Ulfberht’s Swords

Thousands of swords from Europe’s early Middle Ages have been recovered. Many of these are too corroded to show any detail but 19th Century archaeologists noticed that some had markings on the blades. Further investigation showed that many of these had the name Ulfberht on one side and geometric markings on the other.

Drawing by Norwegian archaeologists, published 1889.

The archaeologists believed that they had discovered the work of a master swordsmith and, since these swords were often found in Scandinavia, they were thought to be of Viking manufacture. A bit later, scholarship held that Ulfberht was a Frankish name. Later still, more rigorous dating showed that the swords were made over a period of two hundred and fifty years or more — from 850 – 1100 AD. Now the theorists held that Ulfberht was the medieval equivalent of a tradename, possibly the place where the swords were turned out. Ulfberht was the sign of quality — like Porsche, one archaeologist suggested.

An example from the Netherlands dated 950 – 1000.

Iron isn’t that easy to turn into a good finished tool or weapon. It must be heated to 1500° Celsius — difficult in Europe a thousand years ago — and that’s only the beginning. The molten iron must be cooled and worked and reheated, each time resulting in a slightly different composition of iron. The goal was steel: steel that was hard, but not brittle, steel that could strike a hard object and neither bend nor shatter, steel that could hold a sharp edge.

Bog iron isn’t that difficult to find in northern Europe and it can be melted to a stage where it can be worked, although it may only be the slag ingredients, not the iron, that is truly molten. Archaeologists do this kind of reconstruction all the time, locating bog iron and melting it and forming it a bit. Probably there were a lot of swords made this way. These were not great weapons and there are accounts of men straightening bent swords with their foot in the midst of a battle.

Somehow, at the end of the 8th Century, the Franks began turning out good swords, ones much easier to produce than the old pattern-welded blades. The Carolingian monarchs tried to forbid their export so that the weapons could not be used against Frankish troops but was unable to stop the traffic in arms.

Allen Williams has examined some forty-four Ulfberht swords and discovered that the earlier-made weapons were forged from fine crucible steel possibly from Persia or Afghanistan. In this process, iron was smelted in a sealed crucible and slowly allowed to cool. The resulting steel is of good quality with enough carbon content so that its melting point had lowered and it could be finished by local craftsman into excellent swords. Many Ulfberht swords have been found east of Frankia all the way into present-day Russia, possibly along Viking trade routes. But not all the Ulfberht swords are of good quality — many, especially the later-made weapons, are brittle and might shatter when struck by the real thing. Even so, some have very decorative hilts, finely worked with silver or other inlays, so they probably were made for wealthy customers. And they are still marked “Ulfberht”.

Imitation Ulfberht with silver wire worked into the hilt and pommel.

Mind you, the markings differ slightly. The original swords are marked “+VLFBERH+T” where the “+” is a cross. Later versions have the cross after the T, or two crosses, one quite fancy, on either side of the name. This is the equivalent of those “Rollex” watches that guys try to sell you from the trunk of their car.

An Ingelrii sword from the London Museum.

So far, only a dozen or so of forty-four examined Ulfberht swords are entirely of crucible steel, though some of the knock-offs are of pretty good quality and some have crucible steel edges. There were other swordmakers who signed their work — Ingelrii, Cerolt, and Ulen, for example — but only Ulfberht, whether he was a smith, a guy who owned a shop, or a patron of the swordmaker’s art, was famous enough to attract this kind of imitation, one of history’s great trademark thefts.

Notes:

Anne Stalsberg, “The Vlfberht Sword Blades Re-evaluated”. A hundred and sixty-six Ulfberht blades are listed with geographic distribution and considerable speculation on just who Ulfberht might have been.

Alan Williams,”A Metallurgical Study of Some Viking Swords” (PDF). Williams’ paper shows the difference between original and knock-off Ulfberht swords. There are a lot of photos at the article’s end.

An Ulfberht auctioned by Christie’s. It realized more than $18000, even though it’s broken. Real or imitation? At this distance, it probably doesn’t affect the value.

