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 From V/R Harry Paget Flashman

26th February '10



  • Thank you very much for posting this, as it is not only relevant to my period of interest but also to my particular area of interest, specifically, Migration Age weaponry.
  • Now, with all the usual disclaimers about judging things from photos, my first reaction is that "it just looks wrong"...
  • As you noted, the blade length is very short for the type, tho' not completely "off the curve" (I'm aware of a few Frankish swords of similar size).  The weight, however, especially for the blade length, is horrifically off the scale.  3+ lbs would be "hefty" for a 30" blade and is almost inconceivable for a weapon with a 23" blade (esp. since the sword would have weighed more before it lost mass and material to rust and decay).   That excess weight is particularly bothersome for Dark Age weapons since iron (and steel) were in far more limited supply than both before and after that time ("bog iron" and meteorites being primary sources, since iron mining had essentially collapsed along with the Roman Empire in the West).  One simply cannot imagine a Dark Age smith, entrusted with that much iron/steel, turning out a short, stout weapon like this.  Could it happen?  One supposes so, but it certainly raises doubts, the way a $250K Ford Taurus would raise doubts.  There ARE $250K cars, but not many Tauruses in that class. 
  • Which brings up the issue of the corrosion/rust.  Invariably blades at this time, if not solidly iron, were pattern-welded (at least in the west, we do not see all steel swords until the advent of the so-called "Ulfbehrt" sword around the 10th C. AD/CE).  Pattern-welding means that one sees very different patterns of rust, differentially affecting the iron portions and the steel portions (hence the validity of your suspicions about the uniformity of the corrosion and/or wear).  In fact, there should be significant differential deterioration near the edge where it was common to apply a band of steel for the cutting edge (and the thinness of the edge should have, again as you observe, also been prone to deterioration), with deterioration especially at the juncture between the steel edging and the main, pattern-welded body of the sword (where one should be able to feel a little "ridge" at the point of joining due to the erosion of the softer/less robust iron).
  • Generally, the blade morphology is okay.  The lack of any fuller is a tad anachronistic for any later Dark Age sword, but not unusual for an early period "semi-spatha" type sword, such as the "Kragehul Bog Sword" (c. 400 AD/CE).  However, the earlier the piece, the more anachronistic the other components look.
  • What bothers me most, however, is the tang and tang/pommel arrangement and shape.   The tang on this piece literally looks like a piece of "square stock" steel.  That is hard to reconcile with not only the bladesmithing techniques of the period but also the cutlery techniques.  A forged blade is essentially "drawn", with the bladesmith's tong holding onto the tang while the heated blade is pounded and shaped, leading, almost invariably, to a flattened taper of the tang.  This thing looks incredibly regular in cross-section, all the way along the entire length of the tang.  Having pounded metal into shape, I just have a hard time imagining such a result coming out of the techniques and technology of the time.
  • Beyond that, of course, there was a perfectly good reason for a blade's tang to be flattened and tapered.  Once the blade was shaped and tempered, it would be turned over to the cutler for application of the "furniture" (guard, hilt, pommel, etc.).  A tapered tang meant that these pieces could be forced down over the taper, wedging the piece ever more solidly as the item is pushed further toward the blade (quite understandably critical if you've ever tried to use a sword with a "wobbly" grip).  At the end of the process, the relatively small tip of the tang would protrude from the butt end of the pommel, where it would be peened over, securely fastening the pommel and lower pieces to the blade and ensuring a particularly tight fit which would proof the guard and hilt/handle from loosening under blows.   I simply cannot imagine trying to peen the tang of this thing over anything and the regular shape of the tang would almost guarantee that the grip and guard would loosen just over time, even absent the rigors of battle. 
  • Which brings us to the pommel itself.  Regrettably, it's very hard to tell, from the pictures, exactly what I'm looking at.  What it looks like is that this square "thing" at the end is either an integral part of or welded to the tang, a construction technique I have never seen on any ancient "assembled" blade (to distinguish it from cast swords, such as one encounters, fairly routinely, during the Bronze Age).   I simply cannot imagine what this thing was or how it was assembled.  It makes no sense, even if I postulate some kind of "sandwich" pommel construction (such sandwiching being more common on the guard than the pommel, tho' occasionally seen in the pommel's construction).  If, in fact, that square "thing" on the end is the totality of the pommel, then I'd call this a fake of the worst sort - a pommel is a counterweight to the blade, a very functional part of the sword, but this little plate of metal isn't sufficient to counterbalance anything (let alone an unfullered, 3 lb. blade). 
  • The square shape of the pommel is, as you observe, unusual, but not disqualifying, since I've seen at least one exemplar (from about 600-700 AD/CE) with a pommel vaguely resembling a square based "step pyramid".  Nonetheless, such a pommel shape would be very uncomfortable to use, tho', frankly, most Dark Age swords suffer from that defect. 
  • Which brings us to the guard.  Again, I'm hampered in working from a photo, but it almost looks like this guard is integral to the blade/tang. almost as tho' cast in place.  Again, that is NOT a construction technique seen in Dark Age swords.  The morphology of the guard is also questionable, being virtually as long as the late 10th C. Gaddhjalt style, albeit far broader than that type (guards on most Dark Age swords are either minimal or so small as to look odd to the modern eye).  Put simply, I've never seen anything remotely like it in any authenticated Dark Age/Migration Period sword, altho' my 8 year old granddaughter has a modern, Chinese made "cadet sized" sword (meant to imitate a Dark Age sword) which has a similar shape (indeed, the more I look at this, the more I wonder it this isn't the same sword, artificially aged so as to be passed off as an "ancient weapon" - btw, after noting that similarity, I went and measured the blade on hers and it matches the dimensions on yours).
  • I should note that the tang, between the guard and pommel, also seems rather long, almost as long as one might see in a later "bastard sword", tho' a "bastard sword" with a 23 inch blade would, indeed, be a "bastard".
  • Now, there are other doubts, but that should be adequate to the purpose.  It might also be that, were I to examine it in person, I might see something which completely changed my mind, but, right now, I am not convinced it is a genuine "Dark Age"/"Migration Period" sword.  It simply doesn't look "right".
  • Can I say, absolutely, that it is not a genuine "Migration Period" sword?  No.  Would I buy it?  Absolutely not.  At least not without having it thoroughly evaluated by someone qualified to do so.


