Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On Viking Age KNIVES

The following from a (long winded) post related to an ongoing discussion on the Dark Ages Re-creation Company list on suitable knives for the Viking Age...

> All the ON knives I've seen or seen pictures of have been single edge -
> Romans had double edged daggers and there is a Merovingian short sword /
> fighting knife that I think is double edged, and some very short double
> edged swords / long daggers from immediately post-Roman Briton. This
> doesn't seem to have carried over into the Scandinavian world / Viking age.

> I haven't seen any good sites discussing ON period fighting knives, but
> there is some interesting martial arts work being done in the US these days
> on Bowie knife techniques which could be very similar due to similar blade
> size & clip point shape....
> (Steve)

Just from a technical standpoint - and based on real sloppy memory. Much to my embarrassment, I find I have NO reference images on my own web sites! You should also check the earlier blog entry discussing general knife construction.

Most of the VA knives are short - in the 4 - 6 inch range. They almost all without exception have no cross guards. As I may have mentioned, these are grouped in two types:

Woman's knives are long thin triangles, tend to be relatively thin - maybe 3/4 of an inch or so at the handle. Think of a kitchen paring knife. As might be expected, these blades are lighter and more suited to food preparation and textile working. Expect the 'hanging pouch' type of scabbard.

As a base blade for these, the Russel 'Ripper' blades are about perfect. These as finished blade blanks (no handles) can be had from Atlanta Cutlery or Log Cabin Sport Shop (my past supplier). Cost is about $8 US plus the shipping. The Russels will have to get their full tang ground down to a thinner width. The best version of this I've made up is Bera's knife (ask to see it this weekend).

I've got one of these two - but its from the pre DARC days and has an etched blade and the full width tang with riveted slabs. (Those with long memories will remember the days when I had sold hundreds of these in Ealdormere!) Not suitable on four counts...

Mens knives tend to be the seax shape. Basically a straight edge, with a diagonal line down from the back that creates the point. The back may slope slightly upwards from the handle to the start of that diagonal. There are some that have the back parallel to the edge, or even sloping down slightly from the handle (more on this).

Now, within the seax type - there would appear to be 'kind of' three general size and shape ranges:

Small Tool - these tend to the four inch range. Generally the blades have the parallel back and edge, although there may be some widening to the tip. As might be expected, these are by far the most common. They represent the basic tool type - a more robust knife than the classic womans blade , as suits heavier general working tasks. Again expect the hanging pouch scabbard.

Heavy Hacking - There are a range of samples that run from the top end of the small tool range (about 6 inches) up to maybe 12 inches plus. These blades are wider and thicker, and generally tend to the shape that is tapers wider from the handle to the start of the diagonal line. Again generally the straight edge, but more likely to have a slight upwards curve near the point. (This is a function of the forging process by the way.) This style of blade is most likely to be worn across the back - with two suspension loops holding the blade parallel to the ground.
The construction with the width just back of the point places the greatest mass forward - such blades would hit heavy, but not move fast. Note again the lack of any guard for the hand. These blades are great for splitting kindling, but basically too awkward for any other purpose that that - or fighting. Steve's comment about parallels with the American version of the ancient 'clip point' shape are well taken.

'Knife / Sword' - The last class is much longer - with samples ranging closer to 18 to 24 inches (there is one in the British Museum that is closer to 30 plus inches!) These are more likely to have a slight taper from the handle to the start of the diagonal - and are relatively narrow in proportion to the great length. Although the length puts them into the range of short swords, they remain single edged and without guards. (I actually can't think of any artifact samples that we would consider a 'short sword' from the Viking Age.) I have seen one artifact sample that was locked inside a sheet bronze scabbard. (My own 'Serpent's Tongue' is based on that artifact.) The scabbard had two suspension loops, but the length was such that it would have been only practical to wear the blade on a baldric. The blade hangs edge UP - as seen with Oriental short swords.
Taken altogether, this suggests a light, fast moving and extremely sharp cutting blade. Likely useless against armour, but quite effective against 'street clothes'. I'd suggest looking to Japanese technique as a model.

So the long and short (da!) of it is that we should be looking to smaller knives in the two distinctive sex linked blade shapes, ideally with pouch scabbards. Good references are the 'Knives and Scabbards' book in the London Museum series and the "Ferrous Metalwork' book in the York series. There are supposed to have been something like 500 knives uncovered in Dublin at Woods Quay - but that has not been published yet.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

"Outlander' - Norse film objects

What I've Been Up To # 4

I was contacted about a week after I got home from the Goderich Celtic College and Festival by Ian Greg - a well known Halifax area set designer.

