During the self-study of swords from early medieval Norway, I noticed that a large part of the specimens retained the organic remains of the grips and scabbards. Since these components are not usually preserved, I found it useful to gather these materials in comprehensive articles to enrich the sword enthusiats. In this article, we will deal with some scabbards of Norwegian swords from the Viking Age, specifically scabbards that are wrapped in textile or leather straps.
The scabbards densely wrapped with straps form a relatively significant milestone in early medieval armament. They can be recorded on swords from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Sweden and Norway (Arkeologerna 2023; Geibig 1991: 104–105; Kainov 2012: 46–54; Košta – Hošek 2014: 60-70; Pentz 2009: 196), especially in the 9th and 10th century. At the same time, they are depicted in Western European iconography, which perfectly complements the archaeological material and suggests that these were highly valued objects (Geibig 1991: 108–110, Abb. 29). Dense wrapping was performed on those parts of the scabbards that were most mechanically stressed, ie usually on the tips, where they replaced or supplemented the chapes. In this case, the textile or leather straps were about 8 mm wide. The distance between the individual wraps was about 2 mm, so there could be up to 4 folds in one place; in some cases, the straps were doubled so there could be up to 8 layers of fabric in one place in four folds. The length of the wrapping varied: the straps were wrapped at least eighteen times in archaeologically preserved pieces, while the longest wrapping is more than 50 folds long (Geibig 1991: 105). If the folds were glued so that they would not come loose – which can only be archaeologically substantiated by the Gnězdovo find (Kainov 2012: 53) – then this would be extremely good protection against mechanical damage.
Scabbard construction. Geibig 1991: Abb. 28.
1 – scheme of dense wrapping around the corpus; 2 – profile of doubled textile straps; 3 – profile of simple textile straps; 4 – layering of the scabbard : fur – wood – textile.
West European iconography depicting wrapped scabbards.
Geibig 1991: Abb. 29.
In the following list, we summarize the Norwegian finds that may correspond to this construction. One hundred years ago, Theodor Petersen, the brother of the well-known sword expert Jan Petersen, dealt with the issue (Petersen 1918). In his article, Petersen described two Norwegian finds, namely T5084 and T11631. We will enrich its list with two more specimens. The source will be the Unimus catalog.
„A double-edged iron sword from the Late Iron Age lying in its scabbard. Damaged at the tip and lower guard, so the tip and upper guard are separated and the pommel is completely missing. Completely severely rusty. The scabbard consisted of wood with an outer cover, from which traces are visible in some places. The cover consisted of wrapping with narrow leather straps. Between the scabbard and the lower guard, there is a narrow empty space, originally apparently filled with the scabbard mouth. Blade length 81 cm. Guards 9.7 cm far from earch other. The guards are narrow, slightly curved, with lengths of 13 and 9.2 cm.“
The sword was found in mound 58 at Sæveli, which also contained an axe, spear, knife and whetstone. The grave can therefore be classified as a Viking period. Due to the older date of discovery and the absence of photography, it is not possible to classify the sword typologically; due to the mention of thin curved guards, types L and Q appear to be probable, but type L does not seem to be a candidate due to the long guard (Aksdal 2017: Table 1). We do not know the form of wrapping; it could be done in a dense manner as mentioned above, or we can witness the wrapping that was part of the suspension system (as in the case of grave no. 15 in Valsgärde, see Androshchuk 2014: 110-111), or the cross-shaped wrapping. However, the mere mention of wrapping with a narrow strap in several places sounds convincing enough.
„Remains of an iron double-edged sword, namely a piece with a massive lower guard and a large rounded pommel and a 17 cm blade, and four consecutive blade pieces with a total length of 46 cm and a width of 6.5 cm. Distinctive remnants of a wooden scabbard, which was lined on the inside with untanned fur and covered with canvas on the outside. Remains of wood scales are also visible on the handle.“
The sword was found, along with five shield bosses, an axe, spearheads, arrows, and tools, apparently on the site of a former mound. The dating to the Viking Age is indisputable. The type of sword is not known, the description would correspond to a number of types, such as type D, E, S or T. The construction involving untanned leather is interesting in Norway (analogy in sword T12199 from Eikrem), for it is often assumed that the Scandinavian scabbards were lined with textile and that the fur with the hair used as a lining is a Western European element (Cameron 2000: 59). Both Petersen (1918: 167-168) and Geibig (1991: 105) speak in connection with the Kvam scabbard about an exceptionally well-preserved wrap made of a narrow textile strap. The following illustration confirms this; we can count several dozen wraps on it. Petersen (1918: 168) mentions that the wooden body of the scabbard was covered with textile under the wrapping and that strap is doubled as mentioned in the introduction to this article.
Fragments of sword T5084 from Kvam. Unimus catalog.
Detail of the wrapping. Petersen 1918: Fig. 2.
