A Viking warrior's basic weaponry requirements included a sword or axe, shield and spear. He may also have been expected to provide a bow and arrows, and clothe himself in defensive armour such as a chainmail coat and iron helmet.
One of the most important discoveries at Woodstown, a Viking site 5km upriver from present-day Waterford, in Ireland, was the grave of a Viking warrior, dating to about 850. This grave is the only example in Ireland where the warrior was buried with all his weapons – sword, shield, spear, axe, knife – even the hone stone for sharpening the weapons.
The sword was the ultimate status symbol of a Viking warrior. Swords were treasured possessions and were usually handed down from father to son. However, the Viking warrior at Woodstown was buried with his sword. Perhaps he had no son to hand it on to, or perhaps he was of such high status that it was felt that he deserved to keep his sword with him in the next life.
Iron was an expensive commodity. More iron was used in the construction of a sword than any other weapon so they would normally be wielded by a wealthier warrior, though, doubtless, many were scavenged from the bodies of fallen foes.
Viking swords were usually between 90cm and 95cm in length, including a 10cm tang. They were created by the process of pattern-welding, meaning wrought-iron strips were welded together, twisted and hammered out into a blade, with a hardened steel edge added to the main body. A typical Viking-Age sword weighed just over 1kg.
The blade was tapered towards the point and a groove – known as the ‘blood groove’ – was forged and ground out along its length. Good smiths were highly valued craftsmen and would often add their mark to the weapon during construction, though victory runes were sometimes etched onto the blade or hilt after battle.
Swords were double-edged, used in one hand and intended as a slashing rather than stabbing weapon, being both strong and flexible. Single-edged varieties existed in the Early Viking period.
Swords were celebrated in the sagas and given names by the scalds, such as Fotbitr (leg-biter) and Kvernbitr (quern-biter), the latter being an English sword presented by King Athelstan to the Norwegian King Hakon. Other sword names from the sagas are Dragon Slayer, War-Snake, Viper, Battle-Flasher, Serpent of Blood, Widow-Maker, Ice of Battle, Torch of Blood.
Perhaps the weapon most associated with Viking warriors is the axe, which was usually long-handled and came with a variety of axe-heads such as the T-shape or the bearded. Early blades were 8cm to 16cm long, with later ones growing to 23cm to 46cm.
Axes could be elaborately decorated as well as being practical weapons. An example is the Mammen Axe which is inlaid with gold and silver.
The axe gave its user a long reach in battle. It was a devastating weapon in the hands of a skilled warrior, such as at the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014, where King Brian Boru was killed.
The spear was probably the most common weapon, requiring the least amount of iron to manufacture. They are certainly the most numerous to be found at Viking burial sites.
Spears were used for both thrusting at an enemy and throwing, the latter probably taking place at the onset of battle and featuring less elaborate spears with slender, smaller heads. Those with broader, leaf-shaped heads would have been retained in the hand to stab with.
Bow and arrows
Viking arrows also had a leaf-shaped head and measured approximately 15cm in length overall. Bows would have been used for hunting as well as in battle, with arrows carried in a cylindrical quiver. Only fragments of Viking bows have been found, but archers are mentioned in the sagas and in histories such as Saxo Gramaticus's 'Gesta Danorum', where Norwegian bowmen are described killing Ubbi, the champion of King Harald Wartooth, at the Battle of Bravalla.
Round, wooden shields were the main defence of Viking warriors. Measuring approximately a metre across, they had a central hole for an iron boss which was attached to an iron grip on the inner face of the shield. Some shields were decorated in bright colours and later examples may have varied in shape and size.
Helmet and chainmail
Vikings are often depicted wearing iron helmets, but in fact few examples have ever been discovered. One spectacular find was the Gjermundbu helmet in a grave in Ringerike, Norway, in 1943. It consists of an iron cap with four spokes and a rim with a heavy eye and nose guard attached.
Fragments of a chainmail shirt were found in the same grave. The mail was formed with interlocking rings rather than by a riveting method. It may be that helmets and mail shirts like this were only worn by the very wealthy or by elite warriors such as kings’ bodyguards.