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This is what the Viking shield looked like

"Now we can say with certainty what the shields have looked like instead of resorting to guesswork," says the project's research leader.

Based on the research project, the very first authentic Viking shields are now under construction. It can be experienced in full vigor to Sankt Hans at Trelleborg near Slagelse.
(Photo: Tom Jersø / Project Viking Shield)

When the warriors of the Viking Age set out on a journey to ravage their European neighbors, the shield was their most important weapon of defense and a faithful companion.

But in order to use shields in battle, the Vikings had to cover them with protective skins. Without skins, the thin wooden shields would shatter as soon as they became acquainted with spears, axes, or swords.

Leather clothing has long been the last unknown material in Viking shields. Researchers have only been able to determine a few times which animals' skins from archeological excavations originate from its appearance, and it has so far been impossible to determine whether the Vikings tanned the skins into leather or used untanned skins.

Now, researchers from the Society for Combat Archeology, the Conservatory School and Aarhus University can reveal that one of the most well-preserved Viking shields has both tanned calfskin around the edge and is covered with tanned lamb or deer skin on the front and back.

“The exciting thing is that now we know for sure what the shields looked like, instead of having to go and guess. With the new results, we have finally gained a holistic understanding of shield constructions in the Viking Age. It also means that for the first time we have the opportunity to build completely authentic reconstructions, «says Rolf Fabricius Warming, archaeologist and leader of the Society for Combat Archeology (SoCA) to

Rolf Fabricius Warming is the research leader on the project.

In collaboration with Vikingeborgen Trelleborg, the National Museum, he is now in the process of developing the first lifelike restoration of a so-called round shield. You can experience the project 'Viking Shield' for Sankt Hans at Trelleborg near Slagelse, where the shield's durability will be tested with arrow shots, sword and ax cuts.

The shield was the Vikings' most important defensive weapon and useful to attack with. It could be used in close combat against arrows and spears, and it had a great influence on the Vikings' fighting tactics, says Rolf Fabricius Warming. (Photo: Rolf Fabricius Warming / Society for Combat Archeology)

First systematic examination of skins

In the project, the researchers have made the first systematic study of skins from Viking shields ever. They have done this by examining four northern European shields from the Viking Age (800-1,050) and the Iron Age (500 BC-850).

One of the shields is thus covered with both calf and lamb skins. It dates from the Viking Age and has been found in a weapon grave near the Viking town of Birka in Sweden, where it has been located since around the year 900-1,000. Microwave samples of the shield were taken at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, where the find is stored.

In addition to the Birka shield, the researchers examined skin clothing on shields from Jutland (dated to the pre-Roman Iron Age, 350 BC), Bornholm (Roman Iron Age, 250-300) and Latvia (Viking Age, ca. 850).

The entire result of the research project will be revealed in the journal Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission this autumn. Here you will get an answer as to which skin is on the other shields.

Which animal and which treatment?

The leather upholstery has been examined in two ways:
- To find out if the skin is tanned or is raw skin, the researchers made microanalyses of fibers from the shields' skin clothing.
- To determine which animal the skin originated from, the researchers performed the so-called ZooMS analysis.

Piece of the Birka shield, which dates from around 950-1,000. The shield consisted of a thin wooden board, reinforced on both sides with a layer of leather and a leather edge. The wood thus lay like a sandwich between the two pieces of skin. (Photo: Rolf Fabricius Warming / Society for Combat Archeology)

The skin tells about the construction of the shield

It is important to know what materials the Viking warriors used in their shields, for several different reasons, according to Rolf Fabricius Warming and Ulla Mannering.

The latter is a senior researcher at the National Museum, and has assessed the new archaeological project for

  • Choice of materials and processing tells us about the construction and durability of the shield. Calf and lamb skins have probably been used to strengthen the construction of the thin shields and make them more robust, says Rolf Fabricius Warming.
  • Once we know what the entire shield looked like, we can build authentic reconstructions. Scientists can use them to make so-called 'experimental archeological' experiments. Here, they can examine how prehistoric weapons were made and used by testing them in combat, he says.
  • Researchers can, by treating the skin on the reconstruction in exactly the same way as the archaeological find, also gain knowledge about how the Vikings' technology worked and what exactly they did to reach the finished product, Ulla Mannering believes.
  • Reconstructions also provide a better opportunity for the audience to get an impression of how things have looked in the past. Archaeological material is often decomposed and must not be touched, which does not apply to reconstructions, she says.

The shields of the Vikings were only between 0.6 and 1 centimeter thick, and thinnest along the edge, so they were reinforced with skins. Researchers have also put skins on the reconstruction. (Photo: Tom Jersø / Project Viking Shield)

Thought the Vikings went around lambskin

On top of that, it is also the first time archaeologists have found lambskin on a shield, and until now the consensus has been that the Vikings preferred cow and calfskin on the shields because it was more durable.

»There is an English law from around the year 930, where King Æthelstan commands that no shield makers should put lambs on his shields. He has probably considered lambskin to be weak. However, the legislation indicates that someone has used lambskin, and we now have physical evidence for this, "says Rolf Fabricius Warming.

The reason why the Vikings chose to use the weaker lambskin is probably that it was what they had the best access to, says Rolf Fabricius Warming. By treating the skin with tannins so that it turns into leather, the Vikings have also made the material water-repellent and long-lasting, he says.

"Super important results"

Ulla Mannering from the National Museum calls the archaeological project "super important results".

The method is good, safe, and the best to species-identify. It is also really important that archaeologists begin to be able to provide specific identifications of prehistoric skins, "says the senior researcher, who himself deals with Scandinavian textiles.

When more results come, you will be able to create databases and get a better impression of how skins were processed, traded and used in the Viking Age, she believes.

It is not surprising that the Vikings used skins from various animals on their shields. But it is good to get documented that during this period they worked with several different materials - some because of appearance and others because of their strength, the senior researcher believes.

"It shows us that the Vikings have used domesticated (domesticated, ed.) Animal species, which they have had easy access to through their agriculture, but the products have still been of high quality," says Ulla Mannering.

The Vikings were amazing craftsmen

The new result supports our image of the Vikings as some amazing craftsmen. Ulla Mannering and Rolf Fabricius Warming agree.

It is difficult to see how prehistoric skin in its time has been processed. When raw skin lies in the ground for a long time, it is naturally tanned, so it can be challenging to distinguish between skins that are deliberately tanned and skins that are tanned by the natural environment. (Photo: Rolf Fabricius Warming / Society for Combat Archeology)

The Viking Age is, like the last part of prehistory, a period in which skins have long been part of the weapons. Therefore, we must assume that the Vikings had a great deal of knowledge about how skins should be processed, "says Ulla Mannering.

The tanning has required some expertise.

The process is done by scraping all the hair off the skin or removing it with the help of chemical treatment, "so that the Vikings should know when to stop so as not to destroy the fibers," says Rolf Fabricius Warming.

The chemical process was to loosen the outer layer of skin, which could then be scraped off somewhat more easily. In Viking times, one could use something as delicate as human urine for this part of the process.

The skins were then placed in a hole in the ground with bark in between. Here the tannins are released in the bark and penetrate into the skin, so that it is transformed into leather.

This article is featured in
written by Anne Sophie Thingsted

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