KAS Curator Andy Ward shares several examples of early medieval weapons featuring inscriptions and inlaid symbols.
Posted 12th October 2023
The Anglo-Saxon or Early Medieval period (410 – 1066 AD) was one bound up in the ideas of the warrior elite. Anglo-Saxon warriors would carry a specific set of weapons depending on their social status.
The spear was the most commonly carried weapon with different types being used depending on if they were being thrown or stabbed at the enemy. Some had a long shaft and a wide, leaf shaped blade while others were a type of javelin, used for both piercing and throwing. The Angon, a barbed spear used to disable the opponents shield and found almost exclusively in South-East Britain, is an example of this lighter type. Swanton classified 21 different forms of spear in England.
Alongside the spear the Anglo-Saxon warrior would carry a shield for defence. The shield would have a central grip consisting of a round wooden board, covered with leather or a heavy cloth and with an iron boss in the centre. It is the iron boss that survives down to us in the archaeological record.
Warriors would carry back up weapons more suited to close quarters combat. The average warrior would likely have carried a Seax, a single edged knife measuring between 6 – 10” in Britain (the continental examples measure between 8 – 14”).
Some warriors may have carried axes, although it is near impossible to tell whether an axe was used for warfare or for wood. They may have been used for both. The only type of axe definitely used in warfare is the Francisca (see the Museum Monday Facebook post of 02/10/2023), a throwing axe used heavily by the Franks.
Bows may have been used by the Anglo-Saxon warriors, although we have little surviving evidence of them, Arrowheads are found in graves, but, like the axe may have been used for non-warfare purposes such as hunting or both.
It is the sword which carried the most importance. Swords were expensive to make and therefore would be prized possessions by those who carried them, often being passed down through generations. Pattern-welding was a technique well known by the Anglo-Saxon sword smiths. The process involves twisting together rods of iron and steel before welding into a single piece of metal which is then hammered to form the core of the sword. The cutting edges, made of hard steel were welded to this core. The pattern would be revealed through etching using mildly acidic agents. Pattern welding continued to be used up until the 10th century.
While pattern welding on swords (and occasionally on Seaxes) is common, a less researched phenomenon is that of the inlaid symbol or inscription. These are found on spears, seaxes, and swords but their exact use is unclear.
The most famous inscription found on sword blades are those of ULFBERHT and INGELRII, often associated with the Latin ME FECIT showing that these are definitely makers names.
However, there are more than 100 ULFBERHT swords spread throughout Northern Europe dating from the 9th to 10th centuries AD. If the name does mark out an individual he would be working for around 300 years. This suggests that the name may relate to a school of smiths as well as probably including some forgeries. Typically these swords would also feature a geometric pattern on the reverse including circles, lines and curved symbols.
The inlays would be hot forged into the surface of the blade, formed of twisted iron wire similar to the rods which made up the pattern welded blade. By the 11th century swords began to carry Christian inscriptions on their blades such as IN NOMINE DOMINI ('In the name of the Lord'). Other non-ferrous (non-iron) inlays are also known from finds across Europe, with nearly all being unique from one another. Non-ferrous inlays would be sunk into channels carved out by chisels in order to hold the wire in place. Inlays made from materials other than iron could be placed into finished weapons, whereas Iron inlays must be placed into the blade before it is shaped and polished.
Inlaid symbols have been found on a number of weapons within Kent, most recently on one of the spearheads from the Ozengell Anglo-Saxon collection purchased by the society. This spearhead featured a small bow and arrow shape inlaid in gold wire. A similar spearhead from Buckland Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Dover also featured a bow and arrow inlay, with a ‘shield wall’ ideogram on the other side of the blade. A silver inlay is found on a spearhead from Bifrons cemetery now on display at Maidstone museum. Interestingly these spearheads all have simple circular designs or bow and arrows, whereas a sword from Sarre cemetery carried a gold inlaid sword. Possibly, these symbols added magical strength to these weapons, or were makers marks of some form. Given how unique each symbol is this seems increasingly unlikely.
This phenomenon seems to be one rarely studied in Britain. If you know of any further examples of inlaid weapons from Kent please do pass on the details to myself, the Curator.
Alan Williams (2009) ‘A Metallurgical Study of Some Viking Swords’ in Gladius, XXIX, pp 121-184, ISSN: 0436-029X.
Lee A. Jones (1997), ‘The Serpent in The Sword: Pattern-Welding in Early Medieval Swords’ in The Catalogue of the Fourteenth Park Lane Arms Fair.
Moilanen, Ulla & Mikko (2020), ‘An Early Medieval Sword With Unique Inlays From Finland’, Fennoscandia Archaeologica, XXXVII.
Ian Riddler, ‘Part 4: The Grave Goods – Buckland Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Dover’.
M. J. Swanton ‘The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlement.’
Ben Levick, ‘Anglo Saxon Weapons and Armour’ Angelcynn - Anglo Saxon Weapons & Armour at angelcynnreenactmentsociety.org.uk
Paul Hill, 5 Key Weapons of the Anglo-Saxon Period at historyhit.com/key-weapons-of-the-anglo-saxon-period
Janowski, A, Kurasinski, T and Pudlo, P (2012) ‘A sing, A Symbol or A Letter? Some remarks on Omega Marks Inlaid On Early Medieval Sword Blades’ Acta Universitatis Lodziensis, Folia Archaeological 29/2012.
Mikko Moilanen (2015) ‘Marks of Fire, Value and Faith: Sowrds with Ferrous Inlays in Finland during the Late Iron Age (ca. 700 – 1200 AD).
Petri, I. VLFBERHT swords: Origin, material, and manufacture. History Compass. 2019; 17:e12529. doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12529