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Viking Shields

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The 'Viking Shield' from Archaeology
Peter Beatson - NVG Miklagard
Introduction
The large circular shield of the Vikings was part of a conservative tradition of manufacture. The best
known intact examples from the Viking Age are those that lined the gunwales of the buried warship
from Gokstad, Norway (Fig. 1) dated to c.905 AD (Bonde and Christensen 1993). They are similar to
shields from Thorsberg bog (Raddatz 1987) and other Danish weapon deposits of the Roman Iron Age.
Though archaeological evidence dries up with the adoption of Christian burial rites, art sources (such as
the Lewis chessmen) indicate that kite shields were accepted in the Norse lands in the twelfth century,
along with a small round buckler (Karlsson 1993). Scandinavian settlers seem to have adopted different
(native Insular?) designs in the Irish Sea region, judging by material from burials there. These variants
may be discussed in a separate paper.
Construction and dimensions
Boss
Handle or grip
Edge Reinforcement
Other Fixtures
Decoration
Combat Techniques
Tables
Bibliography
Footnotes
Construction and dimensions
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Shields were typically 80-90 cm in diameter [1] (Table 1). The board was flat, and made of a single
layer of planks butted together. The Gokstad shields were made of seven or eight white pine [2] planks
of varying widths [3]. The planks were usually only 6-10mm thick (Table 2), and were bevelled even
thinner at the outer edge (Fig. 1; Table 2). There is no archaeological evidence for laminated (ie. cross-
ply) construction (Hrke 1981) though contemporary poetry and slightly later legislation suggests it
(Dickinson and Hrke 1992; Nicolaysen 1882).
Figure 1 - Shield from Gokstad ship burial, Westfold Norway c.905AD. Diameter 94 cm
(Nicolaysen 1882). a. Front. Boss type is Rygh 564. b. Reverse, note holes for attachment
of rim and single wooden crossbar serving as grip - the other reinforcements seen in
photographs are modern additions. c. Cross section, note bevelled edges.
The planks were possibly glued together. Extra support could come from the boss, grip and rim
bindings (see below), and from a leather covering. At least some shields from Birka had a thin leather
facing, and some earlier English shields were covered on both sides (Arwidsson 1986; Dickinson and
Hrke 1992). However, the planks of the Gokstad shields were painted, indicating that they had no
leather facing covering them (Lowe 1990). It is worth noting that their uniform and fragile design
suggests that the Gokstad shields may have been ornaments made especially for the burial, and thus not
representative of actual combat shields [4].
An interesting parallel to the Gokstad shields comes from a peat bog at Tirskom, in Latvia. Dated to the
ninth century, this near intact shield is constructed of six spruce or fir planks (Yrtan 1961) and covered
on front and rear with leather, padded with pressed grass.
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Boss
At the centre of the shield was a circular hole [5] covered by a more-or-less hemispherical iron boss of
~15 cm diameter (including flange), which enclosed the hand grip. The iron of the dome was fairly
thick (3-5 mm), though the flange was somewhat thinner (Lowe 1990; Manx Museum, Douglas Man:
pers. obs. 1994; Musee des Antiquites Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye France: pers. obs. 1994).
Bosses had two main forms - the early style had a high dome and a pronounced neck (Type Rygh (R)
564: Fig. 2-a). The later style, low domed without a neck (R562: Fig. 2-b), never completely replaced
the former (Graham-Campbell 1980). Less common were a squat style (R563: Fig. 2-c) and a sub-
conical style (R565: Fig. 2-d), sometimes with an apical knob (Arwidsson 1986).
Figure 2 - Shield bosses, Rygh classification scheme. a. R564. b. R562. c. R563. d. R565.
From Arwidsson (1986).
Single examples of bosses with a toothed flange are known from Telemark, Norway (Fig. 3-a); Birka,
Sweden; and Ile de Groix, France (Fig. 3-e). In the latter burial, some unique bosses with elaborate
flanges were found (Fig. 3-b,c,d,e). These bosses might have had a Western European origin (Mller-
Wille 1978).
The boss was normally attached by broad headed iron nails, the points of which were either clenched
(bent over) or flattened on the reverse of the shield (Fig. 3-d,h). In the Birka material four nails was
most common (Arbman 1940-3), occasionally six (as for the Gokstad shields). Five nails were
sometimes used, as in examples from Cronk Moar, Man and the ship cremation on the Ile de Groix,
France (Bersu and Wilson 1966; Mller-Wille 1978).
