from Viking Age Denmark) or Sweden (eg Ehlton 2003). Convincing iconography depicting mails is rare in Scandinavia (Marxen – Moltke 1981), but numerous written sources, especially poetry, are a relatively good source of information (Whaley 2009; Whaley 2012).

Scene from manuscript London, BL, Cotton Cleopatra C VIII, 18v.
Dated to the 4th quarter of the 10th – beginning of the 11th century.
The size of the armour corresponds to the find from Gjermundbu.


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Bibliography

Braathen, Helge (1989). Ryttergraver: politiske strukturer i eldre rikssamlingstid, Oslo.

Ehlton, Fredrik (2003). Ringväv från Birkas garnison, Stockholm : Stockholm Universitet.

Eldjárn, Kristján (2016). Kuml of haugfé, Reykjavík.

Grieg, Sigurd (1947). Gjermundbufunnet : en høvdingegrav fra 900-årene fra Ringerike, Oslo.

Hjardar, Kim – Vike, Vegard (2016). Vikings at War, Oxford – Philadelphia.

Kainov – Ščedrina 2021 = Каинов С.Ю. – Щедрина А.Ю. (2021). Кольчужный доспех и кольчужные кольца из раскопок Гнёздова // Труды Государственного исторического музея 215, Москва, 157-187.

Kedzierski, Z. – Stepiński, J. – Zielińska-Lipiec, A. (2010). An investigation of nitride precipitates in archaeological iron artefacts from Poland. In: Journal of Microscopy 237, 3, 271–274.

Kucypera, Paweł (2017). Metal, Swords, and Birds. A Myth Spanning Time, Place, and Cultures. In: Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae 30, 53-58.

Pedersen, Anne (2014). Dead Warriors in Living Memory. A study of weapon and equestrian burials in Viking-age Denmark, AD 800-1000, Publications from the National Museum. Studies in Archaeology & History Vol. 20:1 2. (Catalogue), Copenhagen.

Marxen, Ingegerd – Moltke, Erik (1981). The Jelling man: Denmark’s oldest figure-painting. In: Saga-Book of the Viking Club 20, London, 267-275.

Müller-Wille, Michael (1972). Zwei wikingerzeitliche Prachtschwerter aus der Umgebung von Haithabu. In: Offa 29, Neumünster, 50-112.

Stylegar, F. H. – Børsheim, Ragnar (2021). Gjermundbufunnet – en småkonges grav med østlig tilsnitt på Ringerike. In: Viking LXXXV, 89–122.

Tweddle, Dominic (1992). The Anglian Helmet from 16-22 Coppergate, The Archaeology of York. The Small Finds AY 17/8, York.

Vike, Vegard (2000). Brynjevev : metallografisk analyse av brynjemateriale ved Oldsaksamlingen i Oslo, Oslo.

Whaley, Diana (2009). Skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages. Vol. 2, Poetry from the kings’ sagas 2 : from c. 1035 to c. 1300, Turnhout.

Whaley, Diana (2012). Skaldic poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, Vol. 1, Poetry from the kings’ sagas 1 : from mythical times to c. 1035, Turnhout.

Wilson, D. M. – Roesdahl, E. (eds.) (1992). From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe, 800-1200, Uddevalla.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the amazing article. This website is a goldmine of knowledge. I been reading up on the subject regarding Gjermundbu chain mail. The solid rings still puzzles me. It looks like a lot of work to punch out the rings and there is a lot of wasted material from punch outs. I’ve been trying to figure out alternative methods of manufacture and came up with an idea. I’m not a blacksmith so I wanted to hear your expertise.
    https://imgur.com/a/JE8u3FW
    Here is my idea: Cut 4mm diameter wire into 4mm long pellets. Compress the 4x4mm pellets with an hammer to form a disc. Pierce the central point of the disc to drive through a pin. Now we have a solid ring that can be pressed in a mold to even out the thickness and remove sharp edges. The advantage here is there is no need for sheet metal and there is no wasted material. There is no alignment issues that might comes with punch dies. I believe it could be faster than punch dies. Poor placement in the final mold can still occur though.

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