Research: Vikings Did Not Hide Behind Shield Walls

Vikings form a shield wall in the “Vikings” TV show. (Illustrating photo: History Channel)

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 also is 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 has 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 have been individual warriors fighting 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.

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

With a diameter of 85 centimeters, eight millimeters thick near the centre 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 originally was 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.

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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 originally were 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 ax as the primary weapon, something that was creating fear and panic.

Svinfylking – sketche

 

The disadvantage of the svinfylking technique is that it was not working 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.

On the contrary.

 

 

 

Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Culture, History, Vikings

14 replies

  1. Seriously, I call bullshit to the evidence supplied. A wooden shield, in the day,would have provided ample protection from a (medieval) arrow.

  2. In a shield wall the shields are not going to take the brunt of attack . The opposing forces get shield to shield and hack and poke at close quarters. I basically is a big shoving match with sharp objects involved.

  3. This is part of a growing movement to revise everything. Like the Long bow now is not a super weapon and one wonders how the English could have won any battle at all….

  4. This article is like a theory, that people in XX century were using bikes, nothing else, because a bike was found by the archeologists! So what about the battle of Hastings, where two (still) Viking armies met??? It was typical shieldwalls battle, where the formation stayed at strong position on the hill to defend itself from the cavalry.

    So the answer comes from the situation of fighting sides. Shieldwall is typical defense formation, used mostly against cavalry or well armed heavy infantry to minimize theirs advantage. As K.S. said, it also was protection from any flying weapons, like arrows, stones or spears. And Boar’s snout is more offensive to break enemy’s shieldwalls. BTW all these tactics were not born in North Europe, but were well known in the Ancient and Medieval World, who knows a bit about Roman Army easy can find the same tactics during their wars against norther tribes and here is the answer, how Northmen invited this.

    • Hi Angol, and thank you for commenting here on ThorNews!

      We should all have in mind that the Viking Age lasted for about 300 years (c. 793 – 1066) and that much changed dramatically during the period, including combat techniques and weapons.

      The first Vikings left the fjords of Western Norway and crossed the Northern Sea to the British Isles in relatively small groups. Their goal was to raid and bring valuables (jewelry, weapons, slaves, and more) back home.

      At the end of the Viking Age, Scandinavian Viking armies were invading the British Isles, and they had to adapt their combat techniques facing regular armies (that btw often consisted of Viking mercenaries).

      If they used shield wall formation as a defensive formation, I do not know. Maybe.

      However, it is a fact that the Viking Age shields found in Scandinavia (so far) neither was strong enough or big enough to stop multiple hits from spears, stones, arrows, swords used in a shield wall.

      BTW – the Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066) was fought 19 days after the official end of the Viking Age when Harald Hardrada was beaten at the Battle of Stamford Bridge 🙂

      The Norman-French army could not have picked a better time to invade England..

      Thor

  5. Vikings weren’t called Beserkers for nothing. They fought with wild abandon. The idea was that they weren’t afraid to die and they went into battle as if crazed so that they would put fear into their enemies hearts. They would not have sought to depend on their shields overly much. That is another reason they were light, so as not to be so much weight that the Viking could not run full tilt. I would think that it was their basic strength to fight in the attack mode rather than defensively and then they would probably not have depended on their shields anymore than necessary.

    • I am so glad to have found this site – so much to discuss. Have you considered, Frank, that the notion of going without a shirt might refer to a specific type of shirt: a linen, or woollen, or mail shirt – and a specific circumstance. The guy who leaps off the prow wearing a woollen shirt would look pretty soggy if the water were to be deeper than he had anticipated, and he might not come up again at all if he were wearing a heavy mail shirt? A similar argument might apply if you were to be required to get into a tussle when rain was threatening, or on a hot day. Maybe the meaning of the term berserker has been dramatised somewhat?

  6. According to this article, there are no contemporary descriptions of shield walls. Of the top of my head, I would refer you to the very famous Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon”, the description of the Battle of Clontarf in Njal’s Saga (which, if memory serves, uses the term “skjalborg” as well as describing it), and the description of the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

  7. Bullshit. I offer you a funny realistic training with shild and axe. Big shild was found in 1,10 m size, beacaus it works like plating. This kind of wall is used since longer time, for example romanian. I fight a long time full contakt and the dynamic dont chance. Come an try, use small shild and i my big, we will have a lot of fun;))))
    PS:My shid is made from 6mm poplar, try destroy it^^! Bullschit my friend, bullshit

  8. Hi ThorNews, I like your work, and I think this discussion is useful.
    In your text you said that there is no written evidence of the use of shieldwall formations.
    But some people argued about Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which said that the Viking pirates of the Northern Europe attacked in “testudo” formations.
    Despite that fact, I think your research is very well done, and I even agree that light shields can’t be used in shieldwalls, but this single account brings problems to this theory.

  9. I have been researching the struggle between King Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum (or Guthorm) the Dane for many years and my principal source has, of course, been the Anglo Saxon Chronicle – first written in about 890. However, I have read this sceptically – acknowledging it to be Alfred’s propaganda. Nevertheless, there is no mention of shield walls before 880 that I can find. Asser, in his life of Alfred, written a few years later refers to the tactic being used by both sides in the 871 battle of Ashdown but specifically refers to the West Saxons forming up in a tight wall (according to modern translators). We do not know whether this was in the nature of an Hellenic phalanx, but bearing in mind Alfred’s probable reading of Roman and Greek military tactics, I suggest that it is likely. In other words, there is a possibility that the Danes in Britain soon learned the strength of a shield wall and began using it themselves onwards from about 871.

  10. Nice share, interesting perspective.
    BTW I wrote a bit on a related topic. what do you think?
    https://alinazeer.com/islamic-calligraphy-viking-heritage/

  11. It seems to me that there is plenty of evidence that the Danes and Northmen traded with Muslim held lands. Surely it is the timeline that is important. I feel that we tend to lump events into century long bites and ignore the changes that may occur within those centuries. On thing that fascinates me is that, before about 780, some archaeologists argue that the Scandinavians possessed only limited capability in the making of sails. If so, the development of twills in weaving, or the filling of the weave with pine resin or similar might have been the reason why they began travelling by sea in earnest about 70 years later. If so, just think on this, the expansion was nothing to do with hairy heroes, but much to do with the cleverness of their women weavers.

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