Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Læwatan: Staffs Hoard Seax 2

Læwatan; a Wælseax inspired by the Staffordshire Hoard     -Part 2

With the Seax now complete, attention could be given to the sheath that would protect it, and the selection of a suitable name. The sheath, as much as the seax itself, provided an opportunity to showcase the evolution of Anglo-Saxon artistic styles, while the name opens discussion of language and mythology.  

The Name
As a student of the Myths and Legends of Northern Europe, I was keen to give the new killing-sax an appropriate name and so decided on an Old English transliteration of the Old Norse name Lævateinn. In Norse mythology, Lævateinn is a weapon mentioned in the Poetic Edda poem Fjölsvinnsmál. In fact, Lævateinn does not appear on the original manuscript but rather the meaningless word Hævateinn (presumed to be the result of a scribal error). 
The amended name Lævateinn is considered to be a kenning for a sword. Lævatein derives from the Old Norse - (the dative form of lævi), meaning venom or bane and teinn meaning twig. The word is generally translated as "damage twig" but “poison-twig” would be more accurate. As has been discussed previously (Viking Sword Words) the name ‘poison-twig’ suggests a repeated chevron pattern in the twist-welded blade. As so often with such names, if one transliterates into the related and etymologically more ancient Old English we obtain the name Læwatán. This is cognate with the Old English words læwa meaning ‘traitor’ and læw - injury. Thus, Læwatán may have any of the following meanings; venom-twig, bane-twig, or traitor-brand.

The Sheath
A splendid sax demanded a splendid sheath. Now there are two standard ways to make early medieval sax-sheath; a simple folded-over leather design or one with a wooden core lined with closely-shorn lamb-skin, like a miniature sword-sheath. The leather-only design has the advantage of simplicity and the thick leather used lends itself well to tooled decoration. For later saxes such a sheath is perfectly adequate, for the proximal part of the simple guard-less grip is inserted into the sheath which holds it safely in place. Earlier seaxes, often with a complex hilt structure and a relatively long grip, cannot be so secured and in our experience have a disconcerting tendency to fall out onto one’s foot!

A complex sheath, with a wooden core and lined with lamb’s fleece, does not have this disadvantage but is always going to be more bulky and the necessarily thinner leather used to cover the wooden core does not allow for the tooled decoration I am fond of using on my sheaths. I therefore opted to try a compromise in the spirit of reconstructive archaeology. A traditional thick folded leather sheath was formed using the blade of the new sax as a guide. Edges were left rather generous to allow for an inner sheath of closely shorn lambskin. This inner sheath was then stitched into place top and bottom and secured to one side of the leather with flexible animal glue. The sheath was then sewn together using waxed linen thread. Two-needle saddle-stitch was used, through pre-formed awl-holes. Despite the bulk of the inner sheath, the sheath-shape formed fairly easily with little or no warping. When complete, it was found that the blade was retained in the sheath even if inverted, which, to my mind, is the sign of a properly functional sheath or scabbard.

The vegetable-tanned cow-hide used for the sheath had been decorated prior to stitching. When dampened, this material becomes fairly plastic and can be worked with tools which compress the fibrous structure of the leather and, when the leather dries, leave a permanent pattern. I prefer to use tools formed from horn and bone as these are less likely to cut into the leather surface.
A design of a repeating Salin-Style II beasts was used for the show-side of the sheath. The back of the sheath was decorated with runes : ‘Læwatan Ic Hæt . Truwe Nan Butan Me

(“Læwatan I am named. Trust (in) none but me!”)