A swordmaker looks at Ulfberht’s work. Here and here.

23 comments on “Ulfberht’s Swords

  1. Ronald D. Barrow says:

    This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a subject thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!
    Mr. swords

  2. I am interested in knowing the difference between the Cawood sword and the ulfberht sword.

    • mikulpepper says:

      I have no info on that except that the Cawood sword is probably two hundred years or so after the Ulfberht heyday. I don’t know if it has ever been tested for its metalluric properties.

  3. Dain says:

    Synchronisity in effect here because I just watched a documentary on these the other week. I was going to include a comment that one viewer left on the documentary but the website seems to have removed it even though it had received more “likes” than any other comment (around 120 or so). Basically the comment explained the “ulf” was the world for “wolf” with “berht” meaning “bear” and that the cross wasn’t actually a cross at all, just a spacing symbol (i.e. “and”) for the “T” which was for the god “Tyre” I believe? In any case, his point was that the way it was written, the blacksmith was invoking the power of Tyre and the wolf and bear to be in the sword. So, not quite the mystery that everyone makes it out to be. The commentor seemed pretty confident and not like he was just out trolling but I can’t say for sure.

    • mikulpepper says:

      Well, Ulfberht is a name even though it’s derived from the animal words. I’m not sure about that spacing symbol idea but I’ll accept it as a theory. Anyway, the mystery is that the named swords were produced over a very long time and were famous enough to be imitated. So, what were the circumstances of their production?

  4. Catalan Girl says:

    The particle “berth” could also mean “bright, shining”. It is common in names of Germanic origin, such as Albert, Gilbert. Gilbert means “shining arrow”. The fact of being shiny was indeed rare and a sign of wealth in those days.

  5. Tim says:

    There’s also a theory some of the carbon in these swords were made from human and animal bone it makes me wonder if the carbon in these swords were made of bear and wolf bone and possibly human as well

  6. Richard Burian says:

    The name implies the blacksmith tribe I contend as related to the Norse god Buri, where in Mongolia Burte Chino is Blue wolf. Buri is a mane from Gengis Khan descendants and means wolf. I think Gengis, from Chinngis may mean chin, or dog, hence dog khan, or king dog.

    The Buri tribe was around Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, prior to these dates. Noricum steel from this region has natural chrome and nickel and may qualify as source mine for the raw material.

    The name suggest to me that Ber and Bur are a blacksmith tribe, and relates as Hyperboreans. The tribe would have a wolf tamga, similar to the “Draco” type wolf-headed dragon (serpent)

    The Biblical blacksmith was Cain, and later Tubalcain. I believe Tublecain traces to Rhodes Isle, and the Telchines (dog-headed fish) god, and these are the proto-Phoenicians who also founded Tyre in Lebanon. Crete was called Telchinea, where I think chin=dog, in this name, but I haven’t found this in research yet.

    As Asiatic type Skythians (North Black Sea), they can be Buryats of Siberia that went west around 10-15,000 BC, and brought the domesticated dog with them. Later to become shaman-blacksmiths.

    The Telchines can have other associations for their name: Idaean Daktals, Curates (Crete), Corybantes, Kabeiros (sea god- and Samothrace-Lemnos Isle cult. Hephaestus is part of Lemnos Isle, and a tribe called Burjan. The Telchines made Poseidon’s trident, also on the Ukrainian flag.

    I believe Burjan=Buryan=Borean trough history. I make the Hyperboreans all of the above, and as the Pelasgians, Myceneaen, and Minoans, all as blacksmiths (double battle axe folks). Lemnos traces to the Etruscans, also miners.

    If the Vikings and Phoencians both had boats, then the ore, and the blacksmiths could have various ancestors, that went to Baltic Sea regions, and produced this blade.

    The Russian “Golden Horde” fits within the scope of this article’s timeline, ore geography as possible Asian source.

