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 Illustration of a Viking shield wall (unknown artist)

Dissolving Myths: Vikings Did NOT Hide Behind Shield Walls

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By ThorNews

According to Rolf Warming, an archaeologist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, the Vikings did not use shield walls in combat. A typical Viking shield was relatively small and light, and used as an active weapon.

– There is a widespread misunderstanding among Viking enthusiasts and us archaeologists that the Vikings have been standing shield-by-shield forming a close formation in battle, Warming said to the Danish research portal videnskap.dk.

His research results are supported by archaeological finds, written texts and known Viking fighting techniques that were based on surprise, speed and weapon skills.

Warming, who is also the founder of the Society for Combat Archaeology , has studied how the Vikings fought in battle. He finds no evidence of the use of shield walls in medieval texts or through practical tests.

– The shield wall we see in the popular TV series “Vikings” or “The Last Kingdom” is very nicely made, but unfortunately not true.

Individual Warriors

Among other facts, his theory is based upon an archaeological experiment where Warming equipped with armor, helmet and copies of old Viking shields tested different combat situations against an opponent armed with a sharp sword.

The shield was severely damaged when it was used the same way as in a shield wall, but when Warming used it actively to avoid direct hits from his opponent, the damage was considerably less.

The archaeologist believes that there must have been far more disadvantages than advantages by using shield walls and that the thin and relatively light Viking shields would not have lasted very long.

In addition to the practical tests, the researcher also reviewed a number of historical sources from the Viking Age and the Middle Ages.

He did not find any descriptions of Viking shield walls.

Warming concludes that the Vikings probably fought the enemy actively using their shields, either to avoid being hit by swords or axes, or to hit the enemy with the edge.

Sixty-Four Painted Shields

In 2010, an almost complete hand-held shield was excavated at the Trelleborg Viking ring fortress dated to the reign of Harold Bluetooth of Denmark (c. 958 – 986 AD). So far, this is the only complete shield found in Denmark dating back to the Viking Age.

Fragments from the Trelleborg shield put together. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark)

Fragments from the Trelleborg shield put together. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark)

With a diameter of 85 centimeters, eight millimeters thick near the center and thinning to five millimeters at the edges, the Trelleborg shield was relatively light.

It is made of seven fir planks, has a hole in the middle and a moderately decorated handle.  Originally there must have been a boss, but it was never found.

If the Trelleborg shield was typical for the Viking Age, it was originally covered with animal skin to make it stronger, and it was probably painted in bright colors.

In addition to the finding at Trelleborg, there were also found complete shields in the Gokstad ship mound in Norway. The Viking ship was excavated together with a large number of grave goods including sixty-four round shields painted in blue or yellow used as a so-called shield rack to protect the crew against incoming arrows and spears.

Two of the sixty-four shields from the Gokstad ship, thirty-two on each side. Every second was painted in yellow or black and the longship must have been a magnificent sight. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

Two of the sixty-four shields from the Gokstad ship, thirty-two on each side. Every second was painted in yellow or black and the longship must have been a magnificent sight. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

The Gokstad shields are like the shield found at Trelleborg - relatively thin - and research has shown that they would easily split when struck with arrows, swords and axes.

This strengthens the theory that they were originally covered with animal skin: The skin shrinks a little when it dries out, something that increases the strength.

By using animal skin, it was also possible to use relatively thin pieces of wood and thereby keep the weight as low as possible.

However, the shields were not strong enough (or big enough) to withstand multiple hits from swords and axes in a shield wall – something that confirms Warming’s theory.

Combat Techniques

It is known that the Vikings used a wide range of combat techniques. One of these is the so-called svinfylking (”Swine Array” or “Boar’s Snout”), a version of the wedge formation used to attack and break through enemy shield walls with an ax as the primary weapon, something that was creating fear and panic.

Svinfylking – sketche

Svinfylking – sketche

 The disadvantage of the svinfylking technique is that it would not work if the attackers had to make a quick retreat.

The Norse sagas also confirm the Viking mentality: Norsemen were fearless warriors who did not hide behind shield walls while they waited for the enemy to attack.

Top image: Illustration of a Viking shield wall (unknown artist)

The article ‘ Dissolving Myths: Vikings Did NOT Hide Behind Shield Walls’ by Thor Lanesskog was originally published on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.

Comments

If he found no references to shield walls in the written sources I suggest the researcher looks again. Vikings didn’t use a wall when attacking but clearly did when under missile attack or when outnumbered. There are clear references to them using it in early medieval texts like the Battle of Maldon poem where they form up behind a bordweall (Old Eanglish for a shield wall). Warming must have been quite selctive in the archaeolgical evidence he uses because shields do become larger in the 9th and 10th centuries suggesting they are not used merely to parry in the melee but are used in defensive formations. Reenactors, keep your shield walls!

The Svinfylking formation is essentially the same as the Zulu Bull head. A center mass to fix and control the enemy and horns, wings, tusks to encircle the enemy and attack from the sides and rear. The Zulu shield was basically rawhide fastened to a center rod . It was used as a deflector and weapon.

In either case, the shields were not used in the same way a European Medieval shield would be, as a defensive structure. Thin or flexible "shields" are best used to disguise moves or to confuse an enemy with two attacks simultaneously.

You bring up a few solid points, as the shield wall can be a bit exaggerated, but there are some eyewitness accounts that say that such tactics were used. Maybe not as a direct offensive weapon(like how Vikings portrayed it in “the Battle of Brothers” from season 2, where two Viking shield walls charged at each other... which is dumb. Cool and entertaining for the series, but not feasible or accurate.), but as a defensive tactic. They were usually always the first ones to attack, of course, but if their situation required it, it would be a logical thing to do. They weren’t dull-witted savages. They used smart tactics. Anyway, back to the eyewitness account. Abbo of St-Germain recorded his account from the Siege of Paris. Granted, he may have exaggerated some parts, such as there being 40,000 attacking Danish vikings and only 200 defenders of Paris, but he did indeed describe the use of a shield wall. Or rather, a testudo. He must’ve known what a Roman testudo was and when he saw how the vikings were advancing in a similar tactic, with shields raised and overlapped, he labeled it as the Roman term he was familiar with. Granted, a testudo and viking shield wall are a bit different, but this evidence supports the theory that vikings did use shield walls, but maybe not quite as much or exactly in the same way that media portrays them to have done.

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