An Ulfberht sword displayed at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany

A Step Closer to the Mysterious Origin of the Viking Sword Ulfberht

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By Tara MacIsaac , Epoch Times

Ulfberht was like a Medieval luxury brand for swords—but unlike your Gucci purse, the swords were of such high quality they were almost … mystical.

Dozens of these swords—made with metal so strong and pure it’s baffling how any sword maker of that time could have accomplished it—have been found in Europe, along with some knock-offs. They are all marked with the Ulfberht name and two crosses, though some of the imitations are missing a letter here or there. 

New research brings us closer to the source of the swords, to the kiln in which these legendary weapons were forged.

A previous theory held that the swords may have their origin in the Middle East or Asia, but surprisingly it seems the materials were sourced closer to where they were found, in Central Europe.

At the time the Ulfberht swords were forged (approximately 800–1000 A.D.), equally perplexing swords made of a substance called Damascus steel were being produced in the Middle East out of a raw material, known as Wootz steel, from Asia. Both Damascus steel and the Ulfbehrt’s so-called “crucible steel” had high amounts of carbon.

Digital reconstruction of an Ulfberht sword

Digital reconstruction of an Ulfberht sword ( Wikimedia Commons )

Ulfberht’s Perplexing Composition

Carbon can make or break a sword; if it’s not controlled to just the right amount, the sword will be either too soft or too brittle. But with just the right amount, carbon greatly strengthens the blade. The Ulfberht has a carbon content about three times higher than that of other swords of its time. It would have been astoundingly stronger and yet more flexible than other swords, as well as light-weight. It also had almost no impurities, known as slag. This would have allowed for a more even distribution of carbon.

It was thought, before Ulfberht was discovered, that the capability to remove slag to such a degree only became possible during the Industrial Revolution. Iron ore must be heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to accomplish this, a feat the Ulfberht makers apparently accomplished 800 years ahead of their time. With great effort and precision, modern blacksmith  Richard Furrer of Wisconsin forged a sword of Ulfberht quality  using technology that would have been available in the Middle Ages. He said it was the most complicated thing he’d ever made, and he used methods not known to have been used by people of that time. 

Damascus Steel’s Perplexing Composition

The secret of making the Middle East’s Damascus Steel has only reemerged under the inspection of scanning electron microscopes in modern laboratories. It was first used around 300 B.C. and the knowledge seems to have been inexplicably lost around the mid-18th century.

Reconstruction of an ancient sword made with Damascus Steel

Reconstruction of an ancient sword made with Damascus Steel ( Wikimedia Commons )

Nanotechnology was involved, in the sense that materials were added during the steel’s production to create chemical reactions at the quantum level, explains archaeology expert  K. Kris Hirst  in an  article written for About Education . It was a kind of alchemy. 

Hirst cited a study led by Peter Paufler at the University of Dresden and published in the journal Nature  in 2006. Paufler and his team hypothesized that the natural properties of the source material from Asia (the Wootz steel), when combined with materials added during the production process in the Middle East, caused a reaction: “The metal developed a microstructure called ‘carbide nanotubes,’ extremely hard tubes of carbon that are expressed on the surface and create the blade’s hardness,” Hirst explained.

Materials added during the production of Damascus steel included Cassia auriculata bark, milkweed, vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, nickel, and some rare elements, traces of which presumably came from the mines in India.

Forging of Damascus Steel in Solingen

Forging of Damascus Steel in Solingen ( Wikimedia Commons )

“What happened in the mid-18th century was that the chemical makeup of the raw material altered—the minute quantities of one or more of the minerals disappeared, perhaps because the particular lode was exhausted,” Hirst wrote.

But, the Ulfberht had nothing to do with the mines of India or the Wootz steel or the milkweed or the forges of the Middle East, according to recent research. 

At the Source?

Robert Lehmann, a chemist at the Institute for Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Hannover,  told local publication Süd Deutsche  in October that the material from which the Ulfberht was forged “certainly does not come from the East.”

He studied an Ulfberht sword found in 2012 on a pile of gravel excavated from the Weser River, which flows through Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany. This sword’s blade has a high manganese content, which signalled to Lehmann that it did not come from the East.

Comments

Justbod's picture

Such an interesting story and link to history - it's great that another piece of the puzzle has been discovered.

Many thanks for the update on this fascinating sword :)

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

There is a good documentary on Netflix/Youtube showing the craftsman referenced in the story creating his best effort at reconstructing this sword along with some interesting history.

Youtube Link to doc:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXbLyVpWsVM

 

 

rbflooringinstall's picture

That is a pretty awesome looking sword.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

once a meterorite came down in Kelt Land. They left because of it the area. About hundred years later they came back and found high quality metal with which they also started to supply the romans who had their famous strong swords from it.

Interesting. And AWESOME!!!   <echoing voice> Swords from Outer Space ...<echoing voice>

If the swords were made in Central Europe, are they really Viking swords, or are they Saxon, Frankish, or from a different Germanic tribe? I know the Vikings were getting around, but is the name really even Scandinavian? It looks Frankish, which is not Viking. Just curious...

similar to the samurai swords that were made with molybdenum.  S Kean book The Disappearing Spoon is a fascinating look at the elements of the periodic table.  As he explains (p 89) molybdenum's atoms are larger than iron, have 60% more electrons so hold heat and gums up the iron  atoms to prevent them from sliding around making blades that never cracked or dulled. 

The further back in pre history we go the more we see this; forgotten genius.  I suspect oir forgetting is a combination of climate catastrophe, over population, environmental change prompted by our cycling sun, Sol.

 

Lot's of these and other great swords have been found in Finland. Here is a replica of a famous Suontaka sword, which belonged to a noble woman or female warrior: http://www.fableblades.com/Aatelisnainen%20Soturi.html

It occurred to me that the originator of the technology was so far ahead of his time and produced weapons of such superiority that they would be a deadly enemy of most armies not accessed to these weapons. Hence there likely operations to discover and destroy the manufacturer of these. In doing that they would likely completely destroy the people and the site of the manufacturer and their connection to their destruction. Probably little evidence was left behind. This would be to avoid reprisal.

The Vikings had no iron ore industry and liked quality Arab steel, each ingot enough to produce one sword or one axehead, or two spearheads or two sax (long knives). After sailing up one of Europe's rivers they'd portage the goods a short distance overland, then sail down the Danube to the Black Sea and across to the markets of the Middle East. They could return the same way or via the Med.

As trade the Arabs wanted North Sea fish like haddock, cod and plaice, whether salted, dried, pickled or smoked; wheat and barley; dried European vegetables; and sheep wool which has lots of lanolin to make balms, and is easy to work for making luxury rugs and warm clothing for cold desert nights.

Since there were sheep in the Bible the Arabs probably didn't have to trade for wool. So you're saying local fish wasn't good enough for them? Nope, nothing you say makes sense.

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