Saturday, January 12, 2008

Impact of Viking Age Weapons

This is a more general commentary, and may already be well known to my readers. I had taken the time for a measured reply to the inquiry, so figured it would fill todays submission to Hammered Out Bits...

Nick wrote:

>I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about Viking metals
>technology vs those employed by other societies at the time. The series
>has a heavy science focus, and we would like to compare the strength and
>durability of Viking metals with those of opponents they faced. There
>may well have been little difference (in which case we will not
>concentrate on this) but we feel that our viewers would be very
>interested in the intricacies of how Vikings welded as well as wielded
>their weapons.

There are a couple of factors that lead to 'the Vikings' having the reputation that they did historically.

The largest one is a cultural / environmental aspect. The rugged geography of Scandinavia was harsh, it bred strong people. Most Norse lived in widely separated extended family farmsteads. This gave a rugged individualism with close ties to kin and band. Farming was herding, which means a high protein diet - which leads to increased body size. In a world where strength and length of arm were critical in combat, the Norse were just simply bigger and tougher.
That geography also shaped religion and world view. To the Norse the powers were big, aloof, and unknowable. All a person could do was struggle and hope to survive. Even the gods would go to their destruction in the final battle at worlds end, so what could mere men expect? They also were the last pagans in a Europe fully turned Christian.

The single greatest weapon in the arsenal of the Vikings was the longship. The geography of rugged mountain interiors surrounded by coastlines often cut by fjords and bracketed by islands directed people to the sea. The longship was composed of flexible planks, clinker built and pegged and riveted to each other - rather than nailed to a rigid frame. The graceful curves of the hull rode up over the waves, with a long keel allowing for tacking against the wind. Drawing hardly any water even fully loaded, the warships could be rowed as well as sailed. Combined with the sophisticated technology of the longhip was a well developed set of navigation skills. Only the Norse could tell their relative position out of site of land.

One weapon favoured by the Vikings (especially the Danes) had not been largely absent on the battlefield for a long time. This was the axe. Ranging from lighter throwing axes to two handed battle axes, these weapons can be devastating in combat. Modern conceptions of weight and size are totally incorrect. A single hand axe (balanced by a left hand shield) would range one kilo or less. Even a two handed axe on a one metre haft would rarely mass more than two kilos. An axe has huge destructive impact when swung with two hands - but it also has hardly any defensive capability. Truly a weapon for the fearless, the Berserk.

The methods of smelting iron were similar throughout Europe during the period from the end of the Roman era to about the times of the Crusades. Mostly iron rich bog ore was smelted in simple flask shaped furnaces into metal blooms of wrought iron. Source ore could differ considerably (why some areas developed better reputations for quality ironwork) and generally the ore available in Scandinavia was of high quality. Wrought iron forges well under the hammer, but is a relatively soft material. It will bend rather than break when stressed, but is not hard enough to hold a cutting edge. By selecting (or creating) iron with a higher carbon content, the result was a type of steel. This metal can be treated to make it hard enough to stay sharp, but at the cost of becoming brittle and prone to shatter. The 'bladesmith's dilemma' is how to balance the requirements of a long cutting edge against the basic restrictions of the metals available a the time. An ideal sword needs to hold its edge in use, but also needs to be flexible enough to absorb the shock of combat. The simplest solution to this dilemma is to weld a piece of hard steel on to a core of softer iron, a technique developed by blade makers all over the world. In the North, this basic principle was further refined to create some of the most complex forged objects ever seen.

In terms of metallurgy, the one significant technology originally developed by the Saxons, and widely employed by the Norse was the technique of PATTERN WELDING. A pile of alternating hard and soft plates were forge welded into a solid block of many layers. Several of these blocks were then drawn out to thin rods. The rods were then twisted, alternating right and left hand twists, sometimes in complex sequences. The carefully prepared rods were then forge welded down their long lengths to create the core section of a blade. The effect of this layered and twisted core was like laying a series of coil springs down the centre of the sword - it would flex under strain but snap back to true without damage. To this prepared core (sometimes composed of as many as 8 twisted rods) would be next welded a cutting edge. These edge pieces may have been a single hard steel, or might themselves be composed of blocks stacked, welded, folded and welded again to create many layers. The final welded blank would then be forged to shape, laboriously polished and finished with a functional cross hilt.
Such blades were the work of master craftsmen, often of royal caliber. They bore names, and became heirloom objects. A sword might have a larger legend than the man who carried it.

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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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