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Viking Shield Technology Revealed in New Breakthrough Study

Viking Shield Technology Revealed in New Breakthrough Study

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How exactly the Vikings and their Iron Age ancestors made their war shields has always been a mystery, but a new study explains this in detail and shines light onto a traditionally shadowy aspect of ancient Nordic warcraft and weaponry.

Iron Age and Viking Age cultures in Northern Europe crafted shields from thin wooden boards that were reinforced with animal skins before battles. Until now these covers were only ever considered in aesthetic terms, but a new research project demonstrates how these shield covers “increased strength and enhanced structural integrity.”

A well-preserved fragment from the edge of a Viking Age shield was excavated from a grave in Birka (Sweden). The fragment consists of a wooden core which is reinforced with tanned sheep skin (leather) on both sides and an additional layer of tanned cattle skin (leather) around the edge. (Rolf Warming / Society for Combat Archaeology)

A well-preserved fragment from the edge of a Viking Age shield was excavated from a grave in Birka (Sweden). The fragment consists of a wooden core which is reinforced with tanned sheep skin (leather) on both sides and an additional layer of tanned cattle skin (leather) around the edge. (Rolf Warming / Society for Combat Archaeology )

Studying Strategic Tools of Deflection

If you’ve ever bought a smartphone cover east of Istanbul, the happiness in only having spent a couple of dollars is unavoidably negated after the first shower of rain or accidental drop when rushing in a crowd. This kind of frugality caused the loss of thousands of lives in the early Iron Age , as Germanic warriors fell to the ground due to having second-rate protector-skins for their shields which inevitably fell to pieces during the traumas of battle.

Simple visual overview of some of the main results of the research study. (Rolf Warming / Society for Combat Archaeology)
Simple visual overview of some of the main results of the research study. (Rolf Warming /
Society for Combat Archaeology )

By the transition of the Germanic Iron Age into the Viking Age, in the mid-9 th century, the selection, treatment and application of animal hides for shield skins had advanced to take into account many factors and to increase the strength of the shield. However, the exact methods used in the late Iron Age and Viking Age to make shields was an archaeological mystery until the publication of this new study. By adopting new analytical methods, the research team has answered not only what type of animal skin products were preferred, but it also enables for the reconstruction of ancient shields, opening the door to research into how these devices of deflection were used during war, both tactically and strategically.

Thanks to their results, the research team was able to complete the first authentic Viking shield replica, seen here. It was made as part of a separate collaboration project between the Society for Combat Archaeology and Trelleborg Viking Fortress (part of the National Museum of Denmark). (Tom Jersø / The Viking Shield Project)

Thanks to their results, the research team was able to complete the first authentic Viking shield replica, seen here. It was made as part of a separate collaboration project between the Society for Combat Archaeology and Trelleborg Viking Fortress (part of the National Museum of Denmark). (Tom Jersø / The Viking Shield Project)

From Shield Production to Fighting Styles

In the article published in the journal  Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission , Rolf Warming (project leader) of the Society for Combat Archaeology , in conjunction with the School of Conservation, Aarhus University and Moesgaard Museum, and a team of researchers including René Larsen, Dorte Sommer, Luise Ørsted Brandt, and Xenia Pauli Jensen, set out to determine which animal species were used for the shield skins, and whether these skins were tanned or untanned. He conducted microanalyses on four shield samples dating from between 350 BC and 1000 AD. These results were then compared with a sample set from a well-preserved Latvian shield dating to 875 AD, of Curonian origin.

The study shows that cattle and sheep skins were the preferred raw materials for shield making. While the scientists point out that four shields create much to slim a sample set for drawing conclusions in terms of regional and chronological variations in shield designs or production procedures, the study does provide a new framework for future archaeological excavations that come across ancient shields.

Despite studying only four shields, what was ascertained was that the animal skins had been very carefully chosen before they were treated in several ways to enhance their durability and then stretched across the faces of shields for use in hand-to-hand combat. The study also shows how different fighting techniques greatly determined how the shields would have been made. Various adaptations and innovations to suit fighting styles are noted.

Fragment of a shield rim from Bornholm, Denmark, dated to c. 250-310 AD. (Jacob Nyborg Andreassen / Society for Combat Archaeology)

Fragment of a shield rim from Bornholm, Denmark, dated to c. 250-310 AD. (Jacob Nyborg Andreassen / Society for Combat Archaeology )

Novel Methods Aid Research on How Vikings Used Shields in Combat

Now that the shield production methodologies are better understood, the researchers will now shift their focus from manufacturing to understanding how shields actually functioned in combat. To aid this phase of the research, authentic shield replicas will be used in experimental archaeology applications. In a separate SoCA project, in collaboration with Trelleborg Viking Fortress at the National Museum of Denmark, one such Viking shield replica has already been made based on archaeological data gathered from one of the four Viking Age shields included in the new study. This particular shield was recovered from grave Bj 850 in Birka, Sweden.

The Age of Vikings

VIKINGS! Fearsome warriors who sailed and raided, hungering for land, gold, and treasure? Yes! Expert navigators, explorers, colonizers, farmers, settlers, accomplished builders and highly skilled traders? YES!! Now immortalized in history and legend, the Norsemen may have a violent reputation, but they explored the seas and truly connected and changed the world during the Age of Vikings. Learn all about them in the Ancient Origins Special available here .

 

During its life, the original 9th-century shield discovered at Birka in Sweden had remained fully functional. Its rim was constructed from dense cattle leather and was likely used to deflect sword, axe and spear blows coming in at different angles. Meanwhile the shield facing was made from sheep leather and took the full impact of frontal attacks.

Within the new study, the researchers suggest that they used sheepskin in the shield facing due to its light-weight characteristics which make it easier to stretch than cattle hide. Tests have confirmed it provided “shock-absorbent qualities” which obstructed blade alignment and helped deflect powerful cuts.

Top image: The image shows Viking reenactors using shields in combat. Although there are many reenactment shields in existence, it has not been possible to make an accurate Viking shield replica until now. Source: Jacob Nyborg Andreassen / Trelleborg Viking Fortress - National Museum of Denmark

By Ashley Cowie

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