In 2021, when my friend reenactor Joakim Pakkala was given the opportunity to examine an artifact in the Bergen Museum, I asked him if he could document a hitherto poorly published artifact for the purposes of this blog – a shield handle from a boat grave from Myklebost. Joakim and the willing employees of the museum agreed, and on 5 and 18 August 2021 a personal observations took place, the results of which are presented in this article. The article is created with the kind permission of the staff of the Bergen Museum.
Introduction of the grave and inventory
The site of Myklebost, Norway (also known as Myklebust, near the town of Nordfjordeid) is well known in academia, especially for the huge ship grave (so-called mound I), which was examined by archaeologist Lorange in 1874 (cat. No. B2978-B3000). The ship from this mound is the largest ship found in Norwegian territory (approx. 30 m in length and 6.5 m in width). At least 3 other large mounds are known from the same locality (Schetelig 1905: 5). Our interest will be focused on mound II, which was explored by Haakon Shetelig in 1902-3 and which was located northeast of the more famous mound I. The mound was 32 meters in diameter, 3.8 m high and was built on a gentle hill for greater effect. Inside the mound there were a total of five graves of various dates; the mound was evidently used for burials for more than a century.
Grave I, which we will describe below, is one of the younger graves from this mound (Shetelig suggests the following sequence of graves: II, III, V ?, I, IV; Schetelig 1905: 51-2). The core of grave I was created by a 7 meter long to 2 meter wide boat, which was burned on the spot and after which numerous rivets and nails remained (430-450 rivets, 60 nails). At the western end of the boat, a cauldron was placed upside down, under which burnt human bones and a bead were collected. Under the cauldron and in its vicinity, a group of wargear and other were stored – an R type sword, a spear, eight shield bosses, a shield handle, 21 arrowheads, scales, bone game pieces and two iron rings. To the east of this group, two other sets of objects were placed, consisting of an axe, an adze, a hammer, a rasp, a knife, a chest fitting, a padlock and a key, a scythe, whetstones and an indefinite iron fitting (Schetelig 1905: 11-6; Schetelig 1912: 186). According to Fett, there was also a saw in the grave (Fett 1960: 6). Dog bones and a copper alloy needle from a brooch were scattered over the boat. The objects found in the grave were donated to the museum by the landowner Johannes O. Myklebust and given catalog number B5730. For completeness, it should be mentioned that different authors refer to the grave differently – Aaland (1909: 64-7) speaks of grave no. 4, Fett calls it grave 6 (Fett1960: 5) and Müller-Wille calls the grave “mound III” (Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 8-10). In the literature, the grave is described as male, although this determination was undoubtedly made on the basis of equipment, not on the basis of bone identification.
The dating of grave I certainly points to the 10th century (Sørheim 2018: 473), as evidenced by the presence of the R type sword (Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 10.5). Swords of this type are generally put to the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the 10th century (Jones 2002: 19) or to 2nd-4th quarter of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 169). Shield bosses of the R562 type are dated to the period of the second half of the 9th and the first half of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 185; Solberg 1984: 95). Petersen’s type I spears dominated in the first half of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 175; Solberg 1984: 94-5), while type H axes are generally attributed to 1st-3rd quarter of the 10th century (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 161). When these data are gathered together, the 2nd quarter of the 10th century appears to be the most probable dating of grave I from mound II.
Part of the inventory of grave I from mound II. Source: Müller-Wille 1978: Abb. 9.
Previous descriptions of the shield handle
Like the fragment from Gokstad (discovery 1880, Nicolaysen 1882: 49, Tab. X.20), the find from Myklebost was considered to be the subject of an unknown function at the time of the discovery. Archaeologist Shetelig left the most explicit testimony in three of his works:
“An unknown iron tool, broken into many pieces and in an incomplete condition. It has the shape of a longitudinally halved iron tube, 2.5 cm wide in the middle and tapering towards both ends to a width of 1.5 cm. The outermost parts, about 6 cm long, are flat at both ends and bent at a 90 degree angle. These flattened ends carry two small nails that probably held the strap. The whole arched side is covered with transverse strips of bronze sheet about 2.5 cm wide, decorated with a uniform braid. The pattern was pressed into a long bronze strip, which was then cut into pieces of suitable length. The bronze strips are attached to theiron only by bending behind theedge. The original length of the whole object was about 70 cm.” (Schetelig 1903: 6)
“A rather mysterious piece probably belong to the instruments […], whose analogy we hardly know yet. […] I cannot comment the purpose of this instrument.” (Schetelig 1905: 14-6)
“An iron tool of unknown purpose.” (Schetelig 1912: 168)
Drawn reconstruction of the handle from Myklebost. Source: Shetelig 1912: Fig. 423.
