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Wednesday, 17 March 2021

A Story of Swords

Few objects from history summarise power and status better than the sword. Throughout the middle ages, swords would be expensive, reserved for the wealthiest members of society, and rare compared to how widely the media portrays them today. By the era we associate with the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (the 9th to 11th centuries), the skill of sword-smithing had become a fine art, giving swords a near legendary reputation. This example is no exception.

The Viking sword from Bath

It was discovered in the 1980s, on its own, in a ditch outside Bath’s old city walls. It was allegedly still sharp upon discovery, a testament to the quality craftsmanship involved in making this weapon. The blade itself has a black patina which indicates an early method of protecting swords against corrosion, an issue anyone looking after a sword would have to deal with. 

Interestingly, there were small remains of leather and wood fused with the blade, including the scabbard it was buried in. Organic materials do not survive well in most climates, so this was a lucky find and can provide some indication of how scabbards were made in period.

The hilt of the sword; traces of the leather originally wrapped around the tang are still visible

One of the most striking features is the blade inscription. It may look like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Tolkien, but it is one of over a hundred and fifty such examples of inscribed blades from the 9th to 11th century. The most common inscription amongst this group of swords reads ‘the sword of Ulfberht’, which is why these swords are broadly referred to as Ulfberht swords. Other examples do exist, such as ‘the sword of Ingelrii’.  

Surely this is more than just a maker’s mark, perhaps becoming a workshop’s brand as the use of these inscriptions goes on for longer than any individual's lifetime. The runes on this particular blade do not seem to exactly spell ‘Ulfberht’, which could mean it is trying to mimic one of these prestigious blades, or it could just be a spelling error! It is unknown where they originate from, but one popular theory suggests the forge’s location was somewhere along the River Rhine in what is now Germany. To me, it represents how much value swords had in society. It gives a far more complex perspective of power, politics and artistic culture than many other objects from this period can.

Finlay
Placement Student

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