Monday, 3 February 2014

Wyrmfang 2/2

'Wymfang' - Chapter 2; A princely sheath for a princely Seax

In 2013 we attempted to faithfully reconstruct the second seax of the Staffordshire Hoard (see previous chapter here); a smaller but arguably richer weapon, featuring five pieces bearing garnet cloisonné on its hilt. This item had been long in the planning, ever since the Staffordshire Hoard conservation team announced the connection between the five splendid components which made up the hilt, and the reconstruction took place mainly during the spring of 2013. As always with such projects though, work was not over once the weapon was complete, as a sheath was still to be made, which would properly protect the blade and complement its haft.

It was possible to infer various details about the weapon's original sheath, with some degree of certainty simply from the golden fittings in the Hoard. It was clear, for example, that the lowermost hilt fitting (k449) covered the transition from tang to blade, its elaborate decoration and lack of wear on the soft gold indicating that no part of the hilt would have fitted inside a leather sheath. It is additionally clear that the ostentatious decoration at the lowermost part of the hilt would have been intended to be seen when the seax was worn, so it is unlikely a sheath would extend over it.  Instead, we think the sheath of this seax would have gripped the blade, terminating at the base of k449, allowing the entire golden hilt to be visible when worn.

Hilt of replica Staffordshire Hoard seax 'Wyrmfang'
It is not impossible that a folded leather sheath would have sufficed for this purpose. On balance though, we felt that the blade would be safest in a sheath constructed similarly to that of a sword, with an animal-hair lined wooden core, itself wrapped with thin leather. Such sheaths (termed "Seax Scabbards" by Esther Cameron*) are well evidenced, particularly with respect to 6th and 7th Century narrow-seaxes.

Work on the wood core actually began before the knife was hilted, principally to avoid the hazard of having such a wickedly sharp blade lying around. A rather more fiddly process than a sword scabbard, constructing this sheath involved carving a triangular cross-section slot of the right depth on two wooden planks, corresponding to the shape of the blade. Once the desired depth had been reached on each, lambskin was cut to shape, shorn to the desired length, and then fixed into the slot with animal-glue. The two halves were married up, the seax blade inserted with the planks held together to test tightness, and the length of animal-hair adjusted further until the desired tightness had been achieved. The halves were then glued together and carved down to produce a thin wooden core for the sheath, with a rounded back and sharp upper edge (mirroring the shape of the blade) to allow the leather to wrap it neatly.

Thin oak-tanned leather was cut to shape and wet-formed around the core; in particular to ensure seamless transition over the curving back of the core (reflecting the blade) towards the tip. Once dry, this leather was pulled tight over the core and fixed in place with edging formed from bent strips of copper-alloy and corresponding copper-alloy 'clips', held in place with tiny wire rivets. Supplementing these were two extended 'clips' to which were fitted rings of coiled copper-alloy wire for the suspension of the seax to be attached.

To the tip of the sheath we were able to fit a wonderful chape fashioned by talented bronze-caster Andrew Mason, based on the zoomorphic seax chape from Ford, Wiltshire, fitting the sheath's shape beautifully and adding some weight at the tip, helping this unusually balanced weapon hang well when worn.

Tip of the sheath of replica Staffordshire-Hoard seax Wyrmfang, featuring zoomorphic chape inspired by that of the  narrowseax from Ford, Laverstock, Wilts. 
 As far as other metallic components were concerned, we were keen to stick to Staffordshire Hoard items wherever possible.

Inspiration for the twin buckles to suspend the seax from a belt came from pieces k114 and, in particular, k685. While we will never know for sure what these tiny, fairly simple buckles were used for, the suspension of a seax is certainly a reasonable candidate, being the right size and just sturdy enough to bear the weight. Fashioning a pair of fairly faithful replicas was a fairly straightforward, though notably omitting the minute filligree rings around the rivet-heads. These buckles were supplemented with charming to-scale replicas of the tiny zoomorphic terminal pair k16 and k1184, fashioned into strap-ends by George Easton of danegeld.co.uk.

Replicas of Staffordshire Hoard 'bird of prey'  zoomorphic mounts k16 and k1184, adapted here as strap-ends

The final components of the sheath to be installed were two matching pieces of gold-and-garnet strip, in early 2014. The Hoard contains large quantities of such strip, with pieces in various shapes, sizes and configurations, and featuring various cloisonné designs. There is continental precedent for the use of gold and garnet cloisonne strip being used to augment sheaths and scabbards; most notably the elaborate 6th century sheaths of the sword and seax from the tomb of Childeric I.

Components of the Frankish King Childeric I's weapon-set, showing cloisonné strip used on the sheaths of sword and seax. 
 Given the martial nature of most other items from the Staffordshire Hoard it is reasonable to expect that the strips might have originated from martial effects too, among which sheaths and scabbards are a good fit. Although it is not possible to prove such uses on the basis of current information, further analysis (particularly with respect to the pre-deformation curvature of such items) may shed valuable light. In the meantime, sheaths and scabbards remain a good candidate for the purpose of such pieces; a theory we chose to explore on the sheath of Wyrmfang.
 The cloisonne designs used here were inspired by k273 although the replica pieces are, in this case, smaller than the originals, though consistent with the proportions of much of the Staffordshire Hoard strip pieces, and complete the design of the sheath, integrating the gold and garnet of the hilt with the design of the sheath.

C7th Anglo-Saxon seax 'Wyrmfang' sheathed, featuring 11 replica Staffordshire Hoard components

C7th Anglo-Saxon seax 'Wyrmfang' unsheathed

Overall the sheath functions well, protecting the blade and allowing it to be suspended comfortably from the waist belt. Taking the seax and sheath together, this project has involved the integration of replicas of nine separate Staffordshire Hoard pieces (across eleven components). The status of the Staffordshire Hoard's smaller implied seax is entirely unprecedented, and thus elements of any sheath which aims to be in-keeping with its rich hilt will inevitably involve the exercise of some creative licence, and this has been the case, in particular, with the adaptation of the zoomorphic terminals and garnet strip into the design. However, the way in which most components of this project have been used rests on a strong evidence base, and hopefully, overall, this assemblage goes some way towards realising what such a weapon would have looked like at the time of manufacture.


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