When we talk about swords, we often imagine iron or steel blades with metal hilts and organic, mostly wooden grips (antler grips seem to appear rather sporadically after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; see MacGregor 1985: 165). The sword constructed in this way meets all requirements for safety and robustness, which ensures long-term functionality. If we look away from these standard pieces, which could be very well matched with modern brands of more luxurious phones and similar products, we can find a number of swords that could be described as atypical. In this article, we aim to summarize one of their categories, namely swords with antler, ivory and walrus ivory guards and pommels, to show their numerous representation in time and space and to point out the possibilities in their reconstruction.
Although we are used to the fact that organic materials are perishable and often difficult to detect in archaeological material, in the catalog below we were able to collect at least 28 finds from the years 700–1100 AD that can be included in this group. This set and its analogies entitle us to claim that organic components were used in European swords for at least the period 100-1300 AD. In general, it can be said that all of them try to imitate traditional metal variants, to the extent that they faithfully copy design elements which have no meaning in organic variants. For example, some copy two-part pommels with the characteristic line between the parts, even though they are one-pieced. The organic components, of course, raise the question of whether the swords were intended for the same purposes as the metal variants. We do not know any piece that would show signs of damage, and several pieces even give the impression of failed pieces that have been discarded. As far as we can tell, organic components were certainly part of metal swords, so we can’t talk about toys, for example.
As mentioned in a number of works, many Viking swords meet decorative rather than mechanical properties, reflecting the social changes of the time, when it was important to possess this element of elite culture and a symbol of power and status, although it was rarely used for a combat (see Fedrigo et al 2017: 433 for illustrative examples). The ability of organic material to withstand strong blows is underestimated (MacGregor 1985: 165), and as such, it also offers new possibilities in the field of decoration, assembly and finishing, not to mention the reduced weight of the overall product. We should also take into account the fact that bone and antler may in many cases have been more readily available than metal (see MacGregor 1985: 30–43). We can look at antler variants as products that represent all-metal swords, and in order to fulfill the aesthetic spirit of the time, the products were subject to general fashion trends. Andrew Halpin (2008: 160) notes that bone and antler components suggest less wealthy owners, while Alfred Geibig (1992/1993: 225) speaks directly about improvisation and the most inferior materials possible. Swords with components richly decorated or made of more valuable materials (ivory, walrus) are a slightly different chapter, as they seem to belong to the aristocracy, and by their exclusivity they are equal to or even ahead of metal variants. This is revealed to us both by the swords themselves and by at least two written sources, namely the Laxdæla saga (ch. 29: “It was a powerful and good weapon, the hilt of which was made of [walrus] tooth. There was no silver on it. The blade was sharp and rust did not cling to it.“) and the Magnúss saga berfœtts (ch. 26:” [The King] was girded with a sword called Leggbítr. The hilt was made of [walrus] tooth and the grip was wrapped in gold.“). Researchers identify with this; Tesch (2015: 27) attributes the ornate antler guard from Sigtuna to a royal person, and Kara (1988: 418) believes that the Polish finds belonged to retainers or princely viceroys. In our opinion, we would not underestimate the possibility of using these weapons as surrogate insignia in funeral rituals, which suggests both the sword with antler guard from grave 248 in Siksälä, Estonia (Laul – Valk 2007: 195-196) and the wooden silver-plated sword used at the funeral of Vladislaus II in 1516 (Šmahel 2014: 128).
Before proceeding to the catalogue itself, we would like to mention the problem of distinguishing between different organic materials. In many cases, the material can be determined only from a detailed photograph, in several cases we rely only on archaeological reports. It is common practice for materials to be marked vaguely, such as “horn” or “bone”. A convincing analysis must be carried out by an experienced scientist, in a form that is usually invasive and therefore harmful. This is the reason why analyzes are often avoided, and the above-mentioned umbrella terms are used, even though they actually cover bone, horn, antler, ivory and walrus ivory. As far as we can tell, most pieces seem to be made of antler and bone, exceptionally of ivory.
The catalog presented here is currently the most elaborate list of objects that exists for the given period. It collects material from England, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine, from the largest collection to the smallest. We try to find the inventory number, hilt type, material, dimensions, find context and other details for each item.