The Unimus catalog still uses Shetelig’s description from 1903, but brings two high-quality photographs (Unimus 2021). It follows from the current form of the catalog entry that the object is still not recognized in official circles. This is evidenced by the absence in the work of Hjardar and Vike (Hjardar – Vike 2011) and other commentators, for example, Fett does not mention the handle at all (Fett 1960: 6). The most recent mention in the printed literature returns to Shetelig’s original comment:
“70 cm long, halved iron tube of unexplained function, covered with decorative bronze sheet.” (Sørheim 2018: 280)
It is therefore possible that the first recognition of the object occurred only when included in the article created by the author of this text (Vlasatý 2020). A brief description of the find, literature and analogy was given in the article. To this day, we do not know of any other printed or digital work that would describe the handle in the same manner.
The core of the handle is formed by a concave one-piece iron plate, which is finished with flat, spatula-shaped ends about 6 cm long. At present, the handle is broken into at least eight pieces with a total length of 66 cm. One spatula end is destroyed (propeller-like twisted), and therefore the original width can be estimated at approximately 70 cm. The better preserved tip is bent at a 90 degree angle; in general, the handle appears to have been forcibly pulled from the surface of the shield.
Front and rear side of the handle parts next to the end piece. Photos taken by Joakim Pakkala.
The entire outer part of the handle was originally covered with 2.5 cm wide embossed strips of copper alloy. The strips are decorated with two intertwined braids, formed by three lines. In his drawing, Shetelig suggests that the edge of the strips was additionally decorated with pits. The strips are bent into the interior of the metal core by a few millimeters (5-6 mm), where they were held by a wooden filling. Shetelig’s suggestion that the handle manufacturer adorn the “long bronze strip, which was then cut into pieces of suitable length” seems realistic, as the decoration can also be found on the bent parts inside the iron core. Spatula ends are decorated in a different way – braids in the style of Borre. Upon personal search, it is possible to count 21 strips, while in Shetelig’s original drawing we see up to 31 of them, which must be attributed to the author’s creativity. The thickness of the copper alloy sheet is 1.5 mm, which can be measured in some places where the strips become loose. At least one part of the better-preserved end gives a contrasting impression and appears to be gilded. The widest point of the coated handle (center) is 2.5 cm wide at the base and 1.5 cm high, while the narrowest point in front of the spatula ends is 1.4 cm wide and 1.3 cm high. The handle is currently covered with a layer of corrosion products and preservatives.
The handle was attached to the board with rivets that pass through the cover and core and are difficult to see. Two rivets are visible at the spatula end and at least one more is located in the widest part of the handle, where it could have been involved in fixing the boss.
All photos taken by Joakim Pakkala in the Bergen Museum can be downloaded by clicking on the following button:
The author of this article collected no less than 48 metal remains of Scandinavian shield handles (Vlasatý 2020), which spontaneously divide into two groups:
1. handles fixed with three-leaf terminals made of copper alloy.
The core can be a wooden handle or a metal tube with a semicircular cross section. In the case of the metal variant, decorated strips, inlayed or plated wires are usually applied to the tube. The ends of the handle create sharp spikes, which are covered with three-leaf terminals. The distribution of this variant lies in the Baltic region and in Old Rus. Handles with three-leaf handles are generally very short, around 30-40 cm.
2. handles with extended, flattened ends.
The core is always a metal tube with a semicircular cross-section, which tapers towards the ends, but the ends themselves are widened into spatulas, which are riveted with two rivets and usually subsequently covered with a copper alloy sheet to hide the rivets. The entire surface of these handles is usually covered with copper alloy strips. We are see the distribution of this variant evenly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Handles with extended ends usually copy the entire diameter of the shield. The handle from Myklebost is one of the good specimens of this group.
Distribution of short metal handles with terminals (blue) and long handles with extended ends (orange).
The nearest parallels of the handle from Myklebost can be found in graves of Bj 736 and 504/536 from Birka, Rends, Nes and Gokstad, which have a metal core coated with copper alloy strips. For completeness, it is also possible to mention the finds from the grave Bj 561 from Birka and the settlement find from the same locality, which represent the undecorated spatula-shaped handle ends (Vlasatý 2020).
Finds from the skeletal grave Bj 736 are among the best preserved. The two shields that lay on top of each other are referred to in the literature as “northern” and “southern” (Arbman 1943: 259-261). The bosses, which have diameters of 15 and 14.5 cm and heights of 7 and 6.5 cm, are undecorated and belong to type R562 (Arbman 1940: Taf. 15). The handles are almost complete – they consist of iron cores that are covered with decorated strips 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. A ring with a clamp was found in one of the handles, which was attached only to the iron core and did not pass through the shield board. The length of the handles is very approximately 77-80 cm, which represents the maximum diameters of the shields. The edges of the shields were reinforced all around with iron clamps, which according to the SHM catalog count 54 at the northern shield and over twenty at the southern shield. The clamps are tinned according to the SHM catalog. Fragments of the hide coating were found under the clamps on both sides of the board (Arwidsson 1986: 40). The extended ends do not seem to be riveted to the clamps at the same time – the ends tend to avoid the clamps. Along with the shields, an H type sword, a G type axe, an I type spear and relatively archaic stirrups with a twisted neck were found in the grave. Thanks to these finds, it is possible to speak of a date to the first half of the 10th century, or perhaps even the 1st quarter of 10th century, due to the age of the stirrups and the presence of a G type axe.
