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Wood species used for sword scabbards

As a follow-up to the previously published article Wood species used for sword grips, we decided to collect published information on the wood species used for building early medieval scabbards. This detail is often overlooked in publications as an insignificant redundancy or only a few specimens are mentioned in the main literature (Geibig 1991: 104-5; Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019; Kainov 2012: 53). So far, the most comprehensive work in the field of investigated scabbards of 9th-12th century is represented by Geibig’s article on swords from Haithabu (1999). Taking into account the Migration period, we need to mention the works of the teams of Tegel (Tegel et al. 2016) and Haneca (Haneca – Deforce 2020) that mapped more than 120 scabbards. In the following post, we will focus on 8th-12th century European single- and double-edged sword scabbards, which with a list of 31 pieces will be an interesting expansion of the previously mentioned works.

We can preface our catalog by stating that scabbards were composite organic products that combined wood, textile and leather in various ways. The basis of all sword scabbards of the Early Middle Ages is a wooden corpus, made of two long, identical boards (laths) with a thickness of about 1-5 mm. The laths, deliberately formed from a tree trunk so that the annual rings pass across their shorter sides, was hollowed out into a blade shape on the inside and then covered. It can be assumed that the choice of materials and the way they were handled aimed at ease of processing, low weight of the result and good performance during the usage (e.g. the scabbard was able to resist the weapon blows, see Androshchuk 2014: 107). Let’s now see what wood species there are preserved 8th-12th century Europe.

Schematic representation of trunk parts that were chosen for the production of scabbards and shafts. Source: Tegel et al. 2016: Fig. 3A.

Wooden scabbard corpus. Production: Roman Král, King’s Craft.


Analyzed scabbards

Beech:

  • Bíňa, Slovakia (Nevizánsky 2006: 292).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 2, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 4, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 5, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • Mikulčice, grave 90, Czechia (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 160).
  • Mikulčice, grave 265, Czechia (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 161).
  • Opolany – Kanín, grave 184, Czechia (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 199).
  • Rajhradice – Stráně nad Habřinou, grave 316, Czechia (Hošek – Košta – Žákovský 2019: 233).
  • Vipperow, Germany (Schoknecht 1966: 200).

Oak:

  • Cronk Moar, Isle of Man, Great Britain (Bersu – Wilson 1966: 68).
  • Grimstrup, Denmark (Stoumann 2009: 46, 290).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 1, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • London, The Palace of Westminster, Great Britain (Dunning – Evison 1961: 126).
  • Trummen, Sweden (Digitaltmuseum 2022).

Alder:

  • Flintinge Å, Denmark (Pentz 2009: 172, 191).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 3, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 6, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 11, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).

Maple:

  • Ciepłe, grave 42, Poland (Wadyl 2019: 299).
  • Ciepłe, grave 42, Poland (Wadyl 2019: 299).
  • Haithabu – harbour, sword no. 7, Germany (Geibig 1999: 41).

Ash:

  • Gdańsk, Poland (Nadolski 1955).
  • Scar, Great Britain (Owen – Dalland 1999: 110-111).

Linden:

  • Borovce, Slovakia (Staššíková-Štukovská 2001: 380).
  • Gulli (C53315), Norway (Gjerpe 2005: 40-1).

Poplar / willow:

  • Skerne, Great Britain (Cameron 2000: 58).
  • Cumwhitton, Great Britain (Paterson et al. 2014: 108).

Birch:

  • Dysnes, Iceland (Ísberg 2020: 70).

Hornbeam:

  • Závada, grave 23, Slovakia (Bialeková 1982: 140).

Olive:

  • Vienna, the scabbard of the Imperial Sword, Austria (Schulze-Dörrlamm 1995: 35, 117).

Boxwood:

  • Kyiv, Church of the Tithes, Ukraine (Bredis 1996).

The sword from Vipperow. Source: Schoknecht 1966: Fig. 115a.


Conclusions

The catalog shows that a wider variety of locally available wood species were used to make scabbards, which in all cases come from deciduous trees (in order of frequency: beech, oak, alder, maple, ash, poplar / willow, birch, hornbeam, linden, olive tree, boxwood). The general tendency points towards usage of wood species that are easy to work by splitting and are flexible or strong, and as long as this condition is fulfilled, the type of wood itself is not that important (Owen – Dalland 1999: 111). Scabbards from the Migration period show the same picture – almost half of all known pieces (129 pieces) are made of alder wood, followed by beech, poplar / willow, maple, birch, hazel, ash, apple and linden (Haneca – Deforce 2020). The scabbard from Valsgärde grave 6, which is omitted by Haneca and Deforce, is made of rowan (Arwidsson 1942: 45-6). Alder and beech are generally the most popular types of wood for the production of early medieval wooden cores. The wood of conifers is not known in a single case. An interesting example is Iceland, where the choice of wood was significantly limited, which justifies the use of birch, which was among the most common wood species there (Zori et al. 2013: 160).

The sword from Trummen lake. Source: Digitaltmuseum 2022.


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Bibliography

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