Types of Viking Swords & Identification Using Sword Typologies
Viking history and culture continues to fascinate us today. Scandinavian literature, mythology, and archaeology from the Viking Age (793-1066 AD) helps us piece together what life must have been like for the early medieval Vikings.
While many components of Viking culture are studied by scholars and history buffs worldwide, no artifact holds as much appeal as the Viking sword.
A technical misnomer, the “Viking sword” describes swords that were made and used by more people groups than just the Vikings. Many Viking swords originated in Germanic Europe and circulated throughout Western Europe and Scandinavia as groups traded within and raided these areas.
While the Viking sword was important to several European cultures, we associate it with the Vikings due to its widespread distribution in areas where Norse people and traveling Vikings settled.
The archaeology of these weapons reveals much about Viking society and cultural practices. Swords were necessary for raiders seeking resources far from home. Leaders organized raiding campaigns across Europe. While experts disagree on the motivations of the Vikings, most believe raids happened because of a lack of commodities in Scandinavia.
The Vikings created settlements in the Baltic, Britain, Ireland, Russia, and France. Some of the best examples of Viking swords have been discovered in these countries.
Viking swords are fascinating artifacts because of their craftsmanship. Swords were expensive to forge and were therefore rare and treasured items. These family heirlooms would be named and passed down from father to son.
Many swords featured decorative details like metal inlay, patterns, motifs, and icons.
While many swords uncovered in archaeological digs are well-preserved considering their age, others are harder to identify because they were purposefully destroyed.
It was a custom among the Vikings to destroy a sword before burying it with its owner. These purposefully broken or bent artifacts would have been less appealing to grave robbers. The act of damaging a sword could have also signified a ritual “killing” of the object.
Regardless of the condition of Viking swords, experts have developed several ways to identify different types of weapons. This article discusses the most popular methods of sword identification and provides examples of Viking sword types according to these identifying principles.
Information on other Viking weapons can be read about here.
Using Typologies to Study Swords
One of the most enduring methods of Viking sword identification is the typology. Typologies are essential tools for archaeologists and related professionals. They are defined as “systems for the classification of objects into groups according to traits held in common.”
While imperfect, typologies allow us to examine sword characteristics in an organized and oftentimes chronological way.
The first Viking sword typology was developed in 1919 by Dr. Jan Petersen. His organization of sword types relies largely on studying the hilt of the blade. Pommel and guard shapes play key roles in his identification of swords.
Petersen’s typology includes 26 types of swords and several subtypes. They are alphabetized and follow a relatively chronological structure. Petersen focuses on blades of Norway.
Petersen’s methods have been altered throughout the years but remain the standard.
Dr. R.E.M. Wheeler simplified Petersen’s typology in 1927. He organized Viking swords into seven categories. The famous Ewart Oakeshott then added two more types to Wheeler’s work in the 1960s. He desired to bridge the gap in scholarly research between the late Viking Age and the earliest knightly swords.
Another contribution to sword typology happened in 1991 with the work of Dr. Alfred Geibig. He focused on swords of continental Europe from the 8th to 12th centuries. His typology includes fourteen sword types and five subtypes.
Geibig believed that Petersen’s typology focused too heavily on sword hilt designs while neglecting the shape and length of blades. His typology focuses on blade characteristics.
Other Sword Identification Methods & Factors to Consider
While typologies have been the standard mode of sword identification and organization for over a century, other methods have been used to identify Viking swords.
Fedir Androshchuk, an archaeologist specializing in the Viking Age, released his own typology of swords in 2014. In his work, he introduces readers to some of the defining features of Viking swords and some common pitfalls in identifying them.
Viking swords are all similar in that they oftentimes possess pattern welding, inlays, forged details, and decorative hilts. It can be tempting for scholars to make flawed observations and base entire conclusions on what they think they see.
For example, some scholars have interpreted inlayed letters on swords and used these interpretations to determine the origin of the weapon. However, as Androshchuk explains, inlayed letters and runes can be misleading.
Even more advanced methods of identification can fail. X-ray analyses and other technological investigations are typically unable to determine the origin of a blade.
Another consideration when studying Viking swords as a hobbyist or archaeologist is to not rely too heavily on illustrations. Androschchuk rightly explains that many of the sources scholars rely on today are actually illustrations or sketches of the actual artifact. Without actually studying a sword in person, it can be hard to accurately identify it or draw conclusions.
With all of these factors in mind, how are we to best understand the types of swords that existed during the Viking Age?
