June 25, 2014

Metal History: The Ulfberht Sword

Metal History

So we all know that Vikings are pretty metal, right? Well, this is the story of a particularly badass piece of viking history that you might not have heard of; the Ulfberht – a unique type of sword made of crucible steel – a technology hundreds of years ahead of its time – and inscribed with the name Ulfberht, enclosed in two crosses (like this “+VLFBERH+T”). No one knows who or what this Ulfberht is, or why his name appears on so many of these swords, but these swords were clearly weapons of great power and status.

Archaeological example of an Ulfberht sword.

Archaeological example of an Ulfberht sword.

The earliest Ulfberhts found date from 850AD. So far, 171 swords bearing the name “Ulfberht” have been discovered, but only some of them are authentic swords. Many are replicas made of cheap steel, likely because Ulfberht swords were highly sought after and warriors wanted to have one without the high price (much like your modern day Chanel rip-off. The name inscribed on these knock-offs is usually “+ULFBERHT+”).

What Makes an Ulfberht Sword so Awesome?

An Ulfberht sword.

An Ulfberht sword.

If you know anything about swords, you know that there are good swords and crap swords. Good swords aren’t necessarily those with the sharpest edge – they have a balance, a shape, a beauty to them. They are strong, yet flexible. They are made of superior materials. The Ulfberht swords are all of these things.

The most startling discovery about the Ulfberht swords is that they are not made of the wrought iron typical of similar weapons of the period, but of a metal called “Crucible Steel”. I don’t want to get too hung up in the details of forging swords, but basically, because of their manufacturing process, iron swords contain very little carbon and some impurities, and so they are brittle and break easily, rather than bend. Crucible Steel (called thus because it is made in a crucible), on the other hand, goes through a liquid phase in its creation, meaning it contains more carbon and is practically free of particulates and impurities.

It took a highly skilled craftsman to make this type of sword. Every stage of the process, including the forging, the quench, and the inclusion of the name, took an incredible amount of skill.

How Did the Vikings Come to Know of Crucible Steel?

A "crucible" forge.

A “crucible” forge.

That’s the 1100-year-old question.

Crucible steel is produced in India, Sri Lanka from about 300BC, and later in Turkenistan, Uzbekistan, and some other central Asian centres (8-12AD).

Often, the material a sword is made from acts like a map to the location of its creation. Indian crucible steel contains a superior type of iron ore – it contains trace elements of vanadium and some other rare doodads, which give their steel the ability to retain an edge even after many years of use. It also means that scientists analyzing the steel can tell if crucible steel comes from India or one of the other centres. The genuine Ulfberht swords comes from India.

This means that the Vikings had trade relationships with India, which is quite a remarkable thing if you contemplate it. They used the Volga trade route – a route that will take you via lakes and rivers from Sweden right the way to Iran. The Ulfberht swords date from the same period as the Volga trade route was being used.

What Does Ulfberht Mean?

The answer is simply: we don’t know. Ulfberht is a Frankish word, but it does not currently have an understood meaning. There is no mention of “Ulfberht” in any writing of the time. The inscription on the swords uses Latin letters, and the crosses incorporated into the name suggest that the name is important, and connected to the church (a bishop or an abbot, or the name of a monastery where the swords were made – but then, how did the Vikings get these swords?). Another theory is that the name is a compound of the Old Norse “Ulfr” (wolf), and Old High German/Old Saxon “berht” (light, bright, shining).

Some other ideas include: Ulfberht is the name of a master craftsman, who passed his skills down to his apprentices, who kept the name alive. Ulfberht could have also been the name of a group of craftsmen. Ulfberht was some kind of magic – a kenning (a word of power).

Below is a NOVA Nat Geographic special about the Ulfberht sword, which discusses the history of the swords and shows a modern blacksmith attempts to recreate the sword. Highly recommended.

Want to learn more about awesome stuff? Check out the rest of my metal history articles.

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2 Comments on “Metal History: The Ulfberht Sword

May 27, 2015 at 12:31 am

850 BC? You mean AD, right?

June 3, 2015 at 7:11 pm

@Agnes – argh, yes, I do! Thanks for noticing that!

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