Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Sword Saga: Part 4 (final)

Chapter 4: The Sheath
Click here for other chapters
With the sword complete, the next task was to make a sheath in which to house it. Largely organic, clues for the construction of such sheaths come from finds of metallic decoration that once adorned them.

As with the sword, much of the decorative elements were obtained from our masterful jeweller friend George Easton at danegeld.co.uk, with other pieces purchased from Jelling Dragon and Raymond's quiet press.

 I decided to make a wooden core, lined with lamb’s fleece. There are are number of ways of doing this but I opted to hollow out the wooden laths with a router - a ticklish business - then build up the core with thin sections of wood to get the required depth. The closely shorn lamb’s fleece was then glued in and allowed to dry. It is important to arrange the lie of the fleece towards the point of the sheath, so that when the assembly is complete, the sword will enter easily but will be retained in place even if the sheath is inverted. A simple leather scabbard will not do this. Having checked for fit the two halves were glued and clamped together. 

Progress then came to a halt while I waited for further bits to arrive from George and from ‘Jelling Dragon’ - which is an excellent source of good quality ‘Dark-Ages’ equipment. Soon, however, the Staffordshire Hoard inspired Scabbard Bosses and baldric-plates arrived. With them was a faithful replica of the Finglesham Buckle and a beautiful replica of the Krefeld Gellup chape showing a seated Woden flanked by his two ravens (see image 2 and 3). 

3: Chape fitted
Unfortunately the chape-piece broke in two within minutes of my opening the parcel. The cause was determined rapidly : it had been cast in two pieces and soldered together rather than cast in one piece like the original. Our ancestors knew what they were doing and, in re-constructive archaeology, it is wise to do things their way. I was thus forced to construct a simple bronze chape myself over which the replacement ‘drag’ was, eventually, fitted. 

The next task was to cover the wooden core with leather. For this I used relatively thin vegetable-tanned calfskin. This was cut roughly to size, soaked and then stitched down the back using waxed linen thread (again obtained from the invaluable ‘Jelling Dragon’) using two needle saddle-stitch. An awl was used to make the diamond-shaped holes for the thread. As the leather dries, it shrinks and grips the wood tightly, thus no glue is necessary. The rim at the mouth of the scabbard was then folded over and stitched into place, this time with a single needle, to produce a neat finish.

4: Scabbard Slide
The next step was to fit the scabbard-slide. I had acquired a copper-alloy fitting copied from the Valsgärde 7 find (see image 4). This was riveted to a stout brass frame and then the frame pinned carefully in place. Similarly, the simple brass sheath throat and bronze chape were fixed into place. As the pins needed to be placed into the thin wooden walls of the core only, tolerances were tight. Gold-plated pins were used for this purpose. 

5: Gutenstein Scabbard
Finally a decorative bronze plaque was carefully pinned into place just below the throat. This had been obtained from ‘Raymond's Quiet Press’ in America. Though this style of decoration is more commonly associated with helmets of the period, evidence of such decoration on sword-sheaths comes from the 7th Century "Gutenstein Scabbard" (see images 5 and 6). To tie in with imagery of Woden used elsewhere, a plaque was chosen which derives from one of the Vendel Helmet foils and shows a mounted Woden with his two ravens (see images 8 and 9). The plaques are quite thick as they are meant for ‘Society for Creative Anachronism’ fighting helmets but I was quite pleased with the result. 

The remaining job was to fit the suspension. A length of stout leather strap was inserted through the slide and on either side brass strap-distributor rings (from Jelling Dragon once again) sewn into place. Further straps making up the baldric (or properly the fetels) were sewn onto the distributor-rings. The gold Finglesham buckle, showing a nude Woden holding two spears, was then fixed onto the belt (image 7). This involved punching holes through which the belt pins passed. The back plate was then fitted and the rivets peened over, a process of nerve-wracking delicacy!

Just below, the three Staffordshire-hoard inspired gold biting-beast plaques were similarly riveted into place. 

7: Sword fetel, decorated with Staffs-Hoard inspired plates, and the Finglesham Buckle

The scabbard bosses were placed in the belt either side of the scabbard-slide. Each sits on a thick disc of polished black horn through which a thick wire loop protrudes through the horn and through the leather. I retained them by attaching a brass ring. The resulting suspension-system is quite flexible and robust and shows that the scabbard-bosses served a real function in stabilising the baldric. 

The last job was to thread a length of silk tablet-woven ribbon through the slider-bars of the sword pyramids. The ribbon was then tied around the sword hilt and the upper sheath (image 9), symbolically tying the sword into the sheath : Frið-bands!

The whole assembly is quite comfortable to wear and, I think, quite beautiful. Displaying elements of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship, culture and mythology (Staffs Hoard, Finglesham Buckle) alongside elements inspired by finds of the contemporary Vendel-culture, the sword should, it is hoped, help to illustrate the impressive skills of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen, and their economic and cultural ties to Scandinavia and the wider world. 

The project stretched my skills and took a lot of investment in time, thought and hard cash but was definitely worthwhile.  

8: Hilt and Sheath
9: Peace-bands and Pyramids
Paul Binns Swords
Marshland House Middle Drove Wisbech Cambridgeshire PE14 8JT. Tel: 01945 430515. 
E-mail: binns@paul-binns-swords.co.uk ...
Danegeld Viking, Saxon & Medieval jewellery 
[George Easton, Horseshoe Cottage, Snowhill lane, Copthorne, West Sussex RH10 3EL ]
The Jelling Dragon - Viking Craft Store.  www.jelldragon.com
Raymond's Quiet Press www.quietpress.com

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