The Vikings are often portrayed as crude people that should be feared, but in reality, they left behind an important legacy that has resounded throughout history. Among them are the mysterious Uflberht swords – medieval weapons of warfare which were considered to be very advanced for its time. These ancient artifacts have puzzled archaeologists for years, with many wondering about the identity of the people who made them and how the Vikings managed to forge such weapons thousands of years ahead of the technology that would have made creating them possible.
What Are Ulfberht Swords?
The Ulfberht swords are a group of medieval swords found in Europe, and are dated between the 9th and the 11th centuries. These weapons are at the transitional point between the Viking sword and the high medieval knightly sword. They are also considered to be the starting point of the high medieval tradition of inscribing sword blades.
The blades were inlaid with the inscription of the Ulfberht name and two crosses (+VLFBERHT+), with the name “Ulfberht” believed to be a Frankish personal name that became the basis of a trademark of sorts and was also used by multiple bladesmiths for several centuries. This made the Ulfberht like a medieval luxury brand for swords, as they were of such high quality that some people consider these blades as almost mystical.
Thousands of Ulfberht swords were found across Europe, and most of them were found in rivers or were excavated from Viking burials across Europe and Scandinavia. However, only around 170 swords are proven to be authentic Ulfberht swords. They have been buried for centuries, making these found artifacts only shadows of the ancient masterpieces of weaponry that they once were.
Who Made the Ulfberht Swords?
The Ulfberht swords dominated the battlefield across different parts of Europe. These weapons were attributed to the Vikings and were used by many nations from about 800 to 1100 AD. They were only used by a few select warriors at the time as they were a masterpiece built from pure steel. After this period, the swords disappeared in Europe for at least a thousand years before weapons of this quality surfaced again around the 18th
Why these medieval swords have the inscription of Ulfberht continue to be an enigma until now as the name does not appear in written texts that existed around that time. The fact that the Ulfberht swords appear for over two hundred years is proof that they were not forged by a single craftsman. The name “Ulfberht” could have been the name of the location these weapons were produced, but it could also have been inscribed to the blades as proof of its authenticity. These premium-grade swords were so well-known in European battlefields at the time that hundreds – and maybe even thousands - of imitations of these swords were made, and even these knock-offs were of very good quality as well.
The crosses found in the inscriptions on the Ulfberht swords could suggest that these weapons have a connection with the Roman Catholic Church. This makes sense since the church dominated the Frankish Empire and was also a major producer and dealer of weapons during that time. It was also the practice by bishops and abbots to place the Greek cross before names, so it may also be possible that the Ulfberht name could have been the name of a bishop, abbot or even a monastery. However, many researchers also believe that Ulfberht was one of the most ancient trademarks, serving as sign of high quality weaponry.
Composition & Quality of the Ulfberht Swords
What makes the Ulfberht blades so special is the fact that these blades’ metal was comparable to the strength and quality of modern steel. Most Viking blades and the blades in the rest of Europe made at the time were composed of low-quality steel that could shatter like glass. This is the reason why it is such an enigma how the Ulfberht swords were so advanced when medieval blacksmiths in Europe have yet to possess the knowledge and technology to make weapons as strong, as light and as flexible as the blades that were widely made and could only have existed several centuries later.
To create a sword in the same quality as the Ulfberht blades, the inclusion and distribution of carbon is key. If a sword’s carbon content is not controlled to just the right amount, the sword will either be too soft or too brittle. However, with just the right amount of carbon, this element can significantly strengthen the blade. In fact, the carbon content of Ulfberht swords is about three times higher than that of the bladed weapons around the same time.
Also, in the process of forging iron, the ore has to be liquefied so that the blacksmith could remove the metal’s impurities known as “slag.” To make the ore’s liquefication possible, it must be heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what is done in modern times. However, what’s interesting about this is that medieval blacksmiths in Europe could not make slag-free steel because their fires were not hot enough to completely liquefy the iron. Instead, in the Viking era, carbon could mainly be introduced through coal in the fire, and the only way to remove the slag from the metal was to just try to hammer out the impurities with every strike.
Theories About the Origins of the Ulfberht Swords
According to the research of Dr. Alan Williams, a consultant archaeometallurgist at the Wallace Collection, who analyzed the Ulfberht swords, the metal used in these ancient weapons is known today as crucible steel. Crucible steel is created by meting iron along with other materials mixed in a crucible and then pouring that molten metal into a mold.
At the time that the Ulfbehrt swords were produced, no one in Europe knew how to melt iron at extreme temperatures for centuries. Crucible steel was not even around the continent until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. So, how did the Vikings manage to forge blades that required this advanced technology around a thousand years earlier?
The Vikings were not just excellent and fearless warriors, they were also advanced in a lot of ways so much so that they were also known to be highly skilled traders and navigators. Many artifacts discovered in modern-day Scandinavia have originated from Asia, India and several Eastern parts of the world, which led many experts to believe that the Vikings have managed to somehow reach continents as distant as the Americas and Asia.
Asia was home to the greatest swordsmiths who forged the greatest swords in human history, and one of them incudes the Damascus steel, which was determined to have similar compositions to the metal content of the Ulfberht swords. This has led to one theory that the Ulfberht swords originated from modern-day Iran. Researchers suggest that the Viking acquired the materials they needed to make the Ulfberht swords by trading with merchants back when the Volga Trade route was opened around the same time.
However, another theory suggests that the Ulfberht blades had nothing to do with the steel forged in the Middle East. According to Robert Lehmann, a chemist at the Institute for Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Hannover, the material of the Ulfberht sword they found in 2012 in the Weser River in northwestern Germany does not come from the East. The sword’s blade has a high manganese content while its guard was made from iron with a high arsenic content, both of which suggest that the materials used to make the sword were European in origin. Lehmann traced the origin of the sword to a site in the Taunus region, located north of Frankfurt, Germany – a region where some monasteries were known to have created weapons at the time. It is important to note, however, that the Ulfberht name has not been found in the records of these weapon-making monasteries in the area.
While we may have taken several steps closer to unraveling the mystery behind the Ulfberht swords, it is still a glaring fact that we do not have all the knowledge there is to know about this ancient artifact from the Vikings. Nevertheless, we can say for certain that the Ulfberht swords are important testaments to the legacy that the Vikings have left behind as fearless warriors and as a military force to be reckoned with during what has become known as the Viking age. These special swords also serve as proof of the painstaking lengths taken by great swordsmiths of the time to forge weapons of impressive quality that even modern swordsmiths admit to be a very complicated task though they possess the knowledge and technology that weapon makers of the Viking era did not.