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Wooden cores of the long knife sheaths

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Introduction

The long knives spread around the Baltic Sea in the period of the 10th and 11th centuries represent a not very numerous group of weapons, which in recent decades has received increased attention from academics (e.g. Stjerna 2007; Kainov 2019: 102-112) and historical reenactors (e.g. Vlasatý 2020; 2021a; 2021c; 2022b). The joint efforts of these two interest groups led to the mapping, determination of basic parameters and ultimately the definition of various regionally specific variants of decoration.

The common denominators of long knives are a total length of 27-60 cm (most commonly 35-50), a blade width of 1.7-3 cm and a spine thickness of 0.5-2.5 cm (most commonly around 1 cm). The length of the handles, which were made of wood, bone or antler, is 9-13 cm. The handles could be wrapped with wire wrap. The weight of the blades without handles is 100-330 grams. Blades were made from a three-part or five-part sandwiches with a steel core (Arrhenius 1974: 105; Puškina – Rozanova 1992: 215; Tvauri 2012: 187-8). Sheaths cover the entire knife, including the handle, and are hung with the blade pointing upwards. In order to be able to pull the knives out of their sheaths, they usually have small eyelets at the ends of the handles, originally filled with a leather strap. The first division we can make divides the group into:

  • Knives that have longitudinal grooves on their spines, which are the result of production and which should be understood as a sign of quality. Knives with these grooves are usually not combined with decorated sheaths (Stjerna 2007: 245), although, for example, the knife from the Vendel IX grave has a groove.

  • Knives with flat spines and sheaths that are decorated with edge fittings (chapes, grooved clamps, fittings of the widened part of the sheath and hanging mechanism).

These variants indicate different strategies in the presentation of the knives. Knives with grooves on the spines of the blades are found in Estonia (Mandel 1977: 240), Finland (Salmo 1938: 160), Latvia (Atgāzis 2019: 79) and Sweden (Stjerna 2007). Further differentiation can be found in the group of knives with decorated sheaths, which can be divided into two main groups:

  • Standard components of Baltic and Gotland sheaths were elongated chapes, clamps, fittings of the fittings of the widened part of the sheath, metal bands encircling the handle and rings used to hang the sheath. Some sheaths have additional decoration on the surface in the form of rhombic applications or toothed fittings. The fittings, with the exception of the rings, are made of copper alloy. The surface of most of the fittings is decorated with a triangular punching, lacking openwork, underlaid lining and tinning. The rings are simple, made of strong iron or copper alloy wire. Sheathed knives of this group have copper alloy wire wrapped handles.

An example of a long knife from Priekuļi Gugeri. Source: Apala – Zariņa 1991: 4. att.

  • Sheath fittings for long knives from Central Sweden and Old Rus include chape, clamps, fittings of the widened part of the sheath and hanging mechanism. Sheaths lack bands encircling the handle and are never decorated with a triangular punch. The fittings are made of tinned copper alloy, with a characteristic stepped edge and openwork that reveals a contrasting copper alloy lining. The rings are cast. The sheathed knives of this group have handles wrapped in silver wire.

Examples of knives from central Sweden: Valsgärde 12 and 15. Source: Pedersen 2014: Pl. 63.

Of course, there are exceptions that indicate a blending of both styles. One of them is the tinned and openwork sheath fittings from Dreņģeru-Čunkāni (Atgāzis 1994: 25), which is simultaneously combined with triangular stamping and a band encircling the handle. Another good example is the copper alloy wire-wrapped long knife from grave 230 from the site of Kopparsvik, Gotland, the fitting of which is tinned and lined, but at the same time stamped with a triangular stamp and supplemented with a band encircling the handle (Thunmark-Nylén 1995: Abb. 314a-b; 2000: 860). Because of the obvious similarities and the aforementioned limited intermingling of styles, the groups cannot be understood as entirely separate traditions, but rather as two dominant variants of a single fashion that spread in the Baltic region in the 10th century.

Research to date has focused on the categorization of finds according to their obvious metal elements, which are captured in not very detailed photographs, drawings and written descriptions. It is standard practice for long knives to be examined by people without practical knowledge of their manufacture and use, which results in the vast majority of examined knives being shown, as a rule, from the front view, without focusing on the sides. It is also a matter of course that the organic component of older finds suffered significant damage due to poor conservation. As a result, many important details can be missed.

In 2019, when the world-famous swordsmaker Peter Johnsson mapped all the weapons from grave Bj 581 in Birka, he made an interesting and still overlooked conclusion: the sheath of the long knife most likely had a thin wooden core that was covered with leather. This knowledge was used in the production of a new reproduction for the exhibition in the museum in Birka (Wåhlander 2020), which was made by Joel Wennerholm. In the attached article below, we compare both manufacturers’ documentation with additional observations of our own that validate Johnsson’s observation. The article is dedicated to all academics and craftsmen who are devoted to the issue of early medieval militaria. At the same time, it can serve as an illustrative example of the importance of a detailed reading of archaeological finds.

Detailed measurement of the long knife from grave Bj 581 in Birka.
Author: Peter Johnsson, https://swordreflections.com/.