The flange of some bosses were angled, perhaps to secure the boss to the board by placing tension on
the nails (Dickinson and Hrke 1992), or possibly because they were attached to convex shield boards.
Flanges with decorative edgings of non-ferrous metal strips were found in some Birka graves (Fig. 3-f,
g), and nail heads were sometimes inlaid or tinned (Arwidsson 1986).
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Figure 3 - Shield bosses. a. Boss with toothed flange, Telemark Norway (Oslo
Olsaksamlingen, pers. obs.). b-e. Ile de Groix, France. Nail points were flattened rather
than clenched (from Mller-Wille 1978). f. Birka Bj544, showing tin applique on flange; g.
Birka Bj850, brass edging on flange; h. Birka Bj581, side view showing nails clenched
(bent) for attachment (after Arbmann 1940).
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Handle or grip
Wood alone must have been used in the majority of graves where remains are lacking, as in the Gokstad
shields where a thin lath of rectangular section is nailed (crossways with respect to the planks) from
edge to edge across the back face, it serves as a handle where it crosses the central hole (Fig. l). On
more elaborate shields a wooden core was covered by a gutter-shaped sheathing of iron (Arwidsson
1986), usually ornamented with embossed bronze sheet or silver inlay (Fig 4-a).
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Figure 4 - Shield grips, 10th cent. a. Two fragments of a silver-embellished iron grip with
wooden core from Hedeby boat grave, Schleswig-Holstein Germany (from Mller-Wille
1976). b. Fragment of shield grip with spatulate terminal, Gokstad ship burial (from
Nicolaysen 1886). c-d. Three-armed bronze fastenings for shield handle in the form of
animal/human masks, Hedeby boat grave and Birka grave Bj944 (from Mller-Wille 1976,
and after Arbman 1943).
The handle was long, often crossing the full diameter of the shield, and was tapered towards both ends.
The tips could be flattened out into a spatulate terminal which was nailed directly to the board (Fig. 4-
b), or be fastened down by separate bronze mounts (Fig. 4-c,d). Occasionally the nails fastening the
boss also passed through the handle. The handgrip may have been wrapped with leather (eg. Birka
grave Bj504, and as known from early Anglo-Saxon finds: Arwidsson 1986; Hrke 1981).
Edge Reinforcement
Continuous gutter-shaped metal edge bindings like those known from Vendel, Vlsgarde, and
Thorsbjerg were obsolete by the Viking Age. In the vast majority of finds there is no evidence of edge
reinforcement, which must therefore have been absent, or of a perishable nature. On the Gokstad
shields, small holes are bored about 2 cm in from the edge, at intervals of c.3.5 cm (Fig. 1-a,b),
presumably to fasten a rim, all other traces of which have perished. It can be speculated that the edge
was bound with a leather strip fastened with stitches or thongs, or possibly very fine iron nails.
Figure 5 - Metal clamps from shield rims. a. Grave Bj944, Birka Sweden. Type A, simple
U-shaped clamp. b. Grave Bj369, Birka. Type B with expansion for leather rim binding. c.
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Lindholm Hye 1112, Denmark. Raised punchmarks surround the rivet heads (a, b. from
Arwidsson 1986; c. per. obs. Lindholm Hye Museum, Aalborg Denmark 1994).
Small clamps made of iron or bronze sheet are occasionally found in graves (Table 3; Fig. 5). Clamps
were sometimes simply decorated by tinning, punching or engraving (Fig. 5-c). In Birka graves Bj 628
and 736 the clamps were butted to produce a continuous edge (Fig. 6), however, only sections of the
rim survive, perhaps indicating deliberate damage before burial.
Figure 6 - Birka grave Bj736, 10th cent. a. Shield remains as found on excavation (after
Arbman, 1943). b. Reconstruction of shield, by author.
Sometimes several clamps are distributed evenly around the shield rim (Bj 842, Valsgarde 12), perhaps
to fasten a leather edge binding, traces of which sometimes remain. Clamps from grave Bj 850 were
fastened over a leather edging (Fig. 7), though their low number and uneven distribution suggests that
this was not their primary purpose. Here they might have fastened joins between planks, or shored up a
damaged edge.
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Figure 7 - Birka grave Bj850, 10th cent. a. Shield remains as found on excavation (after
Arbman, 1943) 1 = boss; 2 = rim clamps; 3 = grip terminal, next to remains of grip. b.
