Monday, 27 August 2012

Slithrung 3

Slithrung Part 3:  The Sheaths

While a splendid sword demands a splendid sheath, arranging this was, to put it mildly, a long-winded and stressful affair. Given the extensive use of high-status metal decoration on the sheath of Notung, it was initially felt that the sheath of Slithrung should be constructed of mostly organic components. Indeed, most finds of extant Migration period sheaths seem to lack metal fittings.
This article discusses both attempts to produce a worthy sheath for Slithrung.

As previously discussed, work on the first sheath had begun before completion of the hilt. The wooden core, rectangular in cross section, had been constructed from laths of wood padded with lambskin. Following completion of the hilt, this was wrapped with natural veg-tanned leather stitched along the back. Small pieces of leather thonging were glued beneath this layer of leather, a tentative experiment with the technique referred to as "cord work" or "foundation moulding", to produce small ridges that would help to immobilize the scabbard slide.

This slide, based on an allegedly 6th Century Frankish find from Kent (viewable in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database here) was carved from oak, and terminated in two antipodal boars heads with brass tusks and eyes, to match the imagery of the pommel-cap.

Initially, linen tapes of the kind believed to have been used on the Sutton-Hoo Mound-1 scabbard were used to secure this piece in place. However, due in part to interference from the corners of the rectangular-cross section of the sheath, it was not possible to get sufficient tension in the tapes to hold the scabbard-slide in place. For this reason, it was lashed in place using linen thread.

The end of the scabbard was tidied-up by inclusion of a leather chape, decorated with tooled Salin Style-1 designs featuring boars and birds, borrowed from various pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard. It is assumed that most early Anglo-Saxon sheaths would've had organic chapes, and it is not unreasonable to suppose these would've been decorated following the style of earlier metallic examples where, in particular, opposing bird motifs feature significantly.

It quickly emerged that interference between the lowermost domed rivet heads and the mouth of the sheath prevented a neat seal between the sheath and the lower guard. Because of this, a small area of the blade remained exposed to the elements when the sword was inserted. To solve this, a loop of thin leather was introduced at the mouth of the sheath, to tuck around the exposed blade.

On balance, this attempt to sheath Slithrung was not successful. It became apparent that a sword of this status would require a far more splendid sheath than had been planned. A last-ditch attempt to raise the status of the first attempt by introducing a band of bronze at the throat proved unsuccessful.
Advice was sought on the invaluable myarmoury forum, where various other skilled craftsmen with more experience than myself were on hand to offer advice. It quickly became apparent that the best option would be to start again from scratch.

Following the advice, and a very valuable visit to Sutton Hoo and the British Museum, to see the remains of roughly contemporaneous sheaths from Mound-1 and 17, and to Europe to see various ancestral sheath remains from the Nydam and Illerup excavations, the wooden core of the sheath was fashioned to be much more slender and oval in cross-section.

To achieve this, two thin wooden laths were chosen with a natural curve to them to produce a slot for the blade, which was further expanded by carving out the interior. Closely shorn lamb-skin was glued to this slot, and the pieces were then glued tightly together using animal glue.

Slender scabbard-core
The result was an impressively tight sheath with an extremely slender profile; a notably more fragile structure than our first attempt, as it's believed such sheath-cores were.  The outside was sanded until completely smooth and oval in cross-section. Remembering the difficulties suffered with the previous sheath, two notches were cut at the mouth to accommodate the rivet-heads on the lower guard.

Upon completion of the wood core, the design for the outside of the sheath was drawn in pencil directly onto it. It had been advised that a plainer scabbard-slide, tapering smoothly on both ends, would be more historically accurate and more compatible with the linen tapes to be used, so one of these was produced from oak. A small bone insert was included in the visible section for added interest.

Core with design drawn on, and cordwork glued
Feeling slightly more ambitious than previously, it was decided to inlclude some limited decorative cordwork; three stripes down the lower half of the scabbard. These cords were glued in place, and then the outer layer of veg-tanned leather was sown on using two-needle saddle-stitch while wet.
Sewing on the leather coat for the sheath
Smooth tools fashioned from horn were used to work the leather down into the grooves created by the foundation, which, after drying, was polished heavily with beeswax to achieve a smooth finish.

A thin piece of copper-alloy was used to form a simple band at the throat, with striations achieved with plenty of passes with a sharp scriber. This throat-band was slotted into place over a thin leather loop, slightly proud of the wood core to achieve a neat seal with the lower-guard.

Scabbard throat-band
A thin strip of soft leather was secured using a second band of copper alloy to neaten and bottom of the sheath. Additional metallic decoration was added here, including a simple "scabbard-shoe" for further protection.

Next, the scabbard-slide was secured using loops of linen-tapes, in turn secured by tied loops of linen thread. Thanks to the shape of the scabbard core, and the slide, the tapes were sufficient to secure the slide without any risk of slipping. Through this slide the sword-suspension loop was attached, sewn in turn to a pair of rings attached to the strap; an approach also used on Notung.

Completed sheath of Slithrung

Finally, a simple triangular buckle with copper-alloy decoration was fixed to the strap, while two small gold-and-garnet pieces were suspended from the scabbard-slide to provide visual continuity with the hilt.

The main inspiration for this sheath; that of the sword from Sutton-Hoo mound 1, was buried with spare binding tapes, and it seems the textile-adorned sheaths of the 7th century were designed to allow regular alterations, replacing parts as they wore, cleaning dirtying fabric, and keeping up with changing fashions.  In this spirit, we hope to allow the sheath of Slithrung, too, to change with time.

Edit:  (2015)

Since the original publication of this article, the sheath of Slithrung has undergone further changes, with stepwise improvements in terms of accuracy, and (in the view of the owner) gradually improving in terms of aesthetics and its ability to complement the glittering hilt. 

In 2013 the upper portion of the sheath was overhauled once again, replacing the high-threadcount tabby-weave linen bindings with stretchier, thicker yet loosely chevron-woven tapes. Experimentation with the lashed-on scabbard slide provided insights with respect to the design of such slides, and a new one was carved from hard English walnut with an altered shape that allowed for greater security. Either side of this were placed replicas of the Rushcliffe, Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire scabbard-bosses by danegeld.co.uk, providing added visual continuity between the gold and garnet-adorned hilt, and the sheath. These bosses sat on lentiform "shield-shaped" washers of green horn, with their loops pinned, together brooching a new reinforced strap encircling the sheath, and attaching it to the baldric. 

In 2014, seeking to add more visual interest, the binding-tapes were removed and plant dyed using an authentic (though somewhat unpredictable) recipe. The resulting colour; a rich golden yellow, complemented the reddening leather, and the gold and garnet-work adorning the hilt and sheath.

Sword straps pass horizontally across the scabbard but must change direction before wrapping round the body and over the shoulder. Unsightly kinking and crumpling of the leather, as it makes this three-dimensional transition in angle, either side of the scabbard, has been a perennial issue for our scabbards. This problem is amplified when swords are worn by slimmer individuals, as the angle transition is more harsh.  In such situations, veg-tan leather rapidly breaks down.      In the past we have, reluctantly, resorted to brass rings to mediate this angle transition and provide durability to our strap systems, but this is a very modern solution and deviates far from grave evidence.    Following experimentation on other reconstructions, and the gradual development of improved leatherworking skills, in 2014 we were able to get rid of the unsightly brass rings, and replace them (and the central strap portion) with a single shaped strap-transition tailored to the wearer. 

1 comment:

Humboldt said...

This was a great read, and my compliments on the fantastic work!

Thank you for sharing this.