Many early-period sheaths had metal fittings; a copper-alloy trim being riveted along the upper edge. Such fittings are both decorative and serve a useful function, reinforcing the upper edge of the sheath to guard against damage should the sharp blade cut the upper stitches. While numerous examples exist, one particular find was sufficiently striking to capture the imagination and warrant inclusion on the sheath of Læwatan.
Westminster Wolf Chape, early 8th Century CE
On display in the British Museum is a fragment of a beautiful seax chape of gilded silver. It features a fierce-looking animal head with large fangs; probably a wolf, and was found in the River Thames near Westminster Bridge. This beautiful piece, dated to the early 8th Century CE, is further set apart by being one of a precious few finds to feature Anglo-Saxon runes (including bind-runes). These particular runes must have had some sort of magical significance as they make no sense linguistically; SB[ER]ÆDHTYBCA [ER]ÆA[DR]BS.
The animal-head on this piece bears a close resemblance to a pair of carved beast-heads at (the Anglo-Saxon) St Mary's Church at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, but also to the heads of biting beasts featured in a decorative motif from the probably Northumbrian 7th Century Book of Durrow, which, in turn, resemble the beasts from the Staffordshire-Hoard sax hilt-plate.

I asked George Easton of Danegeld to make a replica copper-alloy wolf-head, while I made the rune-decorated edging myself. These were riveted into place and the upper edge binding further secured by copper-alloy clips. Two short buckle straps were then riveted on to allow the sheath to be connected to the belt. This arrangement allows the suspension angle to be varied somewhat. 

I am personally dubious of the idea of wearing a seax across the front, as is suggested by most authors. This idea seems to stem from unthinking mimicry of several depictions carved in stone, where Anglo-Saxon artists sought to depict knives undistorted, and were therefore forced to show them in this position. In fact, the only ergonomic placement for the sheath of all but the smallest knife is the right hip.
Following completion of the sheath, the leather was polished with beeswax to bring out the tooled decoration and protect its surface. 

Although resulting in a satisfactory product, this project was not without difficulties, and the approach taken should be evaluated. I cannot honestly recommend the technique of having an inner lamb-skin sheath beneath thick leather as it makes getting a perfectly straight sheath difficult. A wooden-cored sheath would have been far easier to construct.
In addition to this, the sword-like lower guard with its prominent domed rivets made making a neat seal with the mouth of the sheath problematic. I finally solved this by fabricating a soft leather throat-ring, which sits over the hard leather of the sheath mouth and forms a fairly tight, weather-proof seal. 

I am more than satisfied with the appearance of this Hoard reconstruction, which brings together various iconic pieces from the hoard in a functional and aesthetically pleasing assembly. In reconstructive archeology, the maxim ‘what looks right is right’, is usually valid. This "killing sax" guarded by boars, gods, magical runes and biting-beasts, is a beautiful, if scary weapon.


Eaerfawefadsfa Dadfafasd said...

Hi do you know what the dimensions were on this blade/width/thickness/length and the other one?

Just im thinking about getting myself a late 7th century broad back seax made and ive had trouble finding the stats online?

Thanks in advance

Æd Thompson said...

Hello! In both cases, the Staffordshire Hoard saxes' blades were only evidenced by the slots in the fittings, so only the blade width and thickness at the shoulder can be inferred. Thankfully as these early saxes tend to have a constant blade width, unlike saxes from the 8th century onwards.
The seax represented by the zoomorphic hilt plate, which we recomstructed as "Læwatan" had a blade thickness of 4.5mm, and a width of 37mm.
The seax represented by the multiple gold and garnet hilt fittings, which we reconstructed as "Wyrmfang", had a thickness of 4.5mm and a width of 32 to 34mm. Both cross-sections are consistent with the narrowseax, as opposed to the broadsaxes which came into fashion during the latter half of the Hoard's date-range. The length of each weapon can only be guessed at, with reference to other seax finds of the same type and similar cross-section dimensions. When we undertook our reconstructions, we inferred lengths of 35cm and 28cm respectively, although the 'error' associated with these lengths is considerable.

Unfortunately there is no comprehensive study of English seax finds, and no single place to track down their dimensions. This is something we are currently working to rectify.

Æd Thompson said...

Oops! Put my reply in the wrong box. Please see below.