The largest set of organic sword components, counting 10 pieces altogether, was found in Sweden. Six of them were found in the so-called Black Earth (Svarta jorden) in Birka, followed by three finds from Sigtuna and one find from Gotland. The tradition of organic hilts has deep roots in Sweden; the find from Stenhagen in the Åland Islands, which is characterized by an organic grip and guard, dates back to the Migration period (Lehtosalo-Hilander 1984: 343). This tradition lasted until the Middle Ages, as shown by two bone guards and one pommel from Lund from 12th-14th century (Bergman – Billberg 1976: Fig. 339, 340, 342). Swedish organic hilts were precisely described by Fedir Andoščuk (Androshchuk 2014).
Birka, SHM 5208: 542. The pommel cap of an unknown sword type, which is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 10; Graham-Campbell 1980: 71, Cat. No. 252). Length 5.9 cm, height 1.7 cm, thickness 3 cm. Near the ends there are two holes, countersunk from the bottom, which were used to rivet the cap to the upper guard. On the underside, at the place where the tang was riveted to the upper guard, a hollow space can be seen. Along the lower edge, there is a poorly visible zigzag motif. The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871–1874 and 1878).
Birka, SHM 5208: 543. Fragmentary pommel of a type C sword, which is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 11). Length 8.5 cm, height 4.3 cm, thickness 2.2 cm. Inside, a piece of iron sword tang was found, which was peened at the top. The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871-1874 and 1878) at a depth of two feet.
Birka, SHM 5208: 544. A guard that belongs to a special type 1 sword. The object is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 12; Graham-Campbell 1980: 71, Cat. No. 253). Length 9.4 cm, height 2.1 cm, thickness 2.7 cm. The faceted guard is oval in shape and octagonal in cross section. The opening for the blade does not narrow too much; on one side it is 4.8 cm long, on the other side it reaches 5.2 cm (Graham-Campbell 1980: 71). The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871–1874 and 1878).
Birka, SHM 5208: 545. A guard of unknown sword type, which is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 13). Length 9.9 cm, height 2.1 cm, thickness 2.7 cm. The SHM catalogue states a length of 10.7 cm. The guard bears a resemblance to SHM 5208: 544, it also appears to be faceted, oval in shape and probably also of octagonal cross-section. The opening for the blade narrows and copies the offset of the tang. The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871-1874 and 1878) at a depth of five feet.
Birka, SHM 5208: 546. Guard of an unknown sword type, apparently an unfinished or damaged product, due to unartfully cut shapes. The guard is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Andoshchuk 2014: Up 14). Length 8.2 cm, height 1.8 cm, thickness 2.9 cm. The SHM catalogue states a length of 8.6 cm. The opening for the blade narrows and copies the offset of the tang. The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871-1874 and 1878) at a depth of three and a half feet.
Birka, SHM 5208: 547. Guard probably belonging to special type 1, an unfinished or damaged product, due to unartfully cut shapes. The guard is made of bone (SHM catalogue) or antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 15). Length 10.2 cm, height 1.5 cm, thickness 1.7 cm. The SHM catalogue states a length of 10.4 cm, a height of 1.6 cm and a maximum thickness of 1.8 cm. The hole for the blade is not centered and copies the offset of the tang on only one side. The object was found during Stolpe’s excavations (1871-1874 and 1878) at a depth of three feet.
Sigtuna, SF 1965. Z-type guard, which is made of elk antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 163; Tesch 2015: 14). Length 10 cm, height 2.4–3.7 cm, thickness 1.6–2.3 cm (Androshchuk 2014: Up 163). The object was found in 1939 in the center of Sigtuna (Handelsmannen block). Both sides are richly decorated with carvings in a combination of Mammen and Ringerike styles, dating back to the year 1000 (Graham-Campbell 1980: 140). On the one side, the motif is a mask, while on the other side, we observe a coiled dragon. Both of these motifs have numerous parallels in Scandinavia.
