A Brief Analysis On Viking Age Weaponry, Armours, And Equipment

The most veridic sources of information on the weapons and armours used on the battlefield by the Norsemen throughout the Viking Age stem from the Icelandic sagas, the skaldic poems, as well as from a series of archaeological findings.

To this date, some of the main points of interest are represented by the archaeological findings excavated in Scandinavia during the 20th century. One such discovery from the site of a farm called Gjermundbu located in the proximity of the little village of Haugsbygd, southern Norway, emphasises several important pieces of Viking Age equipment dating to the 10th century.

Among the artefacts discovered there was also one of the only authentic and best preserved Viking Age helmets. Aside from the helmet proper, there have been unearthed three additional swords, an almost intact chain mail, three axes, three spearheads, four bulges from shields, a riding equipment, several game pieces as well as some dices from the burial mound where the burnt remains of two male Norsemen were found. By all means, these artefacts seemed to have belonged to two wealthy Norse chieftains.

The only surviving, complete, and authentic Viking Age helmet from Ringerike, eastern Norway. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Regarding the design of the helmets the Norsemen had worn, there is no archaeological finding discovered to this date which proves the fact that they were crafted with either wings or horns. Another important aspect regarding the Norse military equipment is that the quality of the weapons and armours indicated the Norsemen’s social status. For instance, a wealthy Norse would dispose of an entire set of spears, two javelins, a wooden shield, a chain mail (known as ‘byrnie’), and a battle axe or a sword (the latter two being weapons of choice).

A replica Danish Axe, Petersen Type L or Type M. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The most wealthiest of the Norsemen would additionally dispose of a helmet. The quality of the arms in possession would exponentially increase according to the Norse hierarchic system, where noblemen and professional warriors would be fit with the best swords, axes, shields, or helmets.

Therefore, the range of weapons used by the Norsemen comprised spears, javelins, swords, axes, bows, knives (i.e. seax/sæx in singular form) as well as a special model of spear referred to as ‘atgeir‘ in some Icelandic sagas (in fact, a weapon more like a glaive).

Concomitantly, the defensive equipment included helmets (definitely without wings or horns as they were portrayed in various 19th century paintings and ever since rooted in the popular culture), (chain) mails, and shields (both round and kite ones; the kite shields appeared during the end of the Viking Age throughout much of Europe, while the round ones had been previously preferred).

The Skjaldborg (Shield Wall) tactic used by the Norsemen as depicted in History Channel's TV series 'Vikings'. The shield wall tactic was also used by other peoples during both the Ancient Age and the Middle Ages (i.e. Romans, Greeks, etc.). Image source: www.pinterest.com

The Skjaldborg (Shield Wall) tactic used by the Norsemen as depicted in History Channel’s TV series ‘Vikings’. The shield wall tactic was also used by other peoples during both the Ancient Age and the Middle Ages (i.e. Romans, Ancient Greeks, etc.). Image source: www.pinterest.com

The kite shields were used by the Norsemen during the end of their heyday and are depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. They were mostly preferred by the mounted warriors, but, at times, were also used by infantrymen as well.

Illustration of a Norseman equipped with different sets of weapons and armours. Image source: www.matthewgreatrex.wordpress.com

Illustration of a Norseman equipped with different sets of weapons and armours. Image source: www.matthewgreatrex.wordpress.com

The round shields were mostly made of linden wood (as specified in the sagas), but archaeological findings prove that there were also several other timbers involved in shield construction such as fir, alder, or poplar. These round shields were also painted with various Norse mythological scenes according to the skaldic poem ‘Ragnarsdrápa’, which is said to have been composed in the honour of the legendary Norse hero and chieftain Ragnar Lodbrok.

The main military tactics used by the Norsemen on the battlefield were the Skjaldborg (Shield Wall) and Svinfylking (which could be literally translated as ‘boar snout’). Svinfylking was an offensive tactic which was used by other invading Germanic tribes throughout continental Europe during the early Middle Ages as well.

For various arrow head and bow types, the work of Danish author Dan Høj is a strong source documentation and further research as you can see down below:

To these days, the Icelandic sagas remain one of the earliest and most significant sources of documentation on the range of weapons and armours crafted and used by the early medieval Scandinavians. In this respect, the most notable sagas where Viking Age equipment is described are the following ones:

  • The Eyrbyggja saga;
  • The Laxdæla saga;
  • The Njáls saga.

For further reading and research, the index of all Icelandic sagas can be found online here.

Documentation sources and external links:

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9 Responses to A Brief Analysis On Viking Age Weaponry, Armours, And Equipment

  1. Kevin Horner says:

    Interesting article.

  2. Erich Schubert says:

    any war hammers found in burials or talked of in the sagas?

  3. Mick Cowley says:

    in the late part of there history i belive that there was a kind of mace used as armour started to get heavier

  4. Robert Youens says:

    Interesting article and a plethora of links there…enough to keep me occupied and out of mischief for a fair old while !. Cheers Bob

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Haha, that’s great to know, Robert! Thank you for the consideration and for liking my work. Moreover, I’m rather glad it’ll keep you out of mischief for quite a while. Hope you won’t commit any after reading through all the linked sources as well, heh. Take care and drive safely! 🙂

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