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Monday, 10 October 2011

The Construction of a Viking Shield; Part 1


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Ever since I first read Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul,[1] I've been intrigued by Caesar’s comments on his troops having being caught unawares by the Nervii:

“…Then as the Nervii were within range, he gave the signal for battle. On going to the other side of the field to address the troops there, he found them already in action. The soldiers were so pushed for time by the enemy’s eagerness to fight that they could not even take the covers off their shields or put on their helmets…”

(Nualabugeye 2008)
From this extract it can be inferred that the shields, in being covered, required some protection from the elements. Why? Although this non-empirical evidence is anachronistic to this work in general, the problems in shield production would still have been encountered by the 9th - 10th century Scandinavians by virtue of the fact that woodworking technology had not, at least to the modern mind, significantly progressed.
Therefore, having taken an exploratory and hermeneutical approach to the relevant literature, this article aims to document each stage of the authors own empirical research in reconstructing a 'Viking' shield, using only materials available to 10th century Scandinavians – where possible. This article is not intended as the last word on Viking shield construction, but rather, by making empirical observations and analysis on various aspects of its construction, it is intended to generate debate.

The timber used in the shield

With archaeological evidence suggesting that the diameter of Viking shields generally varied between 80 and 90cms and of varying thicknesses, it was decided to construct a shield 84cms in diameter and 1cm in thickness, flat and with the boards butted together; these figures closely corresponding to the diameter of the Trelleborg shield, and the thickness of the Gokstad shields.[2] Although archaeological evidence indicates that a variety of different types of wood were used in shield construction, as the Trelleborg and Gokstad shields were made of softwood; ‘fir’ and ‘white pine’ respectively, it seemed appropriate to use a softwood now.[3]

As the common term ‘white pine’ was not specific, the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo were contacted regarding the matter. The response was that the Gokstad shields were, “made of spruce and some of pine. The normal pine that it still common in Scandinavia.”[4]

The Bedgebury National Pinetum was then contacted and it was established that there are only two common conifers native to Scandinavia. One was the Norway spruce (Picea abies), also commonly known as Baltic white pine. The other was Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris).[5] It would appear, therefore, that the Gokstad shields were constructed using Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). Norwegian pine (Pinus resinosa) being a native of North America.

Pinus sylvestris
One of the most commonly used timbers in the UK construction industry today is Pinus sylvestris; an evergreen coniferous tree, indigenous from Siberia to Scotland
to the Mediterranean.[6] Its name varies depending on the region where it is grown, for instance: Swedish redwood, Siberian redwood, Finnish redwood, Norway fir, Baltic pine, etcetera.[7] Pinus sylvestris grown in the UK is commonly referred to as Scots pine, whereas the imported variety is referred to as Redwood.[6] In image 1, the red bark that gives the Scots pine its European name can clearly be seen. Fortuitously, I had access to ‘Scandinavian’ redwood which I considered appropriate to my needs.

As Pinus sylvestris is commonly used in construction industry, it has become an important commercially grown softwood timber as part of sustainable forestry management in northern Europe[7]. Air-drying wood, which is the process of leaving green wood exposed to the air to remove the moisture naturally, is not efficient enough to meet the demands of the construction industry for which artificial methods of wood drying have been developed. The timber purchased by the author was kiln dried. The reason for artificially drying wood in this manner is that it provides the construction industry with timber which has improved dimensional stability, strength and significantly – is lighter in weight. This raises the interesting question of how much heavier the wood in a Viking shield would have been; a question that will be addressed later in this work.
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...to be continued...
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(This work is an extract from a paper entitled "The Construction of a Viking Shield" by Anthony C. Lewis BA(Hons) MCFM JP.   The full work can be found HERE )


[1] Caesar,J. The conquest of Gaul. translated by S.A. Handford. (1993)
[2] Beatson, P. (2010) The New Varangian Guard, The 'Viking' Shield from Archeology.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Næss, E.M. (2011) Education Officer. Museum of Cultural history, University of Oslo.
[5] Reynolds, C. (2011) The Bedgebury National Pinetum
[6] Johnson, H. (1973). The International Book of Trees.
[7] The Wood Explorer:. Pinus Sylvestris is also known as European Redwood, Archangel redwood, Baltic fir, , Baltic redwood, Common pine, Danzig fir, Danzig pine, Finnish fir, Gefle fir, Memel fir, Norway fir, Pine, Polish redwood, Red deal, Red pine, Redwood, Scotch pine, Scots fir, Soderhamn fir, Swedish fir, Vanlig tall, Vanligtall, White sea fir, Yellow deal.

*Regarding the use of the term "Viking" the author of this article fully endorses the sentiments of David Wilson (2008); that although improperly used over the centuries, having caught in the pulic conciousness it seems too valuable a term to discard. Use of the word "Viking" in this article refers to the Scandinavian or Norse peoples of the Viking Age spanning the late 8th to 11th centuries.

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