Sunday, March 29, 2020

That ‘Viking’ Knife…

The following is a modified version of a commentary piece I wrote for the upcoming 'Iron Trillium', the quarterly newsletter of the Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association.

by ‘Krak’ of Wulflund Jewelry (Prague, Czechia - taken from that Etsy site)

This is a design commonly seen these days - and just as commonly described as a ‘Viking Knife’.  As Mick Smith demonstrated at the November OABA meeting, it is a fairly easy to make, simple, one piece, object. You could find literally hundreds of these offered for sale on the internet.

But it is definitely not anything like actual historic knives known from anywhere that could be considered from ’the Viking Age’.

I first saw the design in the late 1970’s, well before the recent ‘Vikings’ craze. Back then it was most often found in the hands of Black Powder re-enactors, those portraying Fur Trade or ‘Mountain Man’ characters. As the shape started to be re-branded as ‘Viking’ I got interested in if there was any actual artifact evidence to support the profile’s use historically.
It turns out the shape is very loosely based on a very early Iron Age sample uncovered in Denmark, dated to circa 1000 BC. Clearly some 2000 years before the 800 - 1000 AD period known as the Viking Age.

So what do actual historic Viking Age knives look like?

The Coppergate excavations at York, England (as an example), uncovered about 225 individual knives from the early 900’s.
The image above illustrates the general range of shapes and most importantly sizes. Generally, the majority of knives found have blades in the range of  7 - 10 cm long. ( 3 ) About  1 out of 20 found are in the 20 cm size. Only 1 out of 100 are clearly ‘fighting’ knives, in the range of 30 cm or larger.
All of these knives have thin tangs, intended to be inserted into a block of mainly wood (sometimes antler) for the handle. Most typically, the end of the tang was peened over a disk, serving to hold the handle in place.

What about the Seax?

In the reference image above, second from the top (#2759) is a classic seax blade shape.
‘Seax’, as defined historically and within archaeology, refers to a quite specific blade profile :
- straight line to the cutting edge
- a sharp, straight, diagonal line from the back towards the point.
- typically the length of the diagonal is 1/3 or less of the total blade
- back is straight, either parallel to the cutting edge, or sometimes slopping up from the tang to a widest measurement just where the diagonal starts wider.

In the language of the tribes living in South Denmark / North Germany in the post Roman era, ‘seax’ was their word for ‘knife’. These people used this very distinctive blade shape, so distinctive that they became known by this word. The Saxons who would invade England in the 500 and 600’s.

There is some indication from burial finds that blade shapes in the Viking Age were sex linked / really task linked. The more robust seax shape is found primarily in male burials (suited for heavy farm tasks like cutting rope, splitting kindling). The slender ‘triangle’ profile is most typical in female graves (suited for fine cutting like textile work or food preparation).

Of course HISTORY should not limit CREATIVITY.
As I tell my own students : ’Steal ideas from dead guys - they will never complain!’

I could be considered as close as you are likely to find (at least here in Ontario) to an ‘expert’ on Viking Age objects.  I have personally viewed hundreds of artifact blades from the Viking Age. I have slowly been working up a commentary ‘Knives of the Viking Age’, a topic for which there is currently not a single comprehensive overview.

I have commented on / referred to this design in earlier postings here :
June 2007 : A Re-Encator's Design

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)

Originally written in 1975, when New York City was on the verge of financial collapse. First released on the album ‘Turnstiles’ in 1976. Originally intended as a kind of ’science fiction memory’  (when 2017 seemed impossibly far into the future).
“ Joel stated that the song is titled "Miami 2017" because many New Yorkers retire to Miami and the narrator is telling his grandchildren in the year 2017 about what he saw in the destruction of New York.” (1)
In the decades since, the Joel has performed the song live at benefit concerts - after the 9/11 attacks, and after Hurricane Sandy.