    The Baskhort tribe/s are wolf related as the name Burzyan in Baskhortostan can be traced (bee keepers) where in the Romainian region may be called Burzen from these Bashkhirs (west Bashkhorts).

    I think the sword can have a Berht tribal name, being blacksmiths themselves, with a wolf-god messenger on Earth, the soil the blade is made from – iron; “holy metal”. Burs are stickers, and burrs are metal working files by name. Burs are in thistles and berries. the Asian berry is a “wolf berry” (goji).

    Possible sources could be ;Burgundians, Buri (Lugi Buri-tribe in the Gladiator movie-that also expresses this wolf god), Burjan tribe (Volga River-Russia-where I think Christmas traces- Marduan Princedom), Belgiums, Eburones, Bora mint in Spain with wolf coins, St. Buryan Cornwall England where you get tin.

    I think in the Baltic regions, Bjarmaland (of Burjan ?)could be thir location (White Sea) and possibly Bergen Norway due to the Boreas Festival (Thurians of Greece ?). May be King Arthur is of Thurians.

    Saint George follows this tribe around, and as the dragon-slayer, renaming shrines as such could also trace to source tribe and blacksmiths.

    My research traces my Bohemian-American surname Burian, based on family supposed earlier spellings Buryan, or Burjan. I’m R1a y-DNA which relates to your Northern Europe sword, and the Asian source ore possibility. Burjan/Bulgar is of the Bible “Tower of Babel”. Burjan can mean “tower” in Arabic and countries that end in “stan” suffix,of Central Asian.

    Tyre suggested, if of Phoenicians Lebanon, then their mint may have been in Beirut (Berytus).

    An English “b” changes to a Phoenician “v”. Veria Macedonia is Beria in the Bible (Book of Acts). Ulfberht can be Ulfverht, or a Burgundian Vulberht, where U=V, Bvrgvndian.

    I’m “GGG guy” as my “Grand Global Genome” concept tracing this specific tribe type name. Common theme is wolf and metals. The isolated “T” on the blade could be “Telchines”. Part of Judah, and Mt Tabor, and in Lycia (wolf).

    If so, then the blade tell us the tribe, their craft, their god/wolf tamga, and the crosses, their new god symbol they themselves replaced, i suggest as Christian, a dragon-slayer weapon against the barbarians of the day.

  7. Richard Burian says:

    I thought I should add that the Telchines also used blood in their metal process, to bind metals together, I thought of as an alloy such as bronze, as opposed to the Samari blade that is bi-metallic irons added together as a composite type blade material – like plywood – where the core of the blade is a different iron.

    Telchines may be of the ruins called Tel Kabri near Nahariya of Western Galilee Sea. Minoan style art was dug up here.

    Ka can be “wolf’ or “Female Bitch Goddess”, a “shewolf” of the Turks named Asena. Traces to Central Asia. Ka is also an Egyptian “soul” or, “spirit”. which suggests the Kabeiros-cult blacksmiths as “Soul of Beiros”. Burjan can mean “the wolf’s soul” around Macedonia.

    From Wikipedia – Telchines – Black Magic – the Telchines bring in sacrifices to bond celestial bronze and steel with blood. This not only physically harm the person it touches, but it rips part of their soul from them, too. Thus, if you stab a person with this sword, it kills the body and damages their soul.

    Also, in the theme of Jason and the Argonauts, I believe it was the Boreads whom built the Argo, hence Northern ship builders, aka – Hyperboreans. Buri the first Nordic god (the producer) begat bor (born as Earthly definitions).

    See if this clarifies additional factors for my posting, GGG guy.

