Replicas of Viking Age spears. (Photo: Darrell Markewitz, Wareham Forge)
In Norse mythology, Gungnir (“swaying one”) is the spear of Odin, chief of the Aesir gods and Allfather. It hits everything he aims at, and always returns to his hand. The myth shows the high status spears had in the Vikings society.
According to the older parts of the Gulating Law, dating back to before the year 900 AD covering Western Norway, a free man was required to own a sword or ax, spear and shield. It was said that Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway from 995-1000 AD, could throw two spears at the same time.
Compared with sword and ax, the spear was relatively cheap and effective to produce and one of the most important Viking Age weapons. Because of its length, it was probably the most important weapon in close combat. Together with arrows it also posed a big threat when it was thrown.
The Old Norse word spjót (spear) is related to the Old French word espiet which means “the spy, one who stares from a long distance”.
It was the Vikings’ third main weapon and hundreds of iron spearheads are found in burial mounds throughout Scandinavia. They are elegantly shaped and decorated with a hollow socket for attaching the wooden shaft that almost never is preserved, and never found in full length.
However, researchers have estimated that the ideal length of a close combat spear was about 2.5 meters (8.2 ft), but it could be longer than 3 meters (9.8 ft). The thickness was about 2.5 centimeters (1 in) but narrowed towards the end of the shaft.
From written sources we know that ash tree was used for shafts and was so common that the term askr was synonymous with the Old Norse word spjót.
When it comes to throwing spears, the length is more uncertain, but it is assumed that they could measure down to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft).
The Viking warrior to the right is patiently waiting with his spear and shield. (Illustration: Stian Dahlslett ©)
The spearhead of a throwing spear was normally only 20 centimeters long (7.9 in), almost the same as arrowheads, while the most powerful close combat spears could have spearheads with a length of 70 centimeters (27.6 in), almost the same as a sword.
Dr Petersen’s Viking Weapons Typology
The Norwegian archaeologist Dr Jan Petersen was the first who systematized Viking Age weapons: swords, axes and spears.
In 1919 he published his doctoral thesis: “The Norwegian Viking Swords: A Typological-Chronological Study of Viking Age Weaponry”.
Based on findings in burial mounds, Petersen also categorized spears, something that today is helping us systematizing and dating objects from the graves.
Viking Age spear types with decoration (Illustration: Vegard Vike, from the book “Vikings at War” 2011, translated into English 2016)
Spearheads from the Viking Age can be divided into two main groups:
The first main group (type A / B, C, D, E) is called Frankish spearheads. They date back to the period 750 – 950 AD, mainly from the 700s and 800s, meaning from the beginning of the Viking Age that officially started in 793 AD when the English monastery of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne was raided by Norwegian Vikings.
These spears make up one third of all that are found dating back to the Viking Age. Almost half of the Frankish spearheads that probably were imported to Scandinavia in the latter half of the 700s have so-called wings on the socket.
The majority of the spears are decorated with fish bone patterns, pattern forged along the middle of the blade. The blade has curved edges and little marked transition to the socket.
The second main group (type F, I, K, M, G, H) can be dated to the period 850 – 1100 AD. They make up about half of the spears darting to the Viking Age and are designed in a completely different way than the first main group, and can be expected to come from a completely different part of the world.
The blade has almost straight edges that end in an angle and a marked transition to the socket that is decorated with precious metal. There is little use of wings in this group.
The type K and two types of type G spears are forged in a sawlike pattern often referred to as “Wolf’s Tooth”.
The forged pattern is the result of welding layers of soft and hard iron metals together, then twisting and welding again, most typically to form the core part of a blade.
According to artisan blacksmith Darrell Markewitz at the Wareham Forge, Ontario Canada, there are some unresolved questions about why this method, called “pattern welding” in archaeology, was undertaken originally.
It can provide functional advantages, especially for long blades (so with swords). It may be as simple as building up a larger block when all the smith had were small pieces.
The techniques were also clearly used for their decorative effects. Spears using pattern welding is a very good example.
In addition to the two main groups, there is a rather big group, the type “O” spears. They account for just over ten percent and are dated to the 900s.
Viking Age Throwing Spear, Type L. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
The last group that should be mentioned is the throwing spears (type L) spearheads with barbs (Old Norse: flein). They are not many but very characteristic and occur throughout the Viking Age.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews
Main Source: Vegard Vike, “Vikings at War”, book 2011