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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Wyrmfang 1

'Wyrmfang' - Chapter 1:  A Princely Wælsax from the Staffordshire Hoard

From the first moment I set eyes on the beautiful gold and garnet seax collars K354, K370 and K449 from the Staffordshire Hoard, with their associated pommel-cap K376 and hilt loop K690, I was keen to attempt a  reconstruction. The association between these finds was identified early following the discovery of the original batch of Hoard items in the famous field in Hammerwich, and implied the existence of a rare seax with a hilt of unprecedented beauty and balance. I was keen to construct a good replica to better understand this lovely weapon.

The project finally reached completion just in time for the Thegns' visit to West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, and has taken two years of blood tears and sweat, from planning to completion. The result has facilitated a much better appreciation for the supreme skill and dedication of the Anglo-Saxon master weapon-smiths.


What would such a weapon have looked like, what length would the blade have been, how would the grip have functioned and, given the mass of gold in the handle, what would be the balance of the weapon?
To answer these questions, I embarked on a project to produce a feasible reconstruction of this unique seax.

The first job was to determine the size of the blade. Luckily the bottom hilt-collar (K449) which bore a hole for the tang of the blade carried a clear impression where the blade had sat, making clear that the blade was as wide as the collar (which measures 34mm by 20mm by 25mm deep) and a narrow wedge-shape in cross-section. The blade was thus relatively slim with a maximum width at the spine of 4.5mm.
The precise dimensions of the blade impression and the tang-slot are consistent with the cross-section dimensions of a "Narrow seax" (Schmalsaxe type-1 in Schmitt's typology). This is the same type as the other seax apparent in the hoard; that of the biting-beasts hilt-plate (see reconstruction 'Læwatan').
Within the range for this blade-type, a blade length of 29cm was decided upon, well in proportion with it's cross section and slightly smaller than its counterpart, the more robust sword-hilted Læwatan.

After some considerable  discussion with master historical weapon-smith Paul Binns, a suitable pattern welded blade was commissioned - consistent in style with the mid 7th century dating of the decorative pieces. The resulting blade is a true masterpiece, displaying the classic herringbone 'wyrmfah' pattern, composed of two twisted bundles, each of 9 layers, forged flat with a layered iron back and carbon-steel edge. Notably, the steel cutting-edge of this blade has been repeatedly folded to produce an exquisite but subtle 'watered' effect.

Close-up of the blade of Wyrmfang, produced by Paul Binns (www.paul-binns-swords.co.uk)

Exact copies of the five major pieces of the zoomorphic gold hilt fittings were commissioned from specialist jeweller George Easton of danegeld.co.uk. The pieces that he eventually produced were beautiful and amazingly tactile. The Salin Style-2 gold and garnet biting beasts were exact copies of the Hoard originals and one had to look very carefully to see that these were faux-garnets made from resin - such is the quality of the work.


Like the original pieces nervously matched together by the hoard conservators, the replica pieces fitted together perfectly. The collar-loop K690 fitted perfectly onto the flange on collar k449, with the top-fitting k354 sitting onto that. On the original piece was a clear impression where the peculiarly shaped pommel-cap k376 once fitted. The original had bent and distorted as it was wrenched free from k354 and, presumably the blade. Here, we were able to view these pieces once again in their original undamaged splendour.

Replica Staffordshire Hoard seax pieces by danegeld.co.uk

Unlike with Læwatan, little speculation was required when designing the grip, as the design had to begin and end with the ornate gold-and-garnet collars which were of known dimensions. The lack of taper on any of the pieces, and their matching dimensions strongly suggested a consistent oval cross-section should continue throughout the grip.

The handle was formed from a block of English walnut (Juglans regia) which, when oiled and waxed, produced a rich dark colour perfectly complimentary with the gold-and-garnet fittings. Evidence from rare cases of surviving organic handle remains on seax-tangs suggest grips were often formed from multiple pieces. This makes sense, given the difficulty of drilling a single piece of wood deep enough and straight enough to accommodate the long tangs often associated with such weapons, and the fiddly job of ensuring a tight fit.
The walnut was cut into three sections. Between these were placed disks of dark cow-horn, which added visual interest while remaining sufficiently muted as to not distract from the beauty of the gold collars.

Cutting holes in these parts to accommodate the tang of the blade was, as always, an exacting task, but was eventually achieved to a tight fit.  Most seax handles appear to have been held on by friction, although, as pointed out by Paul Binns, it would have been perfectly possible for an Anglo-Saxon sax-smith to use an adhesive such as birch-bark tar to fix the haft. This ancient material is very sticky yet produces a flexible, weather-proof, shock-absorbing bond. As will be discussed later, though, this Hoard seax represents a rare deviation from the typical friction-fit haft, with mostly continental parallels.

The wooden sections were assembled, clamped and sanded. The Anglo-Saxon weapon-smith would have used a piece of leather with loose sand to achieve this. The pieces were then fitted onto the tang, leaving the end of the tang protruding through the end collar/cap.
While with swords of the period, such a tang-end would have been peened to fix the grip on and then hidden with an independently pinned pommel-cap, this was not the case with seaxes, which normally had grips held by friction alone, or perhaps an adhesive. Interestingly, the end collar and the small pommel-cap of the elaborate Hoard seax bear no evidence of fixings. It seems the maker made the unusual decision to secure the whole assembly by riveting the pommel-cap through a hole in the protruding tang, thereby fixing the entire grip onto the blade.  The ends of this horizonal-running rivet were then hidden behind the two proud semi-circular garnet cells on the pommel-cap.

This sounds easy in theory, but the tolerances involved were less than a quarter of a millimetre. After a little judicious filing, the gold bar which secured the assembly slid into place through its aperture, through the tang and into the corresponding hole on the other side. In the case of our reconstruction, the access hole was then plugged by a tight-fitting gold-framed faux-garnet, gently malleted into place.

Close-up of the hilt of Staffordshire Hoard seax "Wyrmfang"

Fine sanding, oiling, waxing and polishing completed the job. The result is a fine-looking weapon; surprisingly 'modern' with a balance-point at the exact spot where the blade ends and the grip begins. This is quite different than the usual seax which tends to be quite blade-heavy. Weighing 410g or a little under 1lb, this waelseax has an elegance normally reserved in this period for swords. The original must surely have been a kingly possession.


Completed Staffordshire Hoard Seax "Wyrmfang".

1 comment:

Roeland Paardekooper said...

we would be very interested in publishing an article on the subject of this page. Our online Journal reaches members in 30+ countries and is about experimental archaeology, interpretation and several other subjects. www.journal.exarc.net. Please let me know if you are interested: r.p.paardekooper@exarc.net