Sigtuna, 1976/1005. Z-type guard, which is made of elk antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 164; Tesch 2015: 21). Although the drawing of the object was published (Douglas 1978: 63, Fig. 38: 6), we did not have any detailed description for a long time. In a personal discussion, Fedir Androščuk told us that he was not able to trace the guard in the collections of the Sigtuna Museum, so the pictures and information that Anders Söderberg sent us are the first details published. The guard shows generally much simpler features than the previous and better known Sigtuna guard (Tesch 2015: 21). One of the arms of the guard is damaged; in its current form, the guard is 9.4 cm long, about 2 cm wide and reaches a thickness of 1.7 cm in the central part. The hole in the guard, which is on the underside, narrows and copies the offset of the tang. The artifact was found in 1976 during excavations led by Mariette Douglas in Humlegården Park. The layer in which the guard was found is dated to the 11th century (Androshchuk 2014: Up 164). We are extremely grateful to Anders Söderberg, who willingly documented the guard for us.
Sigtuna. A Petersen type X antler pommel was found at the same site, but in 1960. This guard has not yet been published and its photograph has been published by the Sigtuna Museum as part of the Find of the Week series. The museum believes that the pommel belongs to the unadorned guard, which does not seem very likely.
Gotland, SHM 10498. Guard of a sword type B (Androshchuk 2014: Go 179) or type C (Petri 2016: 188; Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 899), which is made of antler (Androshchuk 2014: Up 179). This is a well-preserved and modeled set of pommel and guard, which was found by an amateur at the end of the 19th century in an unknown location and sold to a museum (Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 899). The pommel is 5 cm long, 3.2 cm high and only 0.5 cm thick. The guard reaches a length of 6.5 cm, a height of 2.1 cm and a thickness of 1.5-1.9 cm. The hole for the blade is only 3.6 cm long, which indicates a very narrow, perhaps single-edged blade. There are engravings on both objects, which are supplemented by an illegible runic inscription at the guard (G 353), the letters of which are 6 mm high. The find can be dated to the 9th century (Petri 2016: 183).
The second largest known set was found in England. This counts six pieces, not counting the sword found in Cumberland, whose hilt is completely carved from a cow’s horn (MacGregor 1985: 166, Fig. 87f; Blakelock – Mongiatti – La Niece 2013). The uniqueness of the find from the 7th century is underlined by golden ornaments, which are riveted into the organic hilt. Organic hilt has been present in England since the Iron Age (MacGregor 1985: 165; O’Connor 2013). The English material was well described by Arthur MacGregor (1980; 1985; 1999).
The famous K-type sword pommel (MacGregor et al. 1999: 1945), which is made of whale bone. The object is 7.1 cm long, 4.1 cm high and 2.1 cm thick (Roesdahl 1981: 114). It is characterized by a five-lobed cap and an unusually rounded upper guard. A circular hole runs through the entire pommel. The pommel was found in a layer dated to the 12th century, but the dating is estimated at the 9th or 10th century (MacGregor et al. 1999: 1945).
York, YM C560. The guard of an unknown sword type, which is made of bone (Roesdahl 1981: 114) or antler (MacGregor 1985: 167; MacGregor et al. 1999: 1945; Waterman 1959: 72). The object is 8.6 cm long, 2 cm high and 1.8 cm thick (Roesdahl 1981: 114). The opening in the guard narrows and copies the offset of the tang. Further dating or typological classification is not possible; MacGregor (1980: 148) included the object in the material from the 9th-12th century and leans towards the lower limit of this range, which makes it a late Saxon or Viking artifact (MacGregor 1985: 167). The guard was found during excavations on Clifford Street (Waterman 1959: 72). The pommel and guard from York are often depicted as components of a single sword, but the find situations indicate that they come from two different places and swords.
York, Anglian Fishergate 5612. Pommel or upper guard belonging probably to special type 1, which is made of bone (Rogers 1993: 1431). The object is 7.2 cm long, 0.85 cm high and 2.45 cm thick, slightly convex and its upper edges are abraded. The hole was created by drilling and then joining three holes; it is intended for the end part of a tang with a rectangular cross-section. The guard was found during excavations in York at site 46-54 Fishergate in 1985/6. The dating was based on context and typology, it points to the first half of the 8th century (Rogers 1993: 1431).
Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, cat. no. unknown. The pommel of an unknown type of sword, which is made of antler (MacGregor 1980: 149; 1999: 1945). The object is oval and, when viewed from the front, has the shape close to rectangle. The side walls are decorated with four grooves that separate the individual fields and create a plastic impression. In the middle, there is a hole for a tang, which was circular in cross section. The guard was not published with details, so we had to calculate the dimensions proportionally – the length is about 8.5 cm, height 2.3 cm and thickness 2.5 cm. Unfortunately, the dating is unknown. Today, the guard is stored in the British Museum.
London, inv. 4016. The pommel of an unknown type of sword, which is made of antler (MacGregor et al. 1999: 1945) or bone (personal discussion with Hazel Forsyth). It is characterized by a carving consisting of a plait ornament. The details of this pommel are practically unknown in the literature (the absence of references was also confirmed by the British researcher David Constantine), so the information provided to us by Hazel Forsyth from the London Museum is the only published details. According to this scientist, the object is 6.5 cm wide, 5 cm high, 1.7 cm thick and weighs 63.77 g. In the middle, there is a drilled hole for the tang, which is narrower at the top than at the bottom. The object was accidentally found on the grounds of the Gooch and Cousens’ Warehouse in the City of London between 1866 to 1910, and was stored in the Guildhall Museum, which was merged with the London Museum in 1976. Arthur MacGregor places it in the Viking period (1985: 165–167; 1999: 1945), while Hazel Forsyth refers to it as Saxon-Norman, and Fedir Androščuk expressed doubts in his personal discussion and would rather include the subject in the late Middle Ages. Many thanks to Roy Stephenson and Hazel Forsyth, curators of the London Museum, for prompt and precise identification and documentation of the object.
London, inv. ROP95  <58> and ROP95  <9>. Antler guards that were found during the excavations of the Royal Opera House in 1996, specifically in the “building 38”, which is dated to the “period 6” – ie period 730-70 AD, but the building was probably used until the 9th century (Malcolm – Bowsher – Cowie 2003). Both components probably belong to one sword that dates to the 8th – 9th century. The crossguard is 9.8 cm long, 2.4 cm high and 1.3 cm, lenticular in shape with rounded edges and decorated with six vertical lines. After seeing them personally, we can add that each of these lines is filled with four notches (see photo). The hole for the tang is rectangular and has dimensions of 34 × 4 mm. The upper guard, although fragmentary, is currently 7.5 cm long, 1.5 cm high and decorated with four horizontal lines, which made the transition between the upper guard and the pommel less noticeable. These components were brought to our attention by Vegard Vike, and since the components are on display at “Medieval London” exhibition in the Museum of London, we contacted Adam Corsini, the head of the archive, who sent us the missing photograph of crossguard and provided the literature.
London, inv. ROP95<9>.
“Medieval London” exhibition, Museum of London. Source: Museum of London.
Another country that has a relatively high proportion of organic hilts is Poland. Polish material also includes five pieces – one complete sword, three pommels and one guard, not to mention the chape made of elk antler, which was found in Kołobrzeg-Budzistow and which dates to the 11th century (Kara 1988: 417, Rys. 5). The Polish material was exceptionally well processed by Kara (1988) and Marek (2004). In addition, we discussed it personally with Leszek Gardeła, Piotr Kotowicz and Michał Bogacki, who assured us of the authenticity of the information and the completeness of the list.
Czersko Polskie, voi. Bydgoszcz, cat. no. 507. The sword of a complicated type, with hilt made of antler (Kara 1988). Older authors classified the sword as the Scandinavian type T (eg Sarnowska 1955: 304), but it differs significantly from the type. The next generation assigned the sword to Kirpičnikov’s “local type A” (Kara 1988; Kirpičnikov 1966: 36). Although this Russian type is really more similar in shape, the ornament corresponds more to other Polish finds, and so there was a need to create a “Piast” type of sword, which would emphasize local production, which of course could be influenced by Scandinavian and Russian models (Marek 2004: 32, Tab. 17). The sword was found in the river Brda before 1938 and was unfortunately destroyed during World War II. It was one of the longest Polish swords, with a total length of 99.3 cm; the double-edged blade was 82 cm long and 4 cm wide, with a 1.2 cm wide fuller reaching up to half of the handle. The guard was 12.2 cm long, 2.2 cm high and 1.6 cm thick. The hole in the guard narrowed and copied the offset of the tang – the size of the lower hole was 4 × 0.6 cm, the size of the upper hole was 2.4 × 0.6 cm. The length of the pommel was 7.2 cm, height 5.4 cm and thickness 1.8 cm. The hilt was richly decorated with a plait ornament, plant motifs, lines, wavy lines, circles and stars. The sword dates back to the 11th century, more likely to its first half (Kara 1988; Marek 2004: 32; Sarnowska 1955: 304).
