Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Blacksmithing Skills in the Viking Age

Abstract: How widespread were blacksmithing skills in the Viking Age? The popular view (supported by many authors who should know better) is that almost any man could work as a smith. Another look at the archaeology placed against a better understanding of the actual complexity of the skills may revise this opinion...

(Adapted from a post to NORSEFOLK)

One of the nine skills a man should aspire to is 'some understanding of the working of iron'.

I can play at tafl,
Nine skills I know,
Rarely forget I the runes,
I know of books and smithing,
I know how to slide on skis,
Shoot and row, well enough;
Each of two arts I know,
Harp-playing and speaking poetry.
-- Earl Rognvaldr Kali --

Introduction to Old Norse, Gordon (p.155)
(Reference kindly supplied by Neil Peterson)

Now I have seen that quote used as the starting point of the concept, held by many researchers, that the skills of blacksmithing were widely spread, understood, and in fact practised by most males in the Viking Age. This is point of view is then supported by reference to the number of small purpose built workshops containing some metalworking debris found on many farmsteads.

As a working blacksmith myself, with some experience with VA era equipment, I (strongly) disagree with this.

There certainly are many farm *complexes* that have *simple* structures that show *some evidence* of blacksmithing having taken place.
These are major extended family operations, with dozens of workers available. So right off the top, there certainly would be specialization in tasks. " We let Sven do most of the woodworking, as he has developed a certain skill at it. Bjorn, on the other hand, can cut himself just looking at an axe, so he milks the goats. " Inside these large groupings, there might be a few *individuals* who had acquired some *basic* level of skill with blacksmithing. By that I mean able to straighten a bent shaft, make nails or simple hooks - the kind of thing you could learn in an afternoon. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the level of 'maintenance' iron work that could be expected on a large farm operation on an intermittent basis. You can make a hook or rough straighten a bar over a rock anvil. Even for nail making you require specialized tools (a nail header).

Almost without exception, the amount of associated remains (in terms of forge bottom slag, hammer scale, metal fragments) around these 'smithy' buildings is at best minimal. Consider some of the volumes of debris created through my own forging operations. ( I do note that these measurements are based on the use of coal fuel, in a modern forge set up using post Industrial Age equipment.) This averages to higher working temperatures and significantly larger fires that VA forges. Balance this however by the massive quantities of simple ash that would be generated from the charcoal fuels used in the Viking Age, which leave their own distinctive traces. For each working session (about 2 - 3 hours) I will produce a plate of slag about the size of your two hands cupped together. There will be a volume of hammer scale that would comfortably fill a single cupped hand. (Note that this will depend on the nature of the work undertaken for both volumes. Higher temperatures, as for forge welding, or work on larger objects, as for axes, will create even more of both slag and hammer scale.)

The simple fact is that the archaeology of these farm smithy buildings does not find an amount of residue to indicate any more than *occasional* use. Less use means less practise for the workers, which in turn means less skill developed (just plain lack of experience).
The most likely pattern of use for these structures is in fact most likely to be occasional use by the residents for simple tasks, backed up by seasonal visits by a travelling professional smith. On some regular schedule, this working smith would come to each farmstead in turn and produce more elaborate objects as required by the individual operation.
Spending as much (likely more) time travelling does not suggest the highest skill levels. Working at a series of changing locations, never being entirely sure of what the situation may be, certainly develops flexibility, but I can tell you from personal experience its certainly very frustrating. Blacksmithing is an extremely time dependent type of work, even more so when using the smaller forge fires of the Viking Age. Having to fumble for a tool or an awkward equipment set up can rob you of precious working time, normally measured in a mere minute or two at best.
Then (as it is now) the very best smiths, the most skillful and those creating the highest quality objects, would be able to make the customer come to them. The creator of the original Ulfberht swords most certainly did not wander from farm to farm!