Hope those observations help.



Thanks very much for that most comprehensive and interesting response.

Do you have any thoughts about the frequently found offset nature of the blade/hilt arrangment as thought about and written about on the previous page by the initial contributor?

My own thoughts are that it is possible that there is indeed a preferred grip and hence in the way the swords were used, also a preferred edge which becomes more blunted and indeed damaged than the other edge and has to be more sharpened and honed....and therefore the offset  allows for the actual loss of metal on one side.



It's easy to forget how those new to antiquities can be easily deceived. We all started out  like that!

And to demonstate how easy ths can happen, look at this sword in The London Museum ; 8th - 9th century. It is the closest I can find to the piece under consideration.



27th Feb /10

I haves ubsequently found another example with this very angular "block" type of arrangment on a Viking sword. This piece was excavated at a Viking grave found n the proposed Waterford City by-pass in Ireland.




Contemporary "fake" Viking Ulfberht swords.


I'm sure that all interested in ancient swords will know about this, but others might not.

In  a report in The Guardian,  in December 2008, it was  announced that some of the most famous Viking swords in many  collections are counterfeit. In as much as carrying the makers name of  Ulfbehrt which had until now been thought to be associated only with the finest of blades  made from ingots of crucible steel brought by the Norsemen from  mines in Persia, Afghanistan and India.

However, there appear ear to by many Viking swords, carrying this illustrious name which are made from  iron mined in northern Europe with about a third as much carbon in it. The blades will  have nevertheless been very sharp  as they were hardened by quenching, which although allowing for a very sharp  also made the metal brittle and liable to breaking when up against a foe with a  better  higher carbon content steel blade.



 The age of these  "fakes" is much the same as the genuine high carbon Ulfbehrt swords.


In the 11th century the trade route to the east  was blocked by Russians and the supply of steel with high carbon content ended. The demand for the Ulfberht swords  was met  and  lower  quality "fake" flooded the Scandinavian market.


A private collector brought a Viking sword to the Wallace Collection Museum in  London and  Dr. Allan Williams, archaeometallurgist and a consultant to the Wallace collection discovered that the collector's sword was an ancient "fake", whereas the Wallace's was "genuine".  In collaboration with Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, London, Dr. Williams was able to prove that other famous collections have a few counterfeit Ulfberhts with the same inferior steel.



Although this is what the newspaper article said  I have found that elsewhere stated that Dr Williams  and Tony Fry, made the discovery as a result of trying to work out why some Ulfberht swords survived intact, but others are found as fragments on battle sites or in graves. And that thoer work threw new interesting light on the ancient Viking trade  routes and the metallurgical practices of the Dark Ages genrally.



At  the  NPL they used a highly calibrated Scanning Electron Microscope to determine the carbon contents of the steel samples provided. It analysed very small specimens (1mm in diameter) from Viking-age swords obtained from various museums in Norway and Finland.

The results showed that the swords were made of imperfectly melted steel - consisting of a mixture of iron and carbonaceous materials heated together to give high-carbon steel. NPL's results match descriptions of ancient sword making in Herat (now in Afghanistan) described by ninth century Arab philosopher and writer Al-Kindi. This links to a known Viking trade route down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Iran but until now it was not known that Vikings had brought crucible steel back to Scandinavia and integrated ancient Arab steelmaking methods with their own swordsmithing.



The National Physical Laboratory's Tony Fry said:



"Our role at NPL was to use our measurement expertise to analyse tiny fragments of Viking swords and determine the source of the steel used by the Vikings to make them. Standard methods using atlases of microstructures to compare optical images with an image in a book, is a difficult method to use, it is subjective and prone to generalisations. By mixing scientific expertise with a top of the range Electron Microscope we were able to provide a quantifiable value, rather than the standard qualitative approach of using an atlas, and enlighten our understanding of trade in the middle ages."



Dr Alan Williams, Consultant Archaeometallurgist at the Wallace Collection, said:



"Sword making in Viking times was important work, to the point that the best smiths had their work imitated and copied. On their travels, the Vikings were keen to pick up any innovative new means of improving their sword-making, but until now we haven't known where they have sourced some of their materials. The results from NPL confirm for the first time that the material analysed was brought by the Vikings from the Middle East to the Baltic area - and thrown new light on an important trade route that was in use until the 11th Century."




These "fake" Ulfbehrt swords may not have been  swords designed to "pass off" as "genuine" Ulfberhts though most certainly the makers of the blades would have known that they were using "inferior metal.  

 "Ulfberht " may have been  simply a family name used by a "company" . The original Ulfberht had most likely lived  and worked  near modern day Solingen on the Middle Rhine, in the mid 800's. There are a large  number  of known Ulfberht swords , in excess of 1100 known, with deposit dates spanning more that one man's life time.

 The Ulfberht  business continuing, whether with original family members or not , would have had to change it's production techniques to adapt to the material available to it. They may well have used both the good crucible steel or early Medieval-style blister steel, depending on what they had in stock. Whether or not they told their customers we will never know!