Czersk, voi. Warsaw, IHKM PAN inv. no. 466/61. The pommel of the “Piast” type of sword (Marek 2004: Tab. 17), which is made of antler (Kara 1988). The pommel is 6.8 cm long, 5.4 cm high and 2.2 cm thick at the base. It is provided with a circular hole that passes through the entire object. The surface of the pommel is divided into several fields, which are decorated with plant motifs, circles and triangles. The artifact was found in 1961 in the cultural layer, which can be dated to the period from the second half of the 11th century to the first half of the 12th century (Kara 1988).
Międzyrzecz Wielkopolski, voi. Gorzów Wielkopolski, IHKM PAN inv. no. R/42/58. The guard of the “Piast” type of sword (Marek 2004: Tab. 17), which is made of antler (Kara 1988). It is 12.5 cm long, 2.2 cm high and 2.2 cm thick. The hole in the guard narrows and copies the offset of the tang – the size of the lower hole is 5.5 × 0.8 cm, while the dimensions of the upper hole are 3.5 × 0.8 cm. The decoration consists of floral and geometric motifs, including circles and triangles. The artifact was found in 1958 and dates to the 11th century, more likely to its first half (Kara 1988).
Gniezno, inv. no. 1982:7/34. The pommel of an R or S type sword (Sawicki 1990: 234), which is made of ivory (Kara 1988; Sawicki 1990: 234 and discussion with James Barrett, Leszek Gardeła, Michał Bogacki), although it has not been invasively analysed. The pommel is 7.5 cm long, 3.5 cm high and 2.2 cm thick at the base. It is provided with an oval hole measuring 0.8 × 1 cm, which passes through the entire object. In the central part of one side there is a plait ornament. The pommel was found in 1982 in the locality of Góra Lecha at station 15d. Dating varies; Kara (1988) considers it a product of 11th-12th century, Sawicki (1990: 234) dates it to the end of the 10th century, while the currently accepted dating is 10th-11th century (Bogacki – Janowski – Kaczmarek 2019: 320).
Gniezno, inv. no. 1982:7/34. Source: Sawicki 1990: Rys. 1; muzeumgniezno.pl.
Robity, Pasłęk district, inv. no. unknown. Sword pommel of an unknown type, which is made of bone (Trupinda 2004: 116). The length of the object is 4.6 cm, height 3.6 cm. We do not know the thickness. At the bottom there is a rectangular hole for the tang. The surface is decorated with a carving of an intertwined cross, which is lined with a number of dots. The Robity site belongs to the Early Medieval Old Prussian settlement. The object is dated to 10th – 12th century (Trupinda 2004: 116) or to the 11th century (Jagodzinski 2009: 181). At present, the pomel is stored in the Regional Office for the Protection of Monuments in Elbląg.
It is evident that organic hilts also had a long tradition in Denmark, dating back to bone, wood and ivory finds of the Roman type from Nydam and Vimose (MacGregor 1985: 165). Two upper guards made of whale bone, found in Lejre and dating back to the 7th century, fit into the gap between Roman and Viking times (Christensen 2015: Kat. nr. 222–223, Fig. 11.30; personal discussion with Fedir Androščuk and Lars Krants Larsen). Contrary to well-documented finds from other countries, nobody has systematically dealt with organic hilts from the Viking Age in Denmark. We discussed the situation with a leading Danish expert, Søren Sindbæk, who could not help us map the Danish material. We can only point out a few interesting finds that should be the subject of further research. Swords with organic hilts have maintained their popularity in Denmark even after the Viking Age, as evidenced by the magnificent sword stored in the Copenhagen Museum. The sword with inventory number 9105, probably made in the 12th or 13th century, probably has a walrus hilt (Goldschmidt 1923: 142, Taf. XLIX).