Remember that the 'average load' of iron per individual in the Viking Age is extremely low. On the order of 1.5 to 2 kg per person as an average. This has to include all the tools, domestic implements, any weapons, plus your share of the rivets and other metal fittings in the boat (if there is one). An single axe makes up your two kilograms. Of course a slave has no iron, and the farm 'head of household' takes up those amounts, but iron is heavy and just does not go all that far. Its fortunately extremely durable, so that axe can easily pass down several generations. This means *less* working forge time required, not more.

A reference to Victorian / Settlement Era was made.
I will use some Canadian references from the 1850's, mainly because I used to work at a 1850's living history museum here in Ontario.
The average rural blacksmith, here and then, supported something like 30 to 50 individual family farm operations. The manufacture and then fitting of the It was standard to find blacksmith's shops located roughly every 15 - 20 miles. A ten mile circle marked the distance a farmer could comfortably travel with a team of work horses to the shop, get the animals tended to, then get home before dark. This is all about the *horse shoes*, and its this situation that has warped many ideas modern people hold about the blacksmith and his role in a community.
Right off the top - the Norse did not work their horses, or shoe their horses. Until the development of the horse collar later into the Medieval period, horses were not practical for heavy pulling. Oxen were the standard, and would remain so for hundreds of years. With no heavy labour putting un-natural strain on hooves, there was no real requirement to reinforce these. (The exception would be for combat, but the Norse were not cavalry troops.)
The true role of the blacksmith is as 'iron worker' (what the term actually means). In the Viking Age, that would be the true function of the smith.

(End Note)
The situation for actual iron production, operating a bloomery smelter, is even more extreme. This is hardly the work of bumbling farm hands! Under the guidance of an experienced smelt master, a number of simple labourers can certainly assist in converting locally gathered and prepared materials into a metallic bloom. Personally, my own experiments in this area make me believe that even repeated seasonal smelts 'father to son' would not be addiquate to accumulate the required experience. It is my opinion that *effective* iron making was a specialized skill of its own, not held by the average working blacksmith. The evidence is that smiths would purchase their metal in the form of relatively standard 'currency bars' of prepared iron.


the Wareham Forge said...

I had this further information on the 'Nine Skills' quote from Neil Peterson:

Translations are all over the web.

Gunnora (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/games.shtml) for

The original can be seen here:

search that page for "kali"

It is interesting that the original says "ok smiðir" (line
147). This is usually translated as "and blacksmithing"

Turn to Zoega's Old Norse Dictionary

and we find:
smíða (að), v. to work in wood or metals, to make,
build, erect (s. skála, kirkju); refl., smíðast, to
proceed, take shape, in a smith's hands (tók hann ok
smíðaði, ok smíðaðist ekki sem hann vildi).

Seems to me that this ability would be very useful "to make
things" but it is NOT directly mappable onto

Cleasby and Vigufsson would seem to agree:

Unknown said...

The author has failed to realize that both ashes and scale are useful substances to viking people, ashes are used for lye and scale is used for black paint. So the absence of these doesn't necessitate that a place is not a blacksmith forge. Viking smiths used charcoal and did not produce slag, (clinker that is produced in coal forges) Slag is produced in those days, only during the refining of iron ore an it is possible that many blacksmiths traded for their iron, rather than go through the labor intensive and time consuming process of refining ore.

the Wareham Forge said...

Related to 'ThisFish':
- The Ash created in a blacksmith's forge tends to scatter widely, from the action of the air blast via bellows.
- Forge Scale of course gets distributed around the ground at the base of the anvil (primarily on the sides away from the working smith). I could be gathered, if swept off the anvil surface into a container as it was created. Do remember the modern method - gathering off the work floor with a magnet, would not be available to the ancient smith.
I suspect such small amounts would be required for the purposes that you suggest, that such gathering would have little visible impact on the amounts normally created from forge work.
- 'Slag' is such a problem term within archaeology.
As you may have noted other places, I recognize at least 4 / 5 functionally and visibly different slag types from bloomery iron smelting. Most reports will just list 'slag' as an undistinguished mass.
With blacksmithing process, there certainly is a distinctive 'hearth bottom' created (often called 'smithing slag'). Forge welding also creates a visibly different hearth bottom, as well as fine pieces of expelled slag.


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

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