'Outlander' is a feature film being shot in Nova Scotia, with principle photography scheduled to start October 1. The story is set in Sweden circa the early Viking Age. Ian is in the process of building a small Norse village with about a dozen structures. Along with the chieftains hall and various other dwellings, there will be a blacksmith's shop. Ian has a reputation for attempting to get historical details as accurate as possible (given this IS the world of film!).

The plot of Outlander is best described as 'Beowulf meets Alien'. Add a science fiction twist to the ancient Saxon story of hero's and monsters. Make both the hero and the monster from a crash landed space ship. No technology other than what is local. Depending on how the story is treated, this could actually work quite well (but once again - this IS the world of film!)

This is a fan based plot overview :

I have been asked to provide a wide range of historically accurate cookware and tools. All the pieces are being created to 'replica' standards - the forms are based in most cases on known artifacts. Most pieces are heavily forged mild steel, with things like arc welds used and then surface dressed to hide them. There are a wide range of cook pots of various sizes and materials. I will be taking a bit of effort on the decorative cauldron hanger, as I can see it may end up in a number of film shots.

So - it looks like September is back to the Viking Age:
Labour Day - Iron Smelt with all VA equipment at the 'Baron's Howe' SCA event
Sept 15 & 17 - 'The Vikings Return', a presentation by DARC in Rhode Island
... and a pile of stuff to make for Outlander.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Norse Meat Spit - Period Fluxes?

Joel wrote:

> ... I was trying to reproduce a roasting spit artifact from the Lund
> It looked in the picture like the pointy end was tripled back on itself
> and "apparently" forge welded. We tried this, and it worked quite
> well, producing a replica that looks just like the picture. Here's the
> question. Assuming Viking Age smiths could forge weld, what did they use
> for flux? Borax wasn't found in Scandinavia was it? Do you know how
> they did it? ...

As it happens I have to make up one of these same sword spits latter
this week. (This as part of a package of Viking Age domestic ware and
tools being ordered for a film under production - more on that in an
upcoming post here!)

The object under consideration is a type of Viking Age meat spit called
a 'sword spit' . The artifact is from Lund, Sweden and is dated to 1000
- 1050. Its total length is 111 cm. Roughly the front quarter (about 30
cm) is flattened to a long rectangular sectioned point. There are two
short prongs which bend forward at the base of the blade, which look to
be round profile and end in points. The remainder of the shaft is square
cross section, all twisted in one direction. The far end is equipped
with a ring held by a simple loop.

Viking to Crusader (Number 62 page 244) describes it as having " the
prongs being cut from the shaft and bent forward"
Viking Artifacts (Number 46 page 17 / 201) describes it " At the base
of the blade the outside edges are cut and bent to form prongs parallel
to it."
Both the books have images too small to see this kind of detail.

I can see maybe three ways of doing this:

1 - shaft and sword are one piece, two smaller rods welded on for the
prongs (a pain to wire on the small pieces while heating)

2) sword is flat stock, slit back at one end for prongs. Shaft is lap
welded on to this. The long shaft could also have a short slit made in
it (Imagine the blade with a short taper between the barbs > >- and a
matching V slit on the shaft. This is how I intend to do it by the way)

3) one thicker piece. Two diagonal slits made that get lifted away to
form the prongs. The blade is forged (slightly drawn out). Then the
length of the shaft is drawn out.

I have never been able to find a close up image of the artifact, or have
never seen it in person. (if YOU have I'd really appreciate a jpeg of
the thing - especially at the joint!)

One general comment; In the Viking Age, the source material would be
shorter and thicker 'currency bars'. These are typically about 5/8 to
3/4 square and about 12 - 18 inches long. I doubt a single one would
provide enough material for the Lund spit. For the Norse smith, the more
obvious way to work would be at the least to make the head from one bar
and the shaft from another. ( If I was REALLY doing a high end
reproduction I would try working down from the thicker stock!)