Seen the lights go out Broadway

I saw the Empire State laid low

And life went on beyond the Palisades

They all bought Cadillacs

And left there long ago

They held a concert out in Brooklyn

To watch the island bridges blow

They turned our power down

And drove us underground

But we went right on with the show

I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway

I saw the ruins at my feet

You know we almost didn’t notice it

We’d seen it all the time on Forty second street

They burned the churches down in Harlem

Like in that Spanish civil war

The flames were everywhere

But no one really cared

It always burned up there before

I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway

I saw the mighty skyline fall

The boats were waiting at The Battery

The union went on strike

They never sailed at all

They sent a carrier out from Norfolk

And picked the Yankees up for free

They said that Queens could stay

And blew the Bronx away

And sank Manhattan out at sea

You know those lights were bright on Broadway

That was so many years ago

Before we all lived here in Florida

Before the Mafia took over Mexico

There are not many who remember

They say a handful still survive

To tell the world about

The way the lights went out

And keep the memory alive

As I finish writing this piece (Saturday March 28, the United States of America has become the major outbreak location for COVID-19.
New York City is clearly the epicentre, with over 26,000 cases (so 25% of that total) and 450 deaths. (3)



3) Over 1000,000 cases confirmed (compare to 82,000 from China)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Oseberg : Putting up the Pot

The object that I have based more commentaries on, over the now 14 years and over 1000 postings of this blog, has been that iron tripod from the Oseberg Ship burial.

This image was sent to me by a fellow (and also quite serious) Norse re-enactor. I had made an open plea on Facebook recently, asking if anyone had actually physically seen the artifact themselves. Judy had replied saying that although she certainly had been to the museum, it was a good number of years back. The image above, which she kindly sent me, was a direct scan of a post card she had purchased at the museum.
That image is 'flat on' and the lighting here is considerably more even than the more dramatic one I had posted last week from Alamy :

This image does show the tripod in its entirety however, and was the one I used for the following modified drawing :

For rational behind the scale and overall measurements given here, please refer back to my March 11 piece : Oseberg Cauldron ( 1 )

My reservations about this tripod as a working tool has at its core the simple problem of construction :
1) The hanging hook is a single fixed length of about 20 cm.
2) As displayed, the large cauldron also in the burial barely clears the ground.

This in combination creates two major problems  ( 2 ) :
1) There is no ability to change the hanging height of the mounted cauldron. So no way to modify the effective cooking temperature (other than knocking the fire out?)
2) There is almost no room to actually fit a fire under the cauldron - at least as the combination is displayed.

So, one consideration must be : Can the position of the tripod legs be modified, thus raising the cauldron?

So in the drawing, what I did was :
a) use the length of the tripod legs at 125 cm (as indicated in the scale drawing from the original excavation report) to generate a scale.
b) trace first the pot and hanger combination from the Alamy image.
c) trace the tripod legs, but shifted so they just clear the diameter of the cauldron

This then generates a 'best possible' base line below the cauldron.
Which via the scale is estimated to be at most 35 cm clearance. ( 3 )

So - maybe possible.
That 35 cm really does not leave much clearance for firewood. To build an effective split wood fire, my own experience suggests at least 20 cm of height would be required.
Consider the size of the cauldron, at ≠ 55 cm diameter. To heat a pot that large, my guess is that it would require a wood fire of at least roughly the same width. Although I'm hardly the best campfire cook, this combination (55 wide x 20 + cm tall) represents a pretty big fire. Especially if the clearance between fire and bottom of the pot is at best in the range of 20 cm.

All this begs some actual experimental testing in my mind.

I may attempt to pursue this further by contacting the Viking Ship Museum directly. If this comes to pass, I will most certainly share the details that I learn.
I am especially interested to find out if the thin band of metal, seen along the top edge of the cauldron, is part of the original artifact - or a strengthening band added during the initial preparation for display.

1) Or if you really want to dig into this - use the search function here for "oseberg tripod ". I come up with over 10 previous commentaries on the topic!

2) This is leaving aside the main reason that I do not encourage the display of this object in modern historic camps : The amount of iron required, and the abundant decorative details, most certainly indicates this object is of royal quality. As such, it remains clearly beyond the economic reach or social status of the characters being portrayed by most.

