A breathtaking sword from the last days of the Vikings

After four painstaking years of research, a sword found in a Viking burial ground has been revealed, linking the deceased to battles in England.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

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The sword's handle, showing unusual decorations. Ellen C. Holthe, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

The end of the Viking Age, generally thought to have stretched between 793 AD and 1066 AD, happened neither with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a treaty that saw the Vikings make peace with and integrate into European society.

However, in the years following the treaty between Charles the Simple and Rollo the Viking in 911 AD, King Ethelred II of England, known as the Unready, came under attack from Viking king of Denmark Sweyn, and his son Canute.

Sweyn deposed the hapless Anglo-Saxon king in 1013. Following Sweyn's death in 1014, Ethelred returned, only to die himself in 1016, leaving the throne to Canute the Great, as Ethelred's heirs fled from England.

A burial ground found in Langeid in the Setesdal Valley, Norway in 2011 contained artifacts from the time of Ethelred, including a glorious sword, the hilt embellished with gold and inscribed with markings. Now, after four years studying the site and the sword, the objects and findings are being revealed to the public for the first time.

"Even before we began the excavation of this grave, I realised it was something quite special. The grave was so big and looked different from the other 20 graves in the burial ground. In each of the four corners of the grave there were post holes," Camilla Cecilie Wenn of the Museum of Cultural History, Norway, who led the excavation, said in a statement.

These post holes indicate that the grave site had a roof at some point -- clearly the last resting place of a man both wealthy and important. But inside the coffin, only two small silver coin fragments were found. One was probably from the German Viking Age and the other a penny minted under the reign of Ethelred II. Carbon dating of charcoal inside the post holes dates the grave to around 1030 AD -- five years before the end of Canute's reign in 1035 AD.

But the real treasure, it turned out, wasn't inside the coffin at all.

"When we went on digging outside the coffin, our eyes really popped. Along both sides, something metal appeared, but it was hard to see what it was. Suddenly a lump of earth fell to one side so that the object became clearer," Wenn said.

"Our pulses raced when we realised it was the hilt of a sword! And on the other side of the coffin, the metal turned out to be a big battle-axe. Although the weapons were covered in rust when we found them, we realised straight away that they were special and unusual. Were they put there to protect the dead person from enemies, or to display power?"

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The full sword, in all its glory. Ellen C. Holthe, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

The sword itself, measuring 94 centimetres in length, is magnificent. Although the iron blade is rusted, the handle remains more or less intact, wrapped with silver thread around the grip and with gold and silver detailing on the hilt and pommel, edged in copper alloy wire. These decorations consist of large spirals, what seem to be Latin letters and what appear to be crosses, but what the markings mean is currently a mystery.

Conservator Vegard Vike working on the sword. Ellen C. Holthe, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

"At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That's unique and we don't know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism," Wenn said.

"But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man."

A runic stone a little further down the valley, which dates from the same period as the burial ground, could provide clues. In Old Norse, it reads, "Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute 'went after' England. God is one."

Moreover, the grave contained the aforementioned battle axe, not decorated with gold, but with a shaft coated in brass -- rare in Norway, but a number of similar axes from the same time period have been found along the River Thames in London, where Sweyn and Canute led their armies against Ethelred in a series of battles. Canute's soldiers, a written 12th century source says, had to belong to leading families and provide their own gilded axes and sword hilts.

"It's quite possible that the dead man was one of King Canute's hand-picked men for the battles with King Ethelred of England. Seen in connection with the runic stone further down the valley, it is tempting to suggest that it is Bjor himself who was brought home and buried here," said Zanette Glørstad of the Museum of Cultural History, who led the research.

"Another possibility is that his father Arnstein only got his son's magnificent weapons back and that, precisely for that reason, he decided to erect a runic stone for his son as a substitute for a grave. When Arnstein himself died, his son's glorious weapons were laid in his grave. The death of his son must have been very tough on an old man. Perhaps their relatives honoured both Arnstein and Bjor by letting Arnstein be buried with the weapons with such a heroic history."

The sword is now on display at the Museum of Cultural History in Norway as part of the exhibition "Take it personally."