A second consideration - which is going to lead to your second question.
Remember that this would have been WROUGHT IRON (technically bloomery
iron) rather than our modern mild steel. This changes how you make a lot
of things, as the material has a distinctive grain to it from slag
occlusions during its smelting from ore. This would assist you in
determining the actual method used originally - if you had detailed
photos or the object to look at. Things like welds and joined pieces
show up pretty clearly on the artifacts.

This relates back to the welding. Period iron is to a certain extent
'self fluxing'. Often no extra flux is required to weld it. I have to
admit that I always use borax - even on the few times I have forged
welded antique wrought iron. (Which frankly has not been all that often,
as I save the material I do have for layered steel work primarily.) This
mainly on the better safe than sorry theory. Borax is what I have always
used - the cheaper washing soda variety.
You are correct that Borax was not available to northern Europe
historically. (This came up as a discussion topic just this week on
ARCHMETALS - but in the context of bronze casting and smelting.)

I have read and heard that traditional English smithing uses 'fine white
sand' for flux. This is a silica sand? I can't imagine the quartz sand
more typical here in Ontario would melt at forging temperatures. Again
one of the things thats on the (too long) list of things to try!

Hope some of this helps


Friday, August 18, 2006

Where is He??

To my regular readers:

First - thanks for bothering!

I have been trying to get something up at least twice a week. Generally I've also been trying to keep to topics related to the Viking Age and Metalwork. As Steve commented after the Lebanon post, better to stay focussed and avoid the black pit of political commentary.

From August 5 through August 15 I was involved at the Celtic College and Festival at Goderich Ontario. This is an extremely intense 10 days. I always come home entrenched in the viewpoint of the artist and sympethetic to the Irish. Now have to quickly switch gears and get back to the Viking Age and museum related work.

There is a new feature film being shot in Nova Scotia. Its set in Sweden in the early Viking Age. They are creating a village set with about a dozen buildings, with principle photography starting about Oct 1. I was asked to provide a rush quote for a wide range of cookware, tools and other metal objects. Like usual, now its hurry up and wait. Will see how this works out.

Labour Day is our anual trek to Bonfield (near North Bay) Steve Mulhburger is an ancient friend who holds a camping event on this farm over that weekend. This year the theme is the Viking Age. DARC will be undertaking an iron smelt using all period equipment and what we have learned on historic method. One element to this smelt will be that we will be working inside a replica of House site J at L'Anse aux Meadows. In past years a cut out on the same measurements as found at LAM has been constructed, and we intend to base the smelter and positioning of equipment on the archaeology. Hopefully our smelt in the same arrangement of space may contribute to our understanding of what may have happened in Vinland circa 1000 AD.

After that project - a team from DARC will be traveling to Rhode Island for a weekend demonstration at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology (of Brown University). Neil Peterson has constructed a large event web site featuring images of DARC team members. Worth a look at :

Considering a Knife

Taken from a comment posted to NORSEFOLK:

I would suggest anyone considering a knife start with looking at the
BLADE - not the handle. You are purchasing a cutting tool are you not?

Blades that are ground from a bar will have a certain look to them.
Simple straight lines and flat faces. Often machine cut groves (which
are not commonly found on any historic knives - fullers are intended to
keep the weight down on swords). Modern taste is to a highly polished
surface - which is NOT going to be found on VA blades. No high speed
belt sanders or rubber abrasive disks!

Consider the material used for the blade. A higher carbon content means
a harder and more rigid blade. It will stay sharp longer - but at the
cost of brittleness. A small fine cutting or carving knife can be
effective when made of high carbon (like 1095). Its not what you want
with a heavy hacking tool or weapon. More flexibility is required with
extreme use, so something closer to a mid carbon spring steel (like
1045) is better.

This hardness can be controlled by the tempering process. Avoid blades
that are oven tempered. Zone tempering by eye - in the hands of someone
experienced - is the absolute best method to combine some flex to a
blade while retaining edge hardness.

Anyone serious about historic accuracy should avoid any kind of modern
alloy. Nickel based 'stainless steel' is VERY modern. Remember that any kind of plain carbon steel will RUST - if not properly taken care off. Acidic foods (onions) will discolour the blade with time, this dark grey is a natural patina. The blade must be wiped clean after every use. Between events the metal should be lightly oiled to protect it. I recommend a light machine or motor oil for tool knives and a vegetable oil for food preparation blades.

