Thursday, March 04, 2010

'Knife? THATS not a Knife...'

A short commentary (again) on belt knives in the Viking Age...

To my regular Readers:
I have been up to my neck with a huge amount of planning work: DARC at LAM 2010, CanIRON 8 in 2011, plus some family stuff that has ate up a lot of time. I'm also labouring away at a paper to be delivered at Forward Into the Past on March 27. Oh, and the two weeks of Smeltfest is almost on me too. Sorry that new materials for Hammered Out Bits have been a bit thin of late. Writing for this plus two other blogs will do that to you!

This is an older piece I had saved 'just in case', altered from a posting to the NORSEFOLK discussion list...

'Spence' said :

In ... modern times I think, (despite some historical evidence to the contrary), for a blade to be regarded as a Seax, it must have the “broke back” construction. Anything else is just a knife...

I have been interested in the subject of Knives of the Viking Age. On clear problem, there is not a single reference work for knives the way there is for swords of the period. (PLEASE give a reference if anyone is aware!) There is the very excellent CD by Dan Carlson of the Gotland finds, and also a large number of the Coppergate/York materials described in 'Anglo-Scandinavian Ironwork'. I know there were a huge number of knives recovered at Woods Quay / Dublin, but as far as I am aware the descriptions have not been published. I believe there was a large number recovered from the Birka excavations as well, but I have not found a publication on those (??) My own 'Exploring Viking Age Denmark' has images of a good number of knives from various museums around that country, but admittedly there is not a lot of details recorded on the individual objects (sorry).

I did work up a general overview of the Gotland and Coppergate blades as part of a long term project I have been working on. I'm sure I have mentioned this before - the survey is available here:

Although there are a small number of sword length knives existing from the viking age, these really should be considered ' unusual' (IMO). Even 'fighting knife' sizes are not at all common. Here consider blades over about 6 inches. The majority of samples from Gotland and Coppergate , and what I saw in Denmark, are all in the range of 3- 4 inches (7 - 10 cm sizes). Now, a clear argument can be made from a number of angles as to why smaller objects might be more like to become 'lost' than larger in an urban setting like York. But considering a good number of the samples from Denmark and Gotland are grave deposits, it remains pretty clear that most knives are small. (The topic of longer 'sword seaxes' was discussed at some length recently on the excellent 'Bladesmith's Forum' hosted by bladesmith Don Fogg.)

I do not find this at all surprising. I think those of us with a lot of miles and/or experience in the field will agree that the most useful size for a general purpose tool knife is around 4 inches. It is important as re-enactors to remember that to the Norse, a knife was a tool, not a weapon.

On blade shapes:
I would define the main feature of the seax type as being the straight cutting edge - as well as the straight clipped point.
Most will actually have a slight lift to the point off that dead straight cutting edge, a slight curve up towards the point. This is a result of the mechanics of forging. In reality, you have to go to some special effort to even get a straight edge when forging a blade. The same goes for the straight top downward angle (clip).
Not all artifact blades will be wider just at the top of that diagonal clip than they are at the base of the tang (where the hilt is attached). There are some samples with very long, sometimes even curved clips to the point.
Just as a point of comparison, the 'natural' shape to a single edged blade is something that looks like an 1850's Bowie or modern Marine K-bar. If you start with a rectangular bar, forge a point, then thin out one side to an edge - thats the shape that develops.

So, as a bladesmith, I find the variations in shape to Viking Age mens knives perfectly understandable. The size is a perfect balance between ideal useful size and conservation of expensive materials. The general 'style' as an ideal is a straight cutting edge, point in line with the edge, with a straight line along the back of the blade, and a straight diagonal line down from back to point. There would be expected to be slight variations from those 'classic' lines by individual blacksmiths (based on skill and personal preferences). We also have to consider a possible effect on shape based on regional styles and drift in pattern over time. (Two important points I don't think anyone mentioned).

We had been discussing individual knives this weekend in relation to DARC's upcoming Vinland presentation. One of the fellows made a very good observation : What is a knife to a Viking raider would be considered a sword to a simple farmer - and completely out of the question for an urban dweller.

1 comment:

Ragnvaeig said...

Andrew Halpin published on some of the Dublin material in 2008 under the title Weapons and Warfare in Viking and Medieval Dublin, and the National Museum of Ireland has copies for sale.


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