Køge Havn, NM 15556. Beautifully modeled pommel belonging to type S sword, which is made of antler (Androshchuk 2014: 88) or bone (NM catalogue). Based on the image provided by Anne Pedersen from the National Museum in Copenhagen, we calculated that the length of the object is approximately 9 cm and the height approximately 5.7 cm. The pommel was stored in the National Museum after it was found in 1856 while cleaning the riverbed at the mouth of the river Køge Å (Lund 2004: 203 and discussion with Anne Pedersen). Storage in water may have cultic connotations (see Lund 2003 and 2004). The pommel shows signs of corrosion, which indicates placement on the iron tang (discussion with Anne Pedersen). The find can be dated to the 10th century (Petri 2016: 184). We would like to thank Anna Pedersen and the Museum in Køge for the information provided.
While examining the Danish material, we noticed three conspicuous antler artifacts that resemble guards. According to the generally accepted theory, these are the handles of walking sticks. These are finds from Copenhagen, Klim and Viborg. The find from Copenhagen was found in the late 1990s during the excavation of Kongens Nytorv metro station (Fabricius 1999: 176). Archaeologists found there a noble farm, which dates back to the oldest phase of the city, the early 11th century. A guard or hammer-like antler object is 14.5 cm long and 2.5 cm high and was found in a waste pit on this farm. The walls of the objects are decorated with an intertwined ornament. A circular hole passes through the object, which distinguishes it from other artifacts interpreted as guards. The circular opening also has a find from Klim, found in 1978. This 13 cm long, roughly cut antler block is studded with engravings (three different crosses, a tricolor, knots, lines and an animal-like silhouette) that allow it to date back to the early 11th century (Liebgott 1978). The last promising candidate we will mention was found in Viborg. It is also dated to the 11th century and also has a decorated surface (Fabricius 1999: 176).
The oldest evidence of the use of organic hilts in Ireland dates back to the 3rd century, when the Roman historian Solinus left the message that the Irish “cultivate the interest in decorating sword hilts with the teeth of large sea animals” (Riddler – Trzaska-Nartowski 2011: 121). The first material evidence is a little younger – it is a whale bone guard that dates back to the 5th or 6th century and was found in Collierstown (Riddler – Trzaska-Nartowski 2009). Two objects from Dublin fit into the period we have chosen, one of which is certainly the gurad. We are not aware of how the organic hilts tradition was reflected in the Irish Middle Ages.
Dublin, DWP612. The guard of an unknown type of sword made of antler (Halpin 2008: 160–162). It is about 9.2 cm long, 1.2 cm high and 1.3 cm thick in the middle. The hole in the guard narrows and copies the offset of the tang – the size of the lower hole is 5.8 × 0.6 cm, while the dimensions of the upper hole are 3.2 × 0.6 cm. The guard tapers to the ends. The second Dublin antler piece – DWP614 – has the shape, decoration and size of the guard, but the hole does not match, as with the Danish finds from Copenhagen or Klim. Halpin is of the opinion that it could have been a gurad or a handle (Halpin 2008: 162). The size of this object is about 8.2 cm × 1.3 cm × 1.7 cm, while the rectangular hole has dimensions of 1.3 × 0.7 cm. Both objects were found during excavations in 1962–1981.
This subchapter was not included in the first published version of this article. Our German colleague Reiner Liebentraut additionally drew our attention to the find from Hamburg, which is – as far as we know – the only specimen found in Germany. This was beautifully described in an article by Ingo Petri (2016).
Hamburg, inv. no. 1965:39. The upper guard of an unknown type of sword, which is made of the antler of a red deer (Petri 2016: 181). It is 10.1 cm long, 2.4 cm high and 2.1 cm thick. In the central part of the object there is a rectangular hole, 1.5 × 0.8 cm on the underside, 1.4 × 0.7 cm on the upper side, which is filled with a heavily corroded piece of tang, which was riveted on the upper side. The object, which is decorated with carvings, was found during excavations on Große Reichenstraße in 1954 and most likely can be dated to the 11th century (Petri 2016: 181).
