Rough Diplomacy

Faking it: Ancient Counterfeiters:Viking Swords

The Vikings had every advantage that one could think of in combat. Their ships were some of the fastest on the oceans.

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Their weapons were some of the finest in the world, and their culture provided the perfect background for fine warriors. It’s no wonder that they conquered so much of the known world.

The Vikings were fierce fighters and could survive against very strong opposition, as they proved time and again throughout history. But with their fast longships, the Vikings didn’t have to face strong opposition. They could reach coastal villages and get out again long before the villagers had time to call for assistance from surrounding lands. This was the ideal method for vikings: strike quickly, take what you could, then leave before organized resistance could form.

Viking longships could sail in shallow water. So they could travel up rivers as well as across the sea. In a raid, a ship could be hauled up on a beach. The Vikings could jump out and start fighting, and then make a quick getaway if they were chased.

It was only when the Vikings started making permanent outposts in England that they were defeated, and it wasn’t through military defeats either. The Vikings, settled and defensible, no longer were raiders and conquerers, they became a part of England, assimilated into the population.

The Vikings  had swords made of crucible steel, known as Ulfberts (because that was the name stamped onto all of them, in accordance with Nordic tradition).

This was before the 10’th century. Crucible steel wouldn’t be seen again until basically the dawn of the industrial revolution, which is significant  because crucible steel is tougher all around than Damascus and anything else from the time— Ulfberts were, materially speaking, the best swords ever made up until that point.

Were they as sharp as Damascus? Probably not, but there is a limit to how sharp a sword really needs to be once you realize that they aren’t knives. Swords have a biomechanical advantage over knives because of their length— you can accelerate the tip of the weapon so fast and effortlessly that if they hit unarmored or lightly armored flesh, you can count on it cutting whether it is made of bronze, crucible steel, or Damascus.

Ulfberth sword found in Finland.

Thus, the advantage of crucible steel and other stiff-yet-springy steels that came around in the Renaissance period gave them durability and strength that you really want in a weapon. Those weapons were made to compete in an arms vs armor race where stabbing was often how you attacked , that rarely happened in the middle east where Damascus comes from. In context, the weapons that came out of Europe were perfect for European warfare.

The weapons made in India and the Middle East were perfect for Indian and Middle Eastern warfare. And the two styles of warfare rarely came into contact , except to some degree in Eastern Europe where there was contact with the Ottoman Turks.

Swords from the Viking lands (including Northern Germany) have a long and distinguished history . The city of Solingen was the Toledo or Damascus of Northern Europe.

Swords that came from Solingen, particularly from  swordmakers known as Ulfberht, were revered, and many counterfeit sword makers stamped the word “Ulfberht” on their blades to give them more value (often misspelling the name).

Viking Sword, Danish, 9th or 10th century.

Viking Sword, Danish, 9th or 10th century.

Ulfberht set out to make the best swords around. (No word on whether Ulfberht was a blacksmith, a blacksmith shop, or a group of tradesmen. Many believe it was a foundry, though it has been long lost to history . In fact, the early viking swords are often said to have been the predecesors to the knightly broadswords/arming swords of the middle ages.

Many Viking swords have similar features, which makes them farily easily to identify: A distinctive three-lobed wave pommel, long straight double-edges, wide fuller (groove that runs down the blade), and a short grip.

Viking swords usually were a little shorter than the arming swords carried by knights later on in history (possibly because the Vikings were always on the move and often raided from ships; it’s difficult to make lightning fast raids with large, cumbersome swords). Like knightly swords, though, Viking swords often bore engravings upon the blades, usually featuring important or sacred phrases and pictographs.

What made Ulfberht swords different was both the materials used and the process required to create the unbeatable steel. Archaeologists believe the metals used to create these swords were  traded along routes through modern day Iran and Afghanistan.

By melting the iron in a sealed crucible (a technology brought over from Asia), the resulting steel was purer, with even carbon distribution and an aerodynamic design that was both flexible and sharp. This ancient blacksmithing process has only recently been recreated, after an historical absence of over 1,000 years.

Made of premium materials and forged by master blacksmiths, Ulfberht swords were the best swords available in 9th to 12th century Viking times. Only the greatest swordsmen could afford an Ulfberht.

Riding the Ulfberht Coattails

With great branding success comes a multitude of imposters . These opportunists created vastly inferior swords with deadly consequences. Unfortunately, the swordsman wasn’t typically aware of his faulty purchase until his brittle sword crumbled in battle, leaving him defenseless. Talk about buyer’s remorse.

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Seeing a Medieval Viking Ulfberht Sword Get Made Today Is SoAwesome

Just like today’s “Rollex” knockoffs, counterfeit swords bore the Ulfberht name, but often with a slight spelling shift, to persuade the purchaser. For example, the real Ulfberht sword would be inscribed like so: “+VLFBERH+T” –but the knockoff variety might look something like this: “+VLFBEHT+.” However, it’s possible there were some  illiterate craftsmen who didn’t know their spelling was off, and, being that the buyer was also likely illiterate—no one really cared.

ulfberht+

It must have been a gruesome moment when a Viking realised he had paid two cows for a fake designer sword; a clash of blade on blade in battle would have led to his sword, still sharp enough to slice through bone, shattering like glass.

“You really didn’t want to have that happen,” said Dr Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection, the London museum which has one of the best assemblies of ancient weapons in the world. The National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, have solved a riddle that the Viking swordsmiths may have sensed but didn’t quite understand.

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Some Viking swords were among the best ever made, still fearsome weapons after a millennium. The legendary swords found at Viking sites across northern Europe bear the maker’s name, Ulfberht, in raised letters at the hilt end. Puzzlingly, so do the worst ones, found in fragments on battle sites or in graves.

Viking Swords at Stavanger Sword Monument, Stavanger, Norway

The Vikings would have found it impossible to tell the difference when they bought a newly forged sword: both would have looked identical, and had razor sharp blades. The difference would have only emerged in use, often fatally.

Tests of the Ulfberht blades showed  they varied wildly. The tests at the NPL have proved the inferior swords were forged in northern Europe from locally worked bog iron. But the genuine ones were made from ingots of crucible steel, which the Vikings brought back from furnaces thousands of miles away in modern Afghanistan and Iran.

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The tests at Teddington proved the genuine Ulfberht swords had a phenomenally high carbon content, three times that of the fakes, and half again that of modern carbon steel.

The contemporary fake Ulfberhts used the best northern metal working techniques, which hardened the metal by quenching – plunging the red-hot blade into cold water. It enabled them to give the blade a keen edge, but made it fatally brittle.

In the 11th century the Russians blocked the trade route, and the supply of crucible steel ended. Evidence is emerging that the swords from burials are the fakes, or the work of less prestigious makers.

The genuine Ulfberhts have mostly been found in rivers. “I don’t think these were ritual offerings,” Williams said. “They are mostly from rivers near settlement sites, and I think what you have almost certainly is some poor chap staggering home drunk, falling into the river and losing his sword. An expensive mistake.”

 

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