„Remains of an iron double-edged sword, heavily rusted. The guards are straight. The pommel, which does not appear to be attached to the upper guard, is rounded and resembles type Rygh 505 [Petersen’s type L]. There are no visible traces of decoration on the hilt. The wooden scale of the grip is preserved and there is a tight, double wrap around the wood. Significant remnants of the wooden scabbard, which was lined and covered with textile, were similarly preserved. An 8-9 mm wide band, probably leather, was also densely wrapped around the scabbard. A similar wrapping, but made of thin woven strap, can be seen on a piece of sword from Kvam (T5084). The strap is wrapped rather slantwise. The total length of the sword is 96 cm.“
The sword from Rypdal was found in the mound together with a spear, axe, shield boss, knife, sickle and whetstone in the summer of 1916. According to Aksdal (2017: Tabell 3), who identified the sword as a variant IV of Petersen’s type L, the tomb can be dated to 750–850. L-type swords originally came from today’s UK and were imitated in Norway, with variant IV having the most indicators pointing to local Norwegian production. It is not clear from the text whether the sword had a pommel (and lost it over time) or whether the author considered the upper guard to be the pommel, but Aksdal (2017) puts the sword among the swords with missing pommel. As for wrapping, the authors agree that it is made of leather strap and that it is very well preserved. Another important finding is the fact that, according to Petersen (1918: 166-167), the entire length of the scabbard was covered with the strap wrapping.
Fragments of the sword T11631 from Rypdal. Unimus catalog.
Detail of the wrapping. Petersen 1918: Fig. 1.
„Handle and several blade fragments of a double-edged sword type Rygh 506, Petersen type D. The pommel is missing. The handle has bronze scales and is beautifully decorated […]. Length 13.5 cm, guard lengths 10.3 and 8.8 cm. Blade, which appears to be pattern-welded, is covered with rusted remains of a wooden scabbard, which is attached at the edges by a bent thin iron plate. Signs of strap wrapping are visible at the scabbard surface.“
The sword of Trælnes was found in 1930 in a mound that contained the remains of a boat, a horse harness and an axe. The axe allows the mound to be dated to the 10th century (Sjøvold 1974: 11-12). As for the wrapping, unfortunately we were not able to find out more details about the material, as all the researchers focused only on the handle and not on the blade fragments. The author of the above text is Theodor Petersen, who wrote it 12 years after the publication of the above-mentioned article, and therefore its evaluation can be considered relatively reliable and based on previous experience. The photo we attach below does not provide any additional information.
Fragments of the sword T14309 from Trælnes. Unimus catalog.
We have listed four swords for which narrow strap wrapping is proven or very likely. At the end of this work, we would like to summarize the common points of these pieces and try to interpret them.
- Swords are always double-edged.
- They are always in the context of well or richly equipped mounds.
- At least one piece may be from England, and if not, it is likely to be an imitation piece.
- In at least one case, the scabbard is lined in an unconventional way for Scandinavia.
- Dense leather wrapping is known only from Norway, but it can be a local variant of the textile-wrapped original.
What does this testify to?
Swords whose scabbards have been densely wrapped with straps are also relatively rare in the Norwegian, sword-rich environment. We can find them especially in central Norway in well equipped graves. With this apparently unconventional object, the owner deliberately sent a clear gesture of belonging to a high-ranking social group that had ties with distant foreign countries. The scabbards could be imported with the swords, or they could be copied locally with the swords. The fact that the wrapped scabbards were represented in Scandinavia is also evidenced by the fact that it appears on the Oseberg tapestry, ie in the high-culture iconography.
Detail of Oseberg tapestry, which shows a wrapped scabbard. Petersen 1918: Fig. 4.
Visual reconstruction of a man from central Norway.
Hjardar – Vike 2011: 47.
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Aksdal, Jostein (2017). Dei anglosaksiske sverda : L-typesverd i England og Skandinavia. In: VIKING – Norsk Arkeologisk Årbok, Vol: LXXX, 59–88.
Androshchuk, Fedir (2014). Viking Swords : Swords and Social aspects of Weaponry in Viking Age Societies, Stockholm.
Arkeologerna 2023 = Nya rön om båtgravarna i Gamla Uppsala. In: Arkeologerna.com [online]. [2023-02-27]. Available here.
Cameron, Esther A. (2000). Sheaths and Scabbards in England AD 400-1100. BAR British Series 301, Oxford.
Geibig, Alfred (1991). Beiträge zur morphologischen Entwicklung des Schwertes im Mittelalter : eine Analyse des Fundmaterials vom ausgehenden 8. bis zum 12. Jahrhundert aus Sammlungen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Neumünster.
Hjardar, Kim – Vike, Vegard (2011). Vikinger i krig, Oslo.
Kainov, S. Yu. (2012). Swords from Gnёzdovo. In: Acta Militaria Mediaevalia VIII, 7-68.
Košta, Jiří – Hošek, Jiří (2014). Early Medieval swords from Mikulčice, Brno.
Pentz, Peter (2009). Bådgraven ved Flintinge Å – og en kammergrav ved Rabjerg. In: Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 2005, 161-208.
Petersen, Theodor (1918). Baandformet omvikling af sverdskeder i vikingetiden. In: Oldtiden – tidsskrift for norsk forhistorie, Bind 7, 165–169.
Sjøvold, Thorleif (1974). The Iron Age settlement of artic Norway : a study in the expansion of European Iron Age culture within the arctic circle, Tromsø.