Also take a look at the range and distribution of artifact samples inside your historic period of interest. What I mean here is the modern tenancy to have everyone carry a honkin huge fighting knife. Most historic (Viking Age) blades are in the size range of 4 inches.
There is a clear distinction between woman's and mens knives in the Dark
Ages (yes - a generalization!). Typical mens
knives are small seax shapes. Typical womens knives are long slender
triangles with a single cutting edge. The large fighting knives are a
separate class (and I would suggest a man with a 12" fighting knife
along his back also has a 4" small seax in a belt hung pouch scabbard at
his front - for eating!).

Early period knives all seem to have these small rat tail tangs. Considering
the softer metal most are made from - this seems to be a bad design. But
there it is, you look to the samples. Generally I suggest people look
for a wider tang construction - as this is the constriction at the tang
from the blade is the weakest part of the knife.

Most Viking Age knives use a tube shaped handle. This explains the rod tang.
Regardless of the material in the handle, the most common attachment
method is to drill a hole in a solid block of material. The tang fits
through the block - and is peened over the opposite end to hold the
handle in place. Modern construction is to either rivet or most commonly
epoxy two slabs together for the handle.

The handle material may be wood or antler. Few samples survive. Those that do often have decorative carving on the surface.

Now, there may be a butt plate that fits over the handle before the tang
is peened over. This is done to act as a washer to hold the handle
solid. This piece may be decorated - but is more likely to be a simple disk.

There will not be any kind of guard.

Generally - the small tool knives seem to be carried by everyone - age
and sex regardless. The pouch style scabbard is also typical. I'd refer
anyone to the excellent documentation that exists for York. There is
also a Knives and Scabbards' volume on Medieval London that includes a
lot of VA materials. (There is supposed to be a huge number of knives
from Viking Dublin - but this has not been published yet - grrr!)

Too much stress is placed on fighting knives by modern re-enactors, to the exclusion of what the artifact evidence shows is most common.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Reforging Iron in Pictish Scotland - Number Two

Evelyn is researching background for a novel set in the Viking Age. This is my second set of answers to questions she has posed. For those technical experts out there, remember this is pitched to someone who has no training in metals and has been getting often conflicting information off the web.
I'm including this edited version on the blog mainly because some of your might find the answers of interest...

> The candle sconce I referred to would be found in a monastery in Eastern Scotland

My suggestion here is based on the fact that candle sconces have one historic problem:
You just do not find what most people think of as candle sconces during the Viking Age.
There are a couple of very small and very simple candle holders - not much more than three short bars as legs that are joined together and have a spike to hold the candle. There is one set of oil lamps from Oseberg (Norway c 825) which are a long bar about a meter long with a small dish to hold oil on the end. These are ROYAL quality objects.
So the classic looking long bar upright with legs and candle cups just does not exist in pre Conquest Scotland.

>I'm wondering if you'd have an opinion on whether the sconce or similar would be likely to be pig iron (and hence soft) or a harder quality of iron - given the times.

Pig Iron is part of a technology that is most definitely POST MEDIEVAL. Entirely the wrong method for the Viking Age - this technology is several hundred years into that future!
Pig Iron refers to a method were the rock ore is converted into the smelter into a high carbon, liquid CAST IRON. This metal is tapped out of the smelter and let run into channels dug into a floor covered with sand. The individual blocks radiate out from a central line in a shape suggestive of piglets suckling - thus the blocks are called Pig Iron. The term thus refers to the shape of the block - not the metal content.
On top of this, the metal in a pig is high carbon cast iron. You can not forge this metal - it is extremely brittle and one hammer blow will shatter it into small fragments. In the Dark Ages such cast iron might be produced in a badly controlled bloomery smelter. Since that metal could not be further worked by forging - it was considered spoiled and may have been recycled. Note that the Chinese figured out how to work with liquid cast iron many centuries before this was achieved in Europe.
Ok? - you are looking at post 1600 or latter technology here.

>.. would make a lousy knife and sword because it would be too soft to hold an edge. And I imagine there would be a lot of skill required to pattern weld pig iron with a stronger iron or steel to forge a blade, so... it makes more sense for the character to reforge something of a better quality of iron.