Argumentation

The theory of the use of a thin wooden insert forming the core of the sheath can be based on four direct and one circumstantial evidence:

1. The presence of a wooden core

Despite the poor preservation of the organics, there are at least three long knives that show signs of wooden sheaths. One of them is a 54 cm long knife from grave 36 from Šestovice, Ukraine, discovered in 1925, on the blade of which the remains of a wooden sheath were found (Androščuk 1999: 103, no. 10; Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: 190, Fig. 133a–b; Arne 1931: 290–291; Artěmjev 1998: 229; Blifeld 1977: 129). The second specimen, an excellently preserved 49 cm long knife from grave 2/2006 from the same location, despite the written description, clearly testifies to the fact that there is a light yellowish layer between the blade and the leather, which due to its thickness, colour and location corresponds well to the wood (Androsčuk – Zocenko 2012: 336–337; Asingh – Jensen 2022: 22-3). A third very likely candidate is a 52 cm long knife from the Lithuanian site of Anduliai, whose contemporary torso suggests that the blade was inlaid with wood (Jablonskis 1974).

Long knives from chamber grave 36 in Šestovice and from the site of Anduliai.
Source: Androščuk – Zocenko 2012: Fig. 133a; Vykintas Motuza and Museum of Little Lithuania in Klaipėda.

2. Oval cross-section of the sheath

The presence of wood justifies the rounded or oval cross-section of the sheath. The latter is noticeable both by the bulge just above the level of the fittings in the blade area, and also by the rather indistinct transition between the handle and the blade. There is no bulge in the handle area. The result of the comparison with quality reproductions that lack a wooden core are unequivocal: while the clamp thicknesses are the same (0.5 cm), the maximum sheath thicknesses are significantly different (approx. 2 cm for sheaths with core, approx. 1.3 cm for sheaths without a core when the spine of the knife is 0.9 cm thick). In other words, the clamps on wood-core sheaths fill about a quarter of the thickness of the sheath, while on coreless sheaths, which are flat and closely copy the blade, the clamps fill about half to a third of the thickness.

Comparison of flat (left) and domed sheath (right).

Comparison of flat (left) and domed sheath (right).

3. Cross-section of clamps

Due to the aforementioned bulge just above the level of the fitting in the blade area, the leather edge of the sheath is sloped and under certain tension. This leads to the fact that the clamps that hold this edge do not have a U-shaped cross-section, but rather a V-shaped cross-section. The U-shaped clamps indicate that they clamped two layers of leather that were not sloped and under tension, and therefore we can expect the absence of a wooden core in such a case.

Long knife clamps from Šestovice (Černenko 2007: Рис. 48.9-16) and Gnězdovo (Kainov 2019: Рис. 36.6).

Long knife with flat clamps from grave 38 of Genčai I (Griciuvienė 2009: 121).

4. Cross-section of the chape

After examining the long knife from grave Bj 581 in Birka, Peter Johnsson believes that the cross-section of the chape is too domed for the original fitting to hold only two layers of leather. According to this researcher, it is more likely that part of the wooden core was protruding inside the fitting. The chape of the long knife from grave Bj 735 also agrees with this, as it is similarly curved and is still filled with material, which according to old drawings may be a wooden insert covered with leather.

Details of the chape of the long knife from grave Bj 581 in Birka.
Author: Peter Johnsson, https://swordreflections.com/.

5. Practical properties of wooden cores

A final point to mention is the practicality of the wooden core, which provides a strong and stable structure that keeps the scabbard in shape, preventing bending and cutting through. In general, it guarantees the owner safe handling of long blades and simple maintenance. The leather cover can also be glued to the wooden core. In the case of the long knife from Anduliai, whose sheath is decorated with rhombic fittings on the side, the wooden core may have simultaneously served to protect the blade from being scratched by riveted rivet shafts.

It is therefore not surprising that wooden cores have been used for weapon cases throughout the centuries. In the Early Middle Ages, they are known for short knives (e.g. Hrubý 1955: 112), axe (Vlasatý 2015), spears (Vlasatý 2022c), swords (e.g. Geibig 1991: 104–105; Košta – Hošek 2014: 60-70) and other objects with long sharp blades, for example scissors (Vlasatý 2021b). Sheaths with a wooden core are also used for long knives of the 7th century (Volken – Goubitz 2020: 47) and long knives with wide blades (Vlasatý 2022a), the application for another group of long knives is therefore quite expected.


Reconstruction

According to Johnsson’s findings, Joel Wennerholm created a tentative reproduction for the museum in Birka. The core became a 0.1-0.2 cm thick carved wooden corpus. This can be covered with linen, which facilitates the subsequent application of the leather. After addting the leather layer, there is a characteristic bulge in the blade area. The knife is a first prototype, so not all elements are satisfactory: for example, a rather wide strip of leather was kept at the edge for attaching the clamps, so the resulting cross-section of the clamps does not form the letter V. It is interesting that the edge of the sheath is not sewn, and the fittings serve as the only methods of connecting the two sides together.

A tentative reconstruction by Joel Wennerholm.


Conclusion

Based on the above argumentation, it is possible to assume that the sheaths of the long knives of the Baltic tradition in some cases had a core of wood covered with leather. There is a significant assumption that wooden cores can be found mainly in Swedish and Old Rus knives with tinning and openwork. This solution is practical and has multiple analogies across early medieval weaponry. This previously unpublished revision of long knife sheaths provides new insight into the design, construction and use of elite 10th century militaria.

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Acknowledgment

The progress in the development of research would not have been possible without the careful work of Peter Johnsson, who pointed out discrepancies between the original and the reproductions. Thanks to him very much for sharing all the documents and visual documentation. We express our immense gratitude to Joel Wennerholm, who implemented Johnsson’s notes and shared his production photos with us. We are also indebted to Roman Král, Václav Maňha and Vykintas Motuza, with whom we consulted on the wooden cores.


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