Reconstruction of shield, by author. c. Cross section of a bronze rim clamp from Bj850,
enclosing organic material from the shield, including leather facings and edge strip (after
Arbman, 1940).
Other Fixtures
Other metal fittings from shields, including nails (Fig. 8-a) are occasionally recovered. Some Birka
graves contained one or two small rings held by eyelets (Fig. 8-b,c) which passed through the boards,
and sometimes also the handle, with the ring projecting on the rear side (Arwidsson 1986). They may
have served to hang up the shield, or as attachment points for a guige strap.
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Figure 8 - Other metal shield fittings. a. Birka grave Bj727, ?10th cent. Clench nail with
bifurcated shank used to fasten grip to shield. Most nails were however the normal type. b.
Birka grave 407. Ring and staple similar to those from Birka shields. c. Schematic
distribution of eyelets with rings on reverse of Birka shields, grave numbers indicated. a, b.
from Arbman (1943).
In the 11th C. Valsgarde 11 burial, a shield appears to have been repaired by nailing 13 thin brass strips
(15-30 by 6-7 mm) across the break (Museum of Norse Antiquities, Uppsala Sweden: pers. obs. 1994).
Decoration
Archaeology as well as literary and art sources indicate that the shield was often painted. The faces of
the Gokstad shields were painted yellow (?orpiment = As
2
O
3
) or black (?charcoal), and arranged
alternately along the ship's sides (Lowe 1990; Nicolaysen 1882). Red shields may have been popular
[6]. A red shield is mentioned on a Danish runestone (Roesdahl 1992), as well as in several sagas.
Distribution of a pigment layer in the Viking Age Vlsgarde 9 grave indicated a red painted shield (G.
Hedlund, Uppsala Universitet: pers. comm. 1993). Shields from the Roman Iron Age weapon sacrifice
at Thorsberg were painted red or blue (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen: pers. obs. 1994).
Fragments from Ballateare, Man suggest that the leather facing of this shield was painted with black
and red patterns on a white background (Fig. 9). It was suggested that a gesso (organic matrix, such as
egg yolk) paint was used (Bersu and Wilson 1966). Traces of white paint were found on a wooden
fragment from the Manx Cronk Moar shield (Bersu and Wilson 1966).
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Figure 9 - Fragment of gesso from shield face, Ballateare, Man 10th cent., after Bersu and
Wilson (1966).
A recently discovered 10th C. chamber grave at Grimstrup, Denmark contained a circular wooden
board which covered the corpse from head to hip (unpublished: I. Stoumann, Esbjerg Museum,
Denmark, pers. comm. 1994). As no other traces (ie. boss) were found in an otherwise fully equipped
male burial, it has been suggested that the board is a 'blank' or unfinished shield. The board was
elaborately painted with interlace patterns (Fig. 10), though the overall design is no longer discernible.
The background colour is dark blue, the interlace is grey-green edged with white lines. Some lines of
red paint and white dots are also visible.
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Figure 10 - Possible shield from Grimstrup chamber grave A, Denmark 10th cent. Two details of
design painted on board. After photos on exhibit at Esbjerg Museum (pers. obs. 1994).
Representations of shields in Viking art (Fig. 11) are frequently marked with 'pinwheel' patterns of
radiating curved lines (Fig. 11-a,b,c,d). These might possibly represent metal strengthening bands
(unknown from archaeology but required in later law codes for levy equipment: Dickinson and Hrke
1992; Nicolaysen 1882); or even seams in the leather facing; or may mark segments originally painted
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in contrasting colours, as shown in a few contemporary Frankish manuscripts (Fig. 12). Inspiration for
decoration of a reconstructed shield might also be sought in surviving painted wooden objects from the
Viking Age [7].
Figure 11 - Shields in contemporary art. a, b. Picture stones, Gotland 7-8th cent., after
Magnusson (1979). c, d. Silver shield pendants, Birka Sweden 10th cent., after Duczko
(1989). e. Bronze 'valkyrie' pendant, Hedeby Germany 10th cent., after Elsner (1985). f.
From tapestry fragments, Oseberg Norway ante 834AD, after Hougen (1940).
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Figure 12 - Spirally marked and segmented shields in the Golden Psalter of St. Gall,
Frankish ms., 10th cent., From Duby (1970).