Remember that the metals you have available to the Viking Age are all formed in a bloomery smelter. The primary material will be similar to wrought iron (Which if you get really technical actually a specific physical method which is roughly post 12 - 1300 AD).
But lets not write an archaeological report! Lets say most objects are forged from wrought iron, which is soft as you say. Not the best thing for a weapon.
Bear in mind however, that the selection of metal hardness available in the Viking Age is not like today's selection of A / B / C. In the VA, there would be a range of hardness (carbon content) between individual pieces in a pretty much random basis. Even one bloom mass (ore to metal in the smelter) will have graduations across it.
Now back up. Because of the random nature of the starting metal, and the high cost in terms of skilled labour required to turn ore to metal, the range of quality in early period knives is extreme. The carbon content (thus the hardness and edge holding) varies a lot. Again, the point of reference to the Dark Ages person is quite different than our modern one!

>Any suggestions what this might be - given the monastery theme?

You might consider that large objects of iron were in fact extremely expensive and difficult to construct. In short - high status objects. Forged iron staffs as a symbol of wealth or position are found from the Viking Age (Although these are linked to 'wise women' involved in the ritual of Sa∂er... its own long story.) A cross of forged iron would not be inconceivable as a status ritual object.
If you wanted a real kicker - have the source object be a 'crucifixion nail'. About the right size for a knife. If all the nails that are attributed to Christ were in one place - you could build a battleship!

> Also, I know the following (heat treating) processes are somewhat secret, however I'm not sure what the term "anneal" means.

Secret inside a Dark Ages context. Easy to find in outline in modern print! Heat treating has three phases:
Anneal / cool slow, / soften and remove stress
Harden / cool fast / hardens
Both of those are done from 'above critical' - for ease lets say at about blood red colour (about 900 - 1000 F)
Temper / low heat and cool fast / REMOVES some of the hardness
Temper is the least understood. This process involves heating the blade up gradually to some range between roughly 400 - 800 F. As this is done, a hint of colour crawls over the surface. Different colours relate to different amounts of softening. Depending on the tool and the metal used, you might want different hardness in different parts of the blade.
Typical for a heavy tool knife is using a mid carbon steel, quenching in oil and pulling the temper to straw on the edge and blue along the back.

> Would the forge fire be a different colour when it is cooler than when it is hot? (Blue when hot and orange when cool?). Or would it be guesswork given that he'd be applying less charcoal and pumping the bellows less quickly?

Yes - but you are using propane as your reference (blue?). Colour shift goes red / orange / yellow / white / brilliant white. Those are the metal colours btw. The smith is concerned with the change in the METAL - not the fuel.

> I believe the heat for reforging pig iron is 1150 degrees Celsius. Is a stronger heat required for a stronger iron or steel?

Too technical for your purposes. As the carbon content or alloy content of the metal changes to create a harder and tougher metal, the amount of heat you have to apply before you can have any effect when hammering also increases. In extremely rough form: you can work wrought iron red, mild steel orange and mid carbon steel dull yellow. As the alloy toughens you also have to do more work. A the same temperature, wrought iron the size of your thumb, mild steel like your ring finger and carbon steel like your little finger would move the same amount if hit as hard (again really rough estimate!).
Remember that no one could measure ANY of these temperatures absolutely until the Industrial Age - like post 1860's. Temperature is determined relatively, by colour. (Why blacksmith's shops are kept dark with few windows to achieve consistent light levels inside.)

> I'm also wondering about the shape of the tongs. Because they have to be long enough to afford the blacksmith protection from the heat as well as strong enough to hold the iron being forged... would they be scissor shaped? I couldn't find a picture of the tongs on the 'Adventures in Iron Smelting' page 23, (which refers to smelting tools for blooms) although reference is made to Bloom Tongs on page 24 and how the blacksmith's tongs from Norse finds are small. Are Bloom Tongs and Tongs one and the same?

Vast difference in size! The bloom tongs we use are based on VA style - but there are no artifact examples of that specialized type. The heat radiated out the top of a smelter when extracting a bloom is simply intense. Bloom tongs are also designed to grip a mass roughly the size of a football.
Look instead at the World of the Norse - Town House - Blacksmith's Shop. You could also search under 'Mastermyr Tool Box' - there is a very good reproduction made by a group of American smiths a while back that is documented on the web.

This is a set of hammer, tongs and currency bars I made for the L'Anse aux Meadows 'Encampment' program.

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

COPYRIGHT NOTICE - All posted text and images @ Darrell Markewitz.
No duplication, in whole or in part, is permitted without the author's expressed written permission.
For a detailed copyright statement : go HERE