Friday, 29 June 2012

Slithrung 2

Sliþrung Part 2: The Hilt

With the blade ready, and with the core of a sheath to protect it, attention could be given to the hilt. Inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard, but also Scandinavian finds, a design was put together that would be able to highlight trade and cultural links between ancient Mercia and the Scandinavian kingdoms.

In 2002 a find from Lincolnshire revealed a sword-grip morphology previously not known to have been used in Anglo-Saxon England. The Market-Rasen sword fittings are strikingly ornate, and the complete collars which would've adorned the upper and lower ends of a magnificent sword's grip were, at the time, unprecedented in England. The closest parallels to such a handle are from Scandinavia. Most commonly such collars have very narrow internal apertures implying very slender grips. The Market-Rasen find has been tentatively dated to the early 7th century.

Market-Rasen Hilt
The Staffordshire Hoard contains numerous examples of filigree interlace hilt collars that would've adorned the handles of magnificent swords. Like Market-Rasen and Scandinavian examples, their flat bases indicate they would've sat on flat guards, most likely of the metal-organic sandwich morphology that would be expected on swords of the Migration-period. However, a number of the Hoard collars have larger apertures that suggest a thicker and probably more comfortable handle.

Keen to reconstruct such a sword, and demonstrate this rare rather Scandinavian but now well-evidenced handle morphology, it was decided that Sliþrung would be hilted following this style.
A pair of replica collars in the style of k1613 were produced by George Easton of Danegeld, along with complimentary wire rings based on k470, and were used as the basis for the handle design.

K1613 and 470 replicas
The next elements for consideration were the guards. Here, we were again inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard contains many examples of golden hilt-plates that would've sat either side of organic cores, making up the guards of magnificent swords. k563 consists of two hilt-plates that have remained attached to one-another; the lowermost has a large sharpened oval aperture for the base of the blade, while its upper counterpart has a rectangular hole for the blade's tang, indicating this was a lower guard.
In the case of k563, the lowermost scenna is actually a tray, that, with the organic component installed, would've appeared to be thicker than it is. It's very common for the lower scennas of Migration-period sword guard sandwiches to be thicker than their upper counterparts. Another example, k844, even bears an oval ring-shaped stain around the tang aperture, where a decorative collar most probably once sat.

To emulate the look of the Staffordshire-Hoard scennas, we constructed the guards using 2mm thick gold-coloured copper alloy for the uppers, and 4mm copper alloy for the lowers. Between these, we added a thick single layer of standard bovine horn. Past experience has shown this to be vastly preferable in terms of material properties and finish to the imported buffalo horn we experimented with when constructing Notung.

Migration-period guards are held together by soft rivets of gold, copper-alloy or iron, that pass through the entire structure at each end. Often, these are peened over dome-shaped washers or "dummy heads", thereby fixing the guards together. Once again, we called on the services of George, who produced for us eight cast copper-alloy decorative domed heads and corresponding rivet-shafts for us to install. The technique worked like a treat; a testament to the skills of the craftsmen whom we were emulating. Once fixed together, we spent considerable time preparing these to be installed, cutting the apertures for the blade and tang, carefully filing and re-checking to ensure they sat perfectly. 

A major challenge with this project was constructing the grip. For the inner segment of the grip we used a section of oak, which was carefully shaped. It became apparent that flanges on each end of this section would be necessary to secure it into each collar, and these had to be cut carefully so as to allow the wooden section of the handle to flow with the collars, without a step or jarring transition that would be not only visually unappealing, but uncomfortable to hold. It was decided, in light of the rather larger but flat profile of the collars, that the wooden section of the grip should bulge outward slightly toward the middle, remaining relatively flat but assuming a more ergonomic shape than is implied by many of the narrower collars from Scandinavia. 

It was also necessary to consider some sort of support within the collars. We chose to use small pieces of the same wood, shaped to fit inside the collars, further cushioned with small oval pieces of thin leather which would also serve to immobilize the wire rings. 
All of these components had to be drilled and filed to accommodate the tang of the blade, and then the tang had to be cut down to size. Finally, with a significant amount of nervousness, we installed the hilt components one by one. 
This was a tricky business, as a tight fit for all parts was essential. With some light mallet-work where possible, and the occasional use of tiny wedges, all parts of the hilt were fitted and in their proper alignment.

Hög Edsten replica
We then came up against a familiar problem; the tang of Paul's blades are too hard to peen. Peening the end of the tang would've been the final step to secure hilt-components, but in this case, not wanting to risk damaging the magnificent blade, we settled on a tight interference fit for the upper-guard, augmented with the use of some small wedges.

The final step was the installation of a pommel-cap. Though faced with a huge choice from the Staffordshire Hoard, we chose instead to integrate a magnificent little-known find capable of highlighting the Hoard's Scandinavian links; the Hög-Edsten pommel-cap. The wonderful replica George produced for us is, I think, magnificent; very true to the original, even incorporating tricky prismatic garnets along its corners.

The installation of this piece to hide the unattractive tang-end was a rather hair-raising experience, as one might expect when working with such a magnificent piece of someone else's hard work, but once fixed in place we were able to look upon the finished sword.

After many months Sliþrung was finally complete. The hilting of this sword was a much more complex task than previous projects, and despite many challenges we managed to achieve a nice finish. In particular, though, I was pleased to have been able to achieve a hilt assembly where every component could be traced to a Mercian or Scandinavian find.

The hilt, overall, has quite a distinct look from that of Notung, including a much tighter but rather ergonomic grip. This, combined with the light weight of the blade itself makes Sliþrung a joy to handle.
All that remained was to complete the sheath and strap, with decoration that would compliment but not distract from the hilt decoration. 

Blade by Paul Binns, http://www.paul-binns-swords.co.uk/
Jewellery by George Easton, http://www.danegeld.co.uk/
Hoard images belong to Birmingham Museums.

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