Sheet metal decorations in the form of beasts or birds fixed to the shield face are confined to the
preceding Vendel period, though an applique of wooden strips was suggested for the Cronk Moar shield
(Bersu and Wilson 1966). Some examples of decorated metal parts (bosses, grips, clamps) from Viking
Age shields have already been mentioned above.
Combat techniques
Analysis of battle damage to weapons from the massive Roman Iron Age deposit of Nydham indicated
the primary use for the large round shields was in fending off missiles, while sword duels were
conducted blade on blade (Schlo Gottorf: Archologische Landesmuseum der Christian-Albrechts
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Universitt, Schleswig Germany: pers. obs. 1994). However, the use of shields in hand to hand combat
is recorded in customs such as the holmgang duel. The heavy iron construction of the Viking Age boss
is unlike the Roman Iron Age examples of thin bronze, perhaps indicating a change to a hand-to-hand
fighting style in which parrys with the boss were possible. The thin boards would split easily, and could
perhaps have been deliberately made so, in order to snare an attacker's blade.
Table 1
Table 1. Estimated diameters of Viking age shields from archaeological finds. All dated
10th century, except Tirskom (9th cent.) and Krimylda (11th cent.).
Table 2
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Table 2. Thicknesses of Viking age shields from archaeological finds. Most of these graves
are probably 10th century, except Tirskom (9th cent.). For comparison, shields from (much
earlier) pagan Anglo-Saxon graves average 0.75 cm thick (103 examples: Dickinson and
Hrke 1992).
Table 3
Table 3. Metal clamps from shield rims: numbers, dimensions, distribution on shield rim
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(if known).
Bibliography
ARBMAN, H. (1940). Birka I: Die Grber. Untersuchungen und Studien. Tafeln. Kungl. Vitterhets
Historie och Antikvitets Akademien (KVHAA): Stockholm.
ARBMAN, H. (1943). Birka I: Die Grber. Untersuchungen und Studien. Text. KVHAA: Stockholm.
ARWIDSSON, G. (1986). 'Schilde'. In: G. Arwidsson (ed.). Birka II: Systematische Analysen der
Grberfunde, vol. 2. KVHAA: Stockholm.
BERSU, G. and WILSON, D.M. (1966). 'Three Viking graves in the Isle of Man'. Society for Medieval
Archaeology, monograph 1. Society for Medieval Archaeology: London.
BONDE, N. and CHRISTENSEN, A.E. (1993). 'Dendrochronological dating of the Viking Age ship
burials at Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune, Norway'. Antiquity 67, p. 573-583.
BRNSTEAD, J. (1936). 'Danish inhumation graves of the Viking Age'. Acta Archaeologica 7, p. 81-
228.
CHRISTENSEN, A.E. (1993). 'Kongsgrdens hndverkere'. In: A.E. Christensen, A.S. Ingstad and B.
Myhre (eds.). Oseberg Dronningens Grav: Vr arkeologiske nasjonalskatt i nytt lys. Schibsted: Oslo, p.
85-137.
DICKINSON, T. and HRKE, H. (1992). 'Early Anglo-Saxon shields'. Archaeologica 110, Society of
Antiquaries of London: London.
DUBY, G. (1970). Histoire de la France: naissance d'une nation des origines 1348, vol. 1. Libraire
Larousse: Paris.
DU CHATELLIER, P. and LE PONTOIS, L. (1908-9). 'A ship burial in Brittany'. Saga Book of the
Viking Club 6, p. l23-161.
DUCZKO, W. (1989). 'Runde Silberblechanhnger mit punzierten Muster'. In: G. Arwidsson (ed.).
Birka II: Systematische Analysen der Grberfunde, vol. 3. KVHAA: Stockholm.
ELSNER, H. (1985). Wikinger Museum Haithabu: Schaufenster einer frhen Stadt. Karl Wachholz
Verlag: Neumnster.
GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, J. (1980). Viking artefacts: a select catalogue. British Museum: London.
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HRKE, H. (1981). 'Anglo-Saxon laminated shields at Petersfinger - a myth'. Medieval Archaeology
25, p.141-144.
HOUGEN, B. (1940). 'Osebergfunnets billedvev'. Viking 4, p. 85-124. Oslo.
KARLSSON, U. (1993). 'Medieval round shields'. New Hedeby (January 1993), p. 26-27.
