Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Construction of a Viking Shield; Part 6 (final)

Having completed the structure of the shield, all that was left to do now was to decide how best to treat the rawhide to protect it from the elements, and reflect on the findings of the project.
Treating the Shield
It was decided to use something that would replace the oils in the rawhide and repel moisture. Coating the shield with beeswax was one possibility considered, as was a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil, both of which 10th Scandinavians apparently had access to, the latter being a by-product of flax cultivation [1]/[2]. Eventually it was decided to use a currying compound/leather food that is made to a 200 year old recipe using only natural tallow, oils and waxes. This was rubbed into the rawhide which darkened as it absorbed the oil and enhanced the rawhides translucent quality.

With the shield finished the ‘bow’ was slight and did not in any way affect its centre of gravity or functionality, and was considered fit for purpose.
Not using quarter cut timber was, however, an unfortunate oversight. It can be argued that if the error had not been made then the historical truth of the use of quarter cut timber may not have been realised. In that respect undertaking the project proved worthwhile. 
Reproduced with kind permission of Philip Richardson [6]
The adhesive qualities of the hide glue proved far better than anticipated, and to date has not showed any signs of losing its adhesive properties. Then again it has not been exposed to significantly damp or moist conditions for any considerable period of time. It is argued that should the shield have been subject to such conditions and neglected then it would show signs of deterioration, regardless of whether rawhide or leather was used to face the shield. Just as today it was probably the case that one had to keep clean and maintain his equipment.

The use of linen in the construction of the shield did not, it is argued, significantly contribute anything to the structure. Actually, in sample tests made before constructing the shield, it was found that the rawhide adhered far better to the wood than it did to the linen. Thus it is also argued that if the linen had been omitted from the construction that the bond between the rawhide and the wooden core would have been even greater. However, where the linen may have been of value if used, is if the fabric weave was capable of restricting the penetration of an arrow as it enters the face of the shield. There is a possible precedent for this in the form of a 9th century shield found in a peat bog at Tira, in Latvia. This shield, faced front and back with leather was padded with pressed grass, which would certainly dampen to some degree the penetrating capability of an arrow.[3] 
To establish whether this may be the so, it is planned to make two test pieces, one with and without linen and to determine whether there is any difference in penetration.

The rawhide proved to be a wonderful material to work with, however, Waterer argues that “the ‘mouldability of a particular kind of leather’… is amongst its most important attributes. This arises from the nature of unique micro-fibrillar structure in the form in which it is preserved in any vegetable tanned leather…” [5] So while rawhide does have its uses, in an agrarian society heavily dependent and attuned to its environment, tanned leather would appear to have been the preferred choice largely because of its versatility and resilience to the elements.

If there is one lesson learnt that is felt to have been significant, it is the placement of holes around the periphery of the shield at an early stage of the shield construction, in this instance at stage 1. They would, it is argued, have significantly assisted in placing the leather face in place and any periphery reinforcement.

From the lessons learnt, the next shield project will be to make a shield from quarter-cut Pinus sylvestris, but this time facing the shield with cuir buoilli and to see if the peripheral holes are as helpful as has been suggested. 

[1] Vinje J.G. (2001) Nordic Way: Vikings in the East: Remarkable eyewitness accounts.
[2] Priest-Dorman, C. (1999) Archaeological Finds of Ninth- and Tenth-Century Viking Foodstuffs.
[3] Beatson, P. (2010). New Varangian Guard: The ‘Viking Shield’ from Archaeology. From Drevnie shchity na territorii Latviiskoe SSR'. Sovietskaia Arkheologii 1961(1), p. 216-224.
[4] Waterer, J.W. (1981) Leather and the Warrior. p. 66
[5] Ibid.
[6] Richardson, P. (2001). Fine Furniture & Cabinet maker – working with the grain of nature

(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 )

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