  8. Richard Burian says:

    To help in definitions, the Norse god Tyr was left-handed. This is because Fenris “the giant wolf” bit off his other right-hand, in the myth story. To make this interesting, the Telchines were mercenary troops in Edom (as Khabiri), and this leads to the tribe named Benjamin) renamed by his father with a suggested meaning “son of my right-hand”. Benjamin was the only one of Israel’s 10-tribes actually born in Canaan. The rest of Abrahams’ sons were born in Babylon, where Abraham traces to Ur in Sumeria. However, the tribe of Benjamin were “left-handed” warriors. Hebrew is written as right to left-aka Tiberian Herbrew dialect.They were also a wolf tribe, as shown on their coat of arms, and also “archer bow and arrow, and sling” folks. These factors are stated in the Bible. I suggest they were part of the tribe called Asher, and migrated from Lebanon, by Tyre, and went to Edom later, then founded Jerusalem, because Saul, their first king as Israel, was a Benjamite. Is Asher of “ashes” being fire-ash worshipers as were the Armenians, and the sacred dog “Aralez/Arelaz”. Are Armenians the Iberians whom Strabo said were the gold miners of the “”Golden Fleece”, and they the same gold miners in Iberian Spain, as he suggests? If so, the date is Iron Age, 1200 BC for the Argonauts.

    I’m Bohemian, as Burian, and my family is left-handed, as is Norse god of swords, Tyr, all as wolf-related tribes in my opinion, if, of Hebrew ancestors. Tyr decends from Buri-Bor-Odin (Odin-Woden, who traveled with two dogs (Geri and Freki/German-France names ?) Part of Odins’ contingency of “elite” warriors were the Berserkers, who wore wolf-headed pelts/skins in battle. Some suggest “bear” as born under the constellation of the bear. However, Draco (wolf-dragon) likewise winds around the pole, too, and bore, as a hole in drilling, or mining, to go-around Earth’s axis, will allow for very-Northern tribal folks as miners, even more so.

    Dogs are “gaurdians” which may be akin to Asgard in Norse myth. Would relate to Gordion city by Troy in my opinion, as they had these gaurd-dogs as shepherds, and iron-spike (burs) on their dog-collars which were dug up in archaeology there. The gold of King Midas as well, as he was buried in Gordion. Nearby in Troy, Odin can be traced. Thus, as Phrygians, I suggest came from the east, aka: Pontic-Iberians, Lake Van kingdoms.

    The Khabiri I believe traces to India as Kubara the treasurer god-gnome or pygmy of the underworld in Tibet-India. A leprechan mimics this, and their tree of life is a thorn bush-tree, or thistle burs, which I claim can be derived from bur-sticker-thorn. The Norse blacksmiths are dwarfs. Hyperboreans trace to Kurus region in Tibet. Note the phrase of the Leprechan “where me hiding me gold” which they bury. Kebara is a cave at Mt. Carmel, Lebanon

    Kind of busy, but these comments have enough glue to postulate perhaps the tribal relationships to name a sword as wolf-bear type name/s. I strongly lean to wolf in this case due to my research otherwise. I’m happy I found out about these swords and their plausable wolf connections.

    El Cid’s sword was called Lobero (wolf-slayer). He was the guy that liberated Spain from the Moors.

    In Rhodes, the Telchines sacred mountain is called Atabyrius – which I see as Ata-Byrius from ata-Buryan – which is the older name of Mt. Tabor by Jerusalem. Essentially deified sword dirt or rock.

    Wednesbury (Wodenbyri, or Wadnesberie-Domesday Book census ~1066 AD), city in England is also defined as Woden’s (Odin’s) hill or barrow, and/or the Wednesday-day of the week, aka Woden’s day.

    The sword Excaliber in the Arthur legend, “the Dream of Rhonabwy” references two flame-breathing “Chimera’s” on the swords sheath. Chimera monsters come from Lycia (means wolf), and they connect to Rhodes Isle, home of the Telchines, which is possibly, of the Biblical Tubal-Cain blacksmith, after Noah’s flood, and Cain (blacksmith) before the flood. Related to Vulcan-Latin, Hephaestus-Greek.

    I see the same definitions for the sword Ulfberht, in theory, but I have yet to define location for this sword maker, and their tribal relevance by name, although I’m not completely naive of some targets to look closer into, of which may better aid ourselves in seeking this determination.

    Hopefully, I’ve simplified this, and we understand my intentions. Thanks for the web page, GGG guy.