3) I freely admit that this method clearly leaves a fair room for estimation error!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Elora Sculpture Project - and COVID-19

Elora Sculpture Project - interactive map (2018) *
On 2020-03-23 K.S. wrote:
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the (Elora Sculpture Project) committee has been discussing how or if it should proceed with the 2020 exhibition. At this time we are not considering cancelling the exhibition...

Has the spread of the virus made it difficult for you to access materials and/or work on your sculpture? 
How comfortable are you making the trip to Elora/Fergus to install your sculpture?
Would you prefer to;
-continue as is with installation dates from May 1 to May 11,
-delay the start exhibition until there is more information about the spread of the virus or,
-cancel the exhibition.

1) At point of writing, I only need one piece of material, outside of what I normally hold on hand here.
I can easily make up a substitute for this, again with tools and materials on hand. (1)
I normally keep a considerable stock of materials and expendable supplies. (2)

2) I see no special problem being able to maintain the original installation dates.
- As with past years, my sculpture is designed of a number of easily transportable elements that would be assembled on site.
- This will present no special difficulty for me to undertake working without any assistance.
- My normal practice is to arrive at the installation site very early, so as to be able to park as close as possible for unloading. (3)

3) I do appreciate that at least placing the originally scheduled reception on hold, with a good possibility that this will be cancelled entirely.

'Last to See' my 2020 proposal
As an artist, I feel it is a * duty * to continue with the production and installation of my submitted work for the Elora Sculpture Project.

I do see a conflict of purpose however. The underlying reason for the ESP is to attract members of the public to visit and spend time in Elora, with the desired effect of generating increased activities for the local businesses. Currently not likely the expected outcome, depending on what kind of lasting impact 'social distancing' has into spring and summer this year.
The viewing of contributed works, in itself, is a private, outdoor, activity. Actually just the kind of activity that can be carried out while avoiding close contact with crowds. So to my mind, continuing with the ESP takes on additional importance in the current situation.

View roughly North of the central downtown park which forms the core of the ESP. *

As an artistan maker, I undertake the production of all my designs myself, inside my own (home) workshop. This may not be the case with all contributors. Generally it has been my observation in past years that the majority of submissions have been from other artisan makers. There may be some problems for those who, in their normal creation sequence, need to employ the services of those providing industrial level equipment. (Thinking those who utilize high temperature processes specifically.)

So personally, I see own involvement with the Elora Sculpture Project at this harrowing time is providing several very important benefits:
1) At a time when so much is being cancelled or delayed, the process of creating my own sculpture will motivate me to continue actually getting out and working in my studio. Gathering any inspiration is especially difficult for us all right now. Commitment to a major project is a significant method to combat developing feelings of helplessness right now. Many artists (myself included) struggle with depression, and having a significant project to focus on is especially helpful with both.
2) As artists, creating and mounting work for public viewing provides us with a method of 'fighting back'. Most often our creation process is effectively hidden, normally carried out in isolation anyway. Contributing work for the ESP has always been a method to allow public viewing of work, in what is very much a 'remote' situation.
3) For the public, viewing the collected sculptures becomes a more important activity than any normal year. This represents a 'low contact' activity - in fact just the kind of thing people will be seeking to replace crowded theaters or concerts. As artists, the ESP both represents an opportunity to showcase what we do.

I would also suggest participation in the Elora Sculpture Project is a responsibility. Art is communication. This spring, COVID-19 is reducing people's possibilities of communication. As artists, should we not all be doing our best to ensure communication continues?


1 ) On the layout above, this is the piece of wire grid supporting the stones. I would normally purchase this (used for re-enforcing concrete) from Kruger Steel in Owen Sound - not that I am expecting any problem there. I could fabricate from 1/4 round stock (more tedious than a real problem).

2 ) I normally hold a fairly large quantity of steel. In the 'smaller' sizes and profiles, this means anything from 100 to 400 feet of round, square, various flats, pipe and structural profiles. This because my normal working style is to follow inspiration - and not so much pre-planning and project specific ordering.
Of the usual expended supplies at the Wareham Forge, the only potential problem I can see is perhaps propane, although I do cycle through 3 medium sized cylinders (40 lbs ea.). On coal, I work out of a 1500 lb store - with an additional 1000 lbs kept as an 'emergency' reserve.
When you live at a basically remote, rural, location? Keeping 'four extras' of everything is more or less standard already.