LOWE, S. (1990). 'Everything you wanted to know about Viking shields (and one helmet) but were
afraid to ask'. Varangian Voice (issue 17), p. 24-25.
MAGNUSSON, M. (1979). Viking: hammer of the north. Orbis: London.
MARXEN, I. and MOLKTE, E. (1981). 'The Jelling man: Denmark's oldest figure-painting'. Saga -
Book of the Viking Club 20, p. 267-275.
MULLER-WILLE, M. (1976). 'Das Bootkammergrab von Haithabu'. Berichte ber die Ausgrabungen
in Haithabu 8. Karl Wachholtz: Neumnster.
MULLER-WILLE, M. (1978). 'Das Schiffsgrab von der Ile de Groix: ein Exkurs zum Bootkammergrab
von Haithabu'. Berichte ber die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 12, p.48-84.
NICOLAYSEN, N. (1882). The Viking ship discovered at Gokstad in Norway. Christiana: Oslo
(reprinted 1971 Gregg International Publ.: Westmead UK).
OWEN, O. and DALLAND, M. (1994). 'Scar, Sanday: a Viking boat-burial from Orkney'. Birka
Studies 3, p. 159-172.
RADDATZ, K. (1987). Der Thorsberger Moorfund Katalog: Teile von Waffen und Pferdegeschirr,
sonstige Fundstcke aus Metall und Glas, Ton- und Holzgefue, Steingerte. Karl Wachholtz:
Neumnster.
RAMSKOU, T. (1976). 'Lindholm Hye gravpladsen'. Nordiske Fortidsminder Ser.B, Bind 2. Lynge &
Son: Copenhagen.
ROESDAHL, E. (1982). Viking Age Denmark. British Museum: London.
THORVILDSEN, K. (1957). 'Ladby-skibet'. Nordiske Fortidsminder, Ser.1 v.6. H.J. Lynge & Son:
Copenhagen.
YRTAN, V.A. (1961). 'Drevnie shchity na territorii Latviiskoe SSR'. Sovietskaia Arkheologii 1961(1),
p. 216-224.
FOOTNOTES
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[1] For comparison, dimensions of pre-Viking shields: from pagan Anglo-Saxon graves (23 examples)
42 to 92 cm diam. (Dickinson and Hrke 1992); Thorsberg moorfind, Denmark (7 examples, Roman
Iron Age) 65 to 104 cm diam. (Raddatz 1987); Vlsgarde, Sweden (3 examples, Vendel period) 84 to
110 cm diam. (Arwidsson 1986).
[2] Softwood from conifers seems to have been used in most, but not all cases.
[3] A smaller number of broader planks would seem more practical: eg. the pine central plank of a pre-
Viking shield from Vlsgarde was 52 cm wide (Dickinson and Hrke 1992).
[4] A grip fragment from a more ornate shield was found within the grave chamber (see Fig. 3-b.).
[5] Circular on the Gokstad shields at least. Oval, 'figure-8', and 'D'-shaped openings are known from
pre-Viking material (Dickinson and Hrke 1992; Hrke 1981). The second (fragmentary) shield from
Tirskom, Latvia had a quadrangular opening (Yrtan 1961).
[6] Red pigments in ancient paints seem to derive from mineral sources ie. red ochre (Fe
2
O
3
, as on the
Jelling figurine: Marxen and Molkte 1981); or cinnabar (HgS, as on the Illerup shield of c.200AD:
Forhistoriskmuseet, Moesgard Denmark: pers. obs. 1994). Also on the Jelling figurine were a dark blue
paint made by mixing powdered white chalk with burnt organic matter (charcoal?), and a yellow of
orpiment (As
2
O
3
) in an oil base.
[7] Examples: Jelling figurine (see Footnote 6) and associated fragments; board with snake design from Hrning
church, Denmark and painted runestone from St. Pauls churchyard, London (Graham-Campbell 1980); numerous
painted objects from Oseberg and Gokstad, Norway (Christensen 1993; Nicolaysen 1882); painted board from Ladby
ship burial (Fyn, Denmark: Thorvildsen 1957); casket in Birka grave Bj639 (Arbman 1943), see Fig. 13 below.
Figure 13 - Painting on small casket from Birka grave Bj639 (after Arbman 1943, colours added
according to notes). The style resembles the Ballateare shield. a. From 19th c. sketches by Hjalmar
Stolpe b. Paint flakes still on wood.
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