  9. Richard Burian says:

    To correct an error in my previous response, the sword Lobero “wolf-slayer” was not El Cid of Spain, but owned by king (Saint) Ferdinard III, of Castile Spain, and one of El Cid’s sword’s was called “Colada”

    Cid’s sword as “acero colado” can imply “alloyed steel without impurities” similar to an “Ulfberh-T” sword.

    Sorry about the mistake, however this new definition works even better for crucible steel type iron. See what this may imply? GGG guy.

  10. Mark Goode says:

    I think there is a lot of over thinking on this. Ulf is Wolf Behr relates to Bear. The plus sign cross denotes Odin and the T is for Tyr the God of Battle. Berserkers were said to take the spirt of the Bear and the Wolf. So this is a blade consecrated or set with this name to grant it the magical properties of the Wolf, Bear, and dedicated in battle to the God of War Odin and the God of Battle Tyr. The Berserker angle is self explanatory I hope.

  11. Mark Green says:

    OR, perhaps these swords were made of hearth-refined bloom steel.
    A process, there is LOTS of evidence for.
    There is no evidence that crucible steel was ever made in that time, in Europe. If you know anything about crucible steel from Asia, you would find that it takes many-many years to learn to work this metal. Any European smith working a wootz puck, would very likely turn it into tiny pieces the first time he hit it with a hammer. It has a 200-300 deg working temp, and takes hundreds of heats to get it to a blade. Not something they were likely to embrace.
    I make 1+% carbon steel, that is near slag free, from bloom iron, all the time. In a hearth, as described by Evenstad, in the 1700’s. This was a known tec. from as far back as the early iron age.
    Under high magnification, it looks just like crucible steel.
    A much more realistic theory.

  12. Richard Burian says:

    If we wanted to add other types of manucfature akin to crucible steel for swords or knives, then we can add Toledo Spain, and which are likely the Iberians north and east side of Spain today. I’ll attach an article about their sword process/es, and the fact most were kept as secrets within family domains, or perhaps guild secrets for tempering steel. In this case, they would make a large sheet of steel, and bury it. Later they would reprocess this sheet, where the rusted portions would be the grain impurities they didn’t didn’t want, whereby the rust would diminish this part from there start iron, in sheet form, before attempting to make the sword. Toledo steel dates to at least 500AD, and Celtiberian coins and language dates to about 200-400 BC. These processes could readily migrate northward to be part of this Ulfbert type sword making.

    http://www.eyeonspain.com/blogs/bestofspain/8968/the-secret-of-toledo.aspx

    Another book refers to this metal process on page 145.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=8hE9SEDmsnEC&pg=PA147&lpg=PA147&dq=Spain,+Toledo+iron+mines&source=bl&ots=Eb5meqHjvk&sig=AKhby1qhd8RkiwhxGSmV0FcywGY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=AKZlUsC7Kere2AWs5oDYCA&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=Spain%2C%20Toledo%20iron%20mines&f=false

    I hope these attachments work okay. The second book is sampled for selling, so some pages are masked out as well. I haven’t bought this book yet and its author is; “The Romanization of Central Spain” by Leonard A Curchin.

    This second book has full references for its information, locations, and archaeology of the regions stated. I rate it highly and have read most of whats available unmasked. It also talks of the Samurai and Berber visitors seeking swords from Spain.

    An addition reference talks of squelching these sword blades in icy river waters for their tempering process.

    Apparantly, the Romans wanted these Toledo type blades because they were tempered correctly, and stated use as hunting knives.

    These things were recored at dates well before the Ulfberht sword timeline.

    I study blacksmiths, but, I am not one. I suggest Iberians in both Spain and the Caucasus are the same people and blacksmiths, before the Iron Age.

    On the south-east shore of the Black Sea, Iron was collected as sand grains, I think before iron mines, where an early iron mine one was by Ankara the capital of Turkey, where smelting of iron can also be shown.