3 ) A hint for anyone wanting to visit Elora to view the installed sculptures :
Plan on arriving after 11 AM.
In the 'tourist' part of of Downtown Elora (at least in early May), there is almost nothing open before that hour. Trying to get a cup of coffee has proved a challenge!

* Images poached from the Elora Sculpture Project web site.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Oseberg Cauldron...

On 2020-03-07, D L wrote:
The group was wondering about the size of the cauldron. Do you think we will be able to cook for 10 to 20 people or so in it or will it be much smaller?
Under consideration is the large iron cauldron found in the Oseberg Ship Burial (Norway, dated about 824 ACE).
I freely admit that I have NOT personally seen the actual artifact being referenced here!

I'm also not having a lot of luck coming up with the exact measurements on this cauldron. Part of the problem is that even though I did have access to the full original excavation reports at one point - those are from about the time of the excavation (roughly 1900) and in Norwegian (!). ( 1 ) There are very limited illustrations included. Below is the field drawing showing the cauldron and tripod (only illustration of those in the report). If you attempted to work from this (scaled) drawing, you would come up with roughly 35 cm diameter by about 25 cm deep for the cauldron. Importantly, the legs of the tripod show as about 125 cm long.

I've also got a very slim book (1956), likely intended to be a museum guide to 'The Viking Ship Finds'. ( 2 ) It does not give any measurements, but lists TWO cauldrons in the burial.

So looking at this image, one of the few I've found (over the internet, ok?) showing the actual objects. ( 3 )
 The proportions of the height to depth are much different than the report illustration:
- Closer to ratio 3 : 1 (width to depth).
- It looks (?) like the artifact is 8 segments plus the bottom dish.

This image may prove a bit more useful to work with - as it is taken from a more flat position (less distortion on the leg lengths) ( 4 )

Now combine the two images:
- Take the measurement for the legs of the tripod from the report illustration, at 125 cm.
- Now make a rough scale from that length, placed against the images of the artifacts. (5)
- The resulting estimate for the cauldron seen is :
    width about 55 cm
    depth about 25 cm
- If you run those figures into a math calculator  you get a volume in the range of 90 L ! ( 6 ).

What is happening along the top edge of the rim is hard to determine from the images of the artifact that are (easily) available.
Typically, the bloomery (wrought) iron used for making the plates needed for shapes like cauldrons are massively thicker than expected by those used to modern industrially produced mild steel sheets. Norse material is in the range of 4 - 6 mm, modern steels normally used for replicas typically 1 mm or less. The point here is that with this thickness, there is no special need for extra re-enforcement of the cauldron's upper edge.
There is certainly some modification of the upper edge seen in the images.
- Is this a separate band of iron, circling the rim? On the inside or outside?
- Has the top edge been forged towards the outside and then folded over back against the outside surface? This would produce a rounded top edge. (In cases of objects made of much softer high copper alloy, sometimes a piece of round rod is placed into this 'pocket' before it is hammered down tight, as a further stiffener.
- Is this actually an extra piece of 'new' material, added during the initial conservation effort, to stabilize the ancient metal? Do remember this work would have been undertaken in the late 1800's, and standards of preservation were vastly different than today's.

Many modern replicas (see the final section) add a band of light weight metal, which has been then hammered over to make an upside down L shaped cross section. This results in a flat rim around the edge. If this method was used in the original construction of the cauldron, it would make it unique. (At least I am not aware of any other Viking Age iron cauldron that uses this method.) ( 7 )

I've got templates worked up for the cauldron seen below. I had made this for the 2008 film Outlander.