Surprisingly, the best-preserved specimen of an Early Medieval sword with an organic hilt – the St. Stephen’s sword – is stored in Prague. A bone pommel that was discovered in the Bílina fortified settlement also come from the country. The use of bone and antler for constructing sword hilts definitely has a longer tradition in the Czech Republic, as demonstrated by the finds of the bone guard pieces of the La Tène sword from Soběluky (Holodňák 2018: 255, Fig. 160) and an unique bronze sword with a bone handle from Beroun-Závodí from the 4th century (Droberjar 2002: 16-17). For completeness, we must mention at least two Great Moravian swords that had wooden hilts (Vlasatý 2020).
Prague, inv. no. K 10. The so-called St. Stephen’s sword, which corresponds to Petersen’s type T. Despite the often repeated claim that the hilt is made of ivory, contemporary researchers are leaning towards the antler (discussion with Jiří Košta and James Barrett), although the analysis has never been performed. As a relic, it has never been archaeologized, so it is certainly one of the best-preserved Early Medieval swords. Its production took place in the years 950–1025. The blade bears the pattern-welded inscription Ulfberht. The rich plastic decoration in the Mammen style points to a Scandinavian production workshop where the blade could be fitted. In an unknown way, the sword got to Hungary, where it probably served to coronate the Arpad dynasty, until after turbulent circumstances of the 13th or 14th century it found itself in Prague, where it remains, except for occasional loans to Hungary, until now (Fodor 2004: 159; Hošek et al. 2019: 220-222). Overall, it is a short sword with a total length of 76 cm. The blade is 61.3 cm long and 4.2 cm wide. The guard is 9.5 cm long, 3.5 cm high and 2 cm thick. The pommel is 6.1 cm long, 3.9 cm high and 2 cm thick. The handle, which is wrapped around several types of wire, is only 7.2 cm long. According to Jiří Košta, the pommel could have been added later, which shortened the hilt. It should also be noted that the sword in its current perfect condition weighs 403 grams, which makes it the lightest two-edged sword of the Early Middle Ages known to us. We are extremely grateful to Jiří Košta for a detailed description.
Bílina. In a clay under the stone destruction on the inner slope of the wall of the Bílina fort, a one-piece bone Brazil nut shaped pommel was found, very similar to the find from Hungary mentioned below (Váňa 1967: 460, Obr. 148.10). Inside the pommel, there is a rectangular hole, partly still filled with a sword tang. Due to the discovery in the youngest part of the rampart, Váňa (1967: 460) dates the pommel to the 12th century, but the original sword may have been older, as evidenced by the Hungarian analogy.
In the area of Eastern Europe we can name only one specimen and one piece that is a candidate.
Ternopil Oblast. In the first half of April 2020, an organic guard was discovered during an illegal detector excavation in the Ternopil Oblast, Ukraine, and was placed at the Violity auction (personal discussion with Sergei Kainov). This is an accidental find in the soil. Very approximate dimensions are 9.5 cm in length, 2.5 cm in height and 2 cm in thickness. When viewed from the front, the guard is rounded, when viewed from the top, it is rather rectangular. The frontal sides of the guard are decorated with circle decoration, very similar to the DWP614 from Dublin. The opening in the guard narrows and copies the offset of the tang. A rare feature that cannot be seen in other gueard, and which is probably the reason why the guard was discovered by a detector, are four symmetrically places metal rivets, which apparently strengthened the crack visible at the top of the object. Dating of this guard is not possible, it stylistically fits into the period defined by us.
Novgorod, НГМ КП 43204/468 А-190/468. A possible candidate for the sword component is a bone or antler object 6.9 cm long, 1 cm high and 1.9 cm thick, which is stored in the Novgorod Museum. This object with a polished surface was found during archaeological excavations at the Troitsky excavation XI-XII in 1998, and may thus fall into the period 10th-13th century. If it were a hilt component, it would probably be the upper guard, judging by the total length.
Organic object stored in the Novgorod Museum.
Taken from the online catalogue of Novgorod Museum.
In the permanent exhibition of the István Dobó Castle Museum in Eger, Hungary, a complete double-edged sword is exhibited, which is strikingly similar to the St. Stephen’s sword. In particular, the guard, which is significantly high, is a good analogy. The pommel, not divided into the fields, has a more pointed shape. According to official information on the museum’s website, the sword is equipped with hilt components made of bone. The blade shows signs of corrosion and the grip is completely missing. The former owner was István Péterváry (1953–2013), a weapon collector from Eger; after his death a part of his bequest was purchased by the Hungarian National Bank and exhibited in the local museum.