    Shore sand is also used in China or Japan today collected with a magnet then used in a crucible steel type process. A film is available on this by one sword maker of old-process blade manufacture techniques. Very akin to crucible Ulfberht process also in a film on the web.

    In the Black Sea region, most iron ores were sold to others like Babylon and these were not tempered blades to my knowledge. Hence, Iberians in the Caucasus were still using coppers and bronzes where these iron ores or sands were coming into being. See Metsamor Armenia archaeology for more on this because ancient smelting furnaces were dug up here too.

    Consider that glass was originally made from shore grains (glassy-like) by Beruit and Tyre in Lebanon, considered to be furnace processes, like glazed pottery. Armenian pottery traces to Mycenaens, in the Aegean Sea. Double-battle-axe folks. Also called a Labry, this would also be the double-battle-axe culture in Germany I recall dates to 2500BC, in German archaeology. This matches Mycenaen dates quite well. I think the word Labrynth may come from this, which may just be an ore mine afterall, but thereafter, the myths mask this possibility (King Minos – Minoans of Crete)

    In this case, Earth-god resides in the mountains, and caves are sacred chapels, for these more ancient periods, i.e. Copper Age, and Bronze Age.

    The Iron Age folks thereafter entered into Europe with these iron products, and ships. I’m seeking these blacksmith tribes, by name. I would suggest they are of Iberian descendants in part. The Fir Bolg (Picts – a Roman description) I think may fit these factors and race (Aryan-Scythian).

    See if these Spain references have merit. Can Germany be connected to Spain at the timeline of Ulfberht type sword making time period? I think yes, but I don’t have the specifics to show this did occur.

    Also a Runic “X” to mean “gift” could be a “+”, both the form of a “cross” and a “charged with god” sword blade would be a “gift” from god accordingly. This “X” can trace to X-mas, or Christmas, which was the “Winter Festival” and is a gift exchange festival in root. St. Nicholas (Bari Italy) is the Saint of Gift Giving by definition. I derive this from the Volga River in Russia, by Bolgar city, as the Marduan Princedom around 750 AD. Predates St. Nic’.

    Also relates this “X’ as “gift” to Runic research in Sweden recently announced, but didn’t captivate this Russian factor in their announcement I read a few years back, which I had already calculated anyway. Does this relate to Excalibur sword? I think this “Ex” is the “X” – gift. and to liberate, where it implies “liberty”, to the bearer of this sword object, or whoever can pull it from the stone. The myth implies strength by blade, infused by god, in my opinion.

    All of this was “magic” to common folk in old times, even making any type of blade from dirt (ore). The Fir Bolg by common definition as “Men of Bags” would fit because they it was said they carried “bags of dirt”. After a lot of thinking, the dirt is ore from mining. So they are likewise sword makers. However, I think Fir Bolg may actually mean “Fire-Stone”, a smelting process. The word “Fir” in Danish can mean “fire”, or “tree” as in the Douglas Fir Tree known today. Fir tree branches made excellent torches at night for lighting, such that torches can relate too. This region can tie to Ulfberht type swords which have be dug up here regionally. Suggests Northern Blacksmiths could be related regionally.

    Thanks for the previous comments. Quite interesting, GGG guy.

  13. […] Ulfberhthttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/secrets-viking-sword.htmlhttps://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/ulfberhts-swords/http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/arms-armor/a-very-rare-viking-sword-the-blade-5079439-details.aspx […]

  14. Peter says:

    Im looking for athe source to the Frankish export ban on svords to the Vikings. Do you happen to know the original source?

    • mikulpepper says:

      Charlemagne banned export to the Slavs and Avars. One mention is here, which references yet another source. I don’t know of a specific ban on exports to Scandinavia but, if there was one, it is unlikely to have been very successsful. Frankish swords were a major trade item with the Norse.

  15. ULF = Wolf, BERHT = Noble or Bright. Therefore given how the steel would have looked when new, the name means Bright Wolf.

  16. […] Ulfberhthttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/…https://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/twenty…http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/ar… […]

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