A fragment of an iron handle was found in the skeleton grave 504/536, which is decorated with decorated strips of copper alloy and wrapped in leather and textiles (Arbman 1943: 146-147, Abb. 92-93). An “iron band fittings 1.9 cm wide and 21.5 cm long” may also related to the handle (Arbman 1943: 147). Greta Arwidsson (1986: 39) states that the shield was made of maple, but since only the handle was preserved, the possibility is that the maple wood comes from the iron handle filling, not from the shield board, which in Birka was usually made of coniferous wood. Closer dating of the grave is not possible; Thålin-Bergman claims the attached spear is closest to types C and E, which would theoretically mean dating to the 9th or 1st half of the 10th century (Thålin-Bergman 1986: 16).
Iron handle fragment decorated with a copper alloy strip and wrapped in leather and textiles, grave Bj 504 in Birka. Source: Arbman 1943: Abb. 92-93.
Another luxuriously designed shield of the same construction was found in Rends, Denmark (Brøndsted 1936: 122-3; Pedersen 2014a: 100-1; Pedersen 2014b: 98-99, Pl. 44). It consists of an undecorated R562 boss with a diameter of 16.5 cm and a handle, which consists of an iron core with a characteristic coating of ornamental strips of copper alloy. The handle is divided into several fragments, but the overall shape and length of approximately 70 cm can be deduced. One of the ends lack the cover and reveals rivets. The widest part of the handle at the base is 2.6 cm wide, the narrowest 1.3 cm (Eisenschmidt 2004: 399). Along with the shield, a type X sword was discovered in the grave, specifically its older variant, which suggests that the most probable dating of the grave is the first half of the 10th century (Eisenschmidt 2004: 399).
Two shields found in the mound in Nes, 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 headband and was wrapped in a woolen blanket loaded with a 10 kg anchor. A twentycentimeter ringed pin was found at the thigh. With the man, a horse with a bit, a gilded buckle and a strap-end, a cauldron, beads, a button made of braided silver wire, an arrow and weights 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 – as far as we can tell from the conservator’s notes (he did not comment on this topic in the email discussion) – decorated with a continuous layer of thin and in some places decorated copper alloy sheet, which was attached at regular intervals with clamps of the same material. 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).
The geographically closest analogy of the Myklebost specimen is the fragment found in the well-known mound in Gokstad (C10455; Nicolaysen 1882: Pl. X.20), which dates back to 905 (Hjardar – Vike 2011: 185). The fragment is 9.4 cm long and 2.3 cm wide at its widest point. The iron core is coated with a very thin decorative sheet of copper alloy, which is broken in many places so it is possible to see the iron core. According to Kim Hjardar, who personally examined the fragment, the sheet is only bent around the iron core and essentially hide the rivets that are hidden under it. Anne Pedersen (2014a: 101) informs that the fragment is gilded. A large number of shields were contained in the mound, but the fragment cannot be assigned to any of them
The article presented a hitherto unrecognized ornate shield handle from Myklebost, which has avoided the attention of the academic community for almost 120 years. The handle belongs to the most prestigious class of shields of the Viking Age; shields of these qualities became gifts, were glorified in poems, and finally accompanied the early medieval magnates to the afterlife. In the article, we have pointed ti several analogies that come from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Their similarity is so striking that it would theoretically be possible to talk about one workshop. The dating of better-equipped graves with decorated specimens suggests the first half of the 10th century, and we see a striking connection to the bosses of the R562 type. More complete handles are around a total length of 70-80 cm.
Within this group of objects, the find from Myklebost can be compared with several parallels. The decoration of the spatula end is practically identical to the find from the grave of Bj 736, but the pieces from Gokstad and Nes are also remarkably similar. Since the end of the Rends handle is damaged, it is not possible to comment on the similarity, but it is clear that it shares the same elongated ellipses. The head, which is located at the transition between the spatula end and the narrowest part of the handle, is in the case of a find from Myklebost covered with corrosion and is not visible at all. A possible gilding of the handle from Myklebost would correspond to the fragment from Gokstad and theoretically also the fragment from Nes. The organisation of rivets on the end above each other is done in the same way as the finds from Bj 736 and Gokstad. The rivets are visible and have not been placed under the cover, a solution similar to the Bj 736, while in the Gokstad fragment, the rivets are hidden under the cover. As for the ribbons adorning the handle, the handkles from Rends shows the identical ornament and the pieces from the graves of Bj 504/536 and 736 are variations of similar braids. In contrast, the decoration of the Nes handle strips is the most distant analogy.
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