Sword exhibited in the István Dobó Castle Museum in Eger, Hungary.
Source: websites of the museum.
In the country where we record the largest number of Early Medieval weapons, we do not know a single example of an organic hilt (discussion with Vegard Vike and Kim Hjardar). The same situation goes with Iceland. However, the above-mentioned mentions from the sagas relate precisely to this space, so it is possible that organic hilts were present there to a limited extent and the physical evidence is simply missing.
As far as organic hilts are concerned, we know of at least two guards and one pommel from Roman times from Friesian mounds found on terps (Roes 1963: 75, Pl. LVIII: 3,4,5). The current version of the catalog of the Leiden Museum shows the guard of Abenaldum, which does not correspond in size to the piece published by Roes (Roes 1963: 75, Pl. LVIII: 5), and is therefore probably another piece that is dated by the museum to 750-900 AD (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden 2021). It is 8.5 cm long and 3 cm wide. In addition, Roes depicts two unspecified objects that are strikingly similar to the findings from Klim and Dublin (Roes 1963: Pl. LVIII: 8,9).
The guard from the Leiden Museum. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden 2021.
The initial inspiration for the creation of this article was a reproduction made by Russian reenactor Alexander Něsterov at the beginning of December 2017. It is a sword constructed on the basis of the components from Birka. The total length of Alexander’s sword is 86 cm. The blade is 70 cm long, 5 cm wide and 5 mm thick. A guard, which is made of elk antler, is put onto the tang. The guard is 9 cm long, 2 cm high and 2.6 cm thick. An interesting fact was that it was necessary to preheat the blade in order to fit the guard well. The grip, which is 10.5 cm long, is formed by an oval block of ash wood. The tang is peened at the upper guard that is 7 cm long, 1.9 cm high and 3.2 cm thick. The pommel cap, which is 6.2 cm long, 2.6 cm high and 2.8 cm thick, is riveted to the upper guard with two iron rivets. The cap is also made of elk antler. The total weight of the sword is 950 grams.
It should be noted that the sword is blunt and designed to fight in current battles. And how does the sword behave? The owner is satisfied – although he is not very skilled with antler, the sword is very comfortable, fits well in the hand and is light. Alexander told us that after several fights, the guard became slightly loose.
Objects such as this sword are often viewed from a safety perspective. If the object is not found safe enough, it is not reproduced. Early Medieval people were practical, and if they required their weapons to provide hand protection, it would not be a problem for them to make such weapons. Short hilts, light shields, the absence of gloves and other protective equipment indicate a special work in which the fighter focuses more on working with the shield. The opponent is constantly checked and the hand is not moved to the exposed positions, so it is permanently hidden behind an advanced shield, from where the cuts are made. For this reason, it is not necessary to look at organic sword components with contempt just because they do not provide sufficient protection.
The article would not have been possible without the help of a number of researchers and friends, whom I had bothered with questions and requests for help for more than a month. In addition to Alexander Něsterov, who gave me an idea, it is mainly Fedir Androščuk (University of Stockholm), James Barrett (University of Cambridge), Michał Bogacki (Museum of the Beginning of the Polish State, Gniezno), Matt Bunker, Sławomir Cegowski, David Constantine, Adam Corsini (Museum of London), Hazel Forsyth (Museum of London), Leszek Gardeła (The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen), Lars Grundvad (Søndersk Museum), Kim Hjardar, Dmitrij Chramcov, Klaudia Karpińska (University of Rzeszów), Tim Jorgensen, Sergej Kainov (National History Museum, Moscow), Jiří Košta (National Museum, Prague), Piotr Kotowicz (Historical Museum in Sanok), Roman Král, Lars Krants Larsen (Museum in Moesgård), Gvido Libmanis, Reiner Liebentraut, János Mesteller, Mikko Moilanen (University of Turku), Anne Pedersen (The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen), Søren Sindbæk (University of Aarhus), Roy Stephenson (Museum of London), David Swift, Anders Söderberg (Sigtuna Museum) and Vegard Vike (Cultural History Museum, Oslo). Thank you!
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