Strictly speaking, this is certainly more ‘vaguely inspired by’, than specifically a replica. (Much less to be considered a reproduction!) There are a number of definite differences from the artifact  (overall size / number of segments / lack of a rolled edge / attachment lugs / handle shape and detail). Note that this object is also made of much thinner modern 18 ga mild steel sheet. At roughly 1 mm thick, this material can be cold hammered to dish the plates to shape (so not forged.) Clearly some of the criticisms I apply to what is currently available commercially apply to this object! (Remember however, this was only ever intended as a visual prop for a *fantasy* film. Not either to be a duplicate of history - or actually to be cooked in!) 

I don't have the best notes on the finished measurements for this one. I remember that piece to be about 40 cm wide by 15 + cm deep. My original description on volume is "three gallons". (So roughly 12 L?). In retrospect, I think that might be more of a WAG than something I actually measured.  If you run those dimensions into that same math calculator you actually get a volume in the range of 25 L.

Still image capture from Outlander. You can see a copper cauldron and elaborate hanger I created.

So - although this is a long winded way to get back to the original question...

My best estimate is that, using the templates I have on hand, the final cauldron should run roughly 40 - 50 cm diameter and about 15 - 20 cm deep. (This actually results in a fair amount of volume variation!)
It should hold (to the brim!) at least 25 L, with the larger measurements, considerably more.
Given a 'good bowl full' at about .5 L (figure a normal yogurt container) per person? So 30 - 40 plus people should be easily possible.
My intent for this commission is to use significantly thicker mild steel plate, at 1/8 thick (so + 3 mm). This will require forging (hot dishing) the individual segments and base to shape. Along with creating an object more like the weight of the Norse originals, the thickness will assist in more even cooking heat, especially important for use over open fires.

‘Can you see a difference…’
(Ok - a bit of a rant.)

There are a number of people out there (typically on Etsy) selling what are described as ’the Oseberg Cauldron’ ( 8 ).
There are several aspects I find in almost all the things advertised as either 'replicas' or 'reproductions’:
- They all appear much smaller than the artifact. Significantly, the actual measurements are almost never given.
- All certainly appear to be made of thinner mild steel sheet, again thickness not specified.
- The finished metal colour and even surfaces suggests cold dishing method.
- Most use round rod starting material for the handles (a profile rarely seen in Norse artifacts).
- You see the top rim as separate narrow piece attached as a flat edge to the top of the body segments. This metal is folded straight back at 90 degrees, creating a flat surface along the upper edge.

The body of all of these versions offered for sale is so similar (almost identical) I have to wonder if there is actually a single source for the bodies (most likely offshore?) supplying all of these. That there is some variation on the actual handles suggest that the cauldron bodies are purchased, with individuals only adding handles? Despite all being described as 'hand forged' - the only hot work is in the handles and attachment lugs (and the level of complexity even there varies considerably).

Just sayin’…


1 ) Osebergfundet, A.W. Brogger, 1917

2 ) The Viking Ship Finds, Universitetets Oldsaksamling, 1956

3 ) Variations of this view of the artifacts as on display, are seen a number of times on 'Pintrest’. Itself a site I really hate for lack of context.
Including copies of the replicas I made for Outlander - described as ‘artifacts’. Which in turn have been used by my competitors as documentation for their own (usually lower detailed) ‘replicas’!

4 ) This image is poached from Alamy :

5) I actually did this for all these reference images to help refine the measurements.

6 ) Calculation for the volume of a spherical section
I found one (very derivative!) comment suggesting this artifact was actually at about 20 L (?) This offered in support of the some of the work referred to at the bottom of this piece.

7 ) I would be really interested for observation details from someone who has stood in front of the actual artifacts from Oseberg.
I dug into my (considerable) reference collection as I prepared this piece (plus the internet) and could not find better images than the two duplicated above. As suggested, NONE of the other cauldrons I had information on showed this 'top ledge' construction.

8 ) For your own interest, you might search ‘Oseberg Cauldron’ as images.
You will see a number of renditions of those same images of the actual artifacts.
You will find work by 'Torvald Sorenson' of Weland Smithy (with a web site that appears closed?)
You will find a number of images of my own work, mainly part of commentaries (seen on this very blog).

And the images I show here.
As I am highly critical of that last group of work - I am quite deliberately NOT linking back to the commercial web sites involved.

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

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