Typologies are imperfect, but they do provide an excellent foundation for further study. They organize information about thousands of artifacts into a few easy-t0-study categories.
Petersen’s Viking Sword Typology
Because Petersen’s work remains the standard by which other scholars have based their own study, we will use this typology to describe the main types of Viking swords identified by experts.
The following are Petersen’s 26 types. For ease of reading, we have grouped some types together. These types share similar characteristics or date to the same time periods.
Subtypes and more information can be found in the book Swords of the Viking Age. If you want to dive deeper into these types, we highly recommend this source. Finally, illustrations of each of Petersen’s sword types can be viewed here. Keep in mind that illustrations are not the actual artifact, but are helpful in understand the main similarities and differences between sword types.
Types A, B
Petersen’s Type A sword dates from 700-800 AD. It is characterized by its triangular, short pommel and narrow guard. Generally, the pommel will be even narrower than the guard. The simple design features no inscriptions. This type had a wide distribution across Norway but is not found in the southwest.
Type B is dated between the Migration Period and the early Viking Age and features a short, high guard and large pommel. The blade is single or double edged. Most type B swords have been uncovered in western Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany.
Type C dates to the early Viking Age (800-850) and was developed from Type B. This sword features a large hilt and ridged pommel design. This is one of the heaviest Viking sword types, weighing almost 2 kg. Type C’s use was widespread across Norway.
Type D was most popular between 850 and 900. It is the heaviest type with a large and decorated hilt. Pommels feature three sections and include copper and silver inlays, and animal head designs. Guards measure an average of 3.4 cm, with pommels measuring up to 4 cm.
This sword type has foreign origins.
Types E, F, G
Dating to between 800 and 850, Type E has been discovered in central and eastern Norway. The swords feature dotted designs, rounded pommels, and wide guards.
Type F was used at the same time as Type E. These swords could have single or double edged blades. The overall design was simple, with a small pommel. Most swords originate in eastern Norway.
Type G is very rare. Found in eastern Norway, this type has a scrolled pommel and guard. Several subtypes of Type G also exist.
Types H, I, K, L, M
Type H was common for over a century (800-950). Single and double edged versions existed. Some of these swords feature simple inlay designs.
Vikings and Norsemen used the Type I sword for about a century, from 850 to 950. This type is distinguished by its triangular pommel and origins in eastern Norway.
Type K is a foreign Viking sword featuring a lobed pommel that is narrower than its guard. Vikings wielded this type between 800 and 900 AD.
Type L is associated with the Anglo-Saxons. Its curved guard is distinctly Anglo-Saxon in its design. Another defining feature is its three lobed pommel. Type L has been found in Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Type M dates from the 850s to the 900s. It is the most common type after Type H and has a very plain design. The simple guard of this sword is completely unadorned. Type M lacks a pommel.
Type N is another rare Viking sword. It dates from 850 to 900 and has a rounded pommel and long guard.
Types O, P
Both Types O and P date to the late Viking Age (900 to 950). These swords are of foreign origin and contain silver and bronze inlay. Other distinguishing characteristics include curved guards and vertical textures on the hilt.
The pommel of Type O has five distinct lobes. Type P pommels are simpler and curved.
Type Q was wielded from the 950s to around 1000. This sword features a flat pommel with carved or inlayed designs.
Types R, S, T
Type R dates to the 900s and features inscriptions on the blade. The decorative pommel suggests foreign origin.
Type S dates from 900 to 950 and is another example of a foreign Viking blade. This type’s rich decorations and inscriptions are unique. Many Type S swords feature the famous “Ulfberht” inscription.
Scholars believe Type S swords originated in France.
Type T swords were used from 950 to 1030 and are decorated with inscriptions. Their lobed pommels and moderately shaped guards give the Type T a bold appearance.
Types U, V, W
Type U dates to the 900s and features a classic rounded pommel and long guard.
Type V also dates to the 900s and had a very short guard. Its pommel was of equal size. This gives the hilt a very balanced and symmetrical appearance.
The cast bronze details of Type W set it apart from similar swords, but its rounded pommel gives it a medieval look.
Type X is a sword dating to the late Viking Age. This sword’s small pommel and long guard inspired the design of swords used during the Norman conquest.
Some Type X swords had more decorative pommels. This pommel keeps its rounded shape but also has scrolled elements that add visual interest.
Types Y, Z, Æ
Type Y is a late Viking Age sword that has a curved guard and pommel.
Types Z and Æ signify the end of the Viking Age. These swords date to the early 1000s and feature curved design elements that would be popular across Europe in the century to come.