The iconic weapon of a viking
When we picture a viking, we often picture him or her with an axe in hand. Maybe combined with a round shield. Swords were used but not every viking could afford a sword. It takes more expensive material to make a sword, it takes more skill making a sword and a sword only has one use. While the axe has multiple uses and every farmer during that time had one, the axe has become the iconic weapon of a viking.
A part of the everyday life
The axe is one of the oldest close combat weapons along with spears and clubs. As these tools were part of everyday life they were close to hand also when battle arised. The viking era is a part of the historical period we call the iron age. Even if it's a part of the iron age the main material used was wood. Iron during that time was expensive (read more about iron’s value) but there was a lot of wood available so whenever wood could be used it was. This was also the case long before the iron age. Wood has been used as long as humans have been around. In order to process wood we need some tools. First we need to cut down the tree. Today we might grab a saw but until not so long ago the axe has been the main tool for cutting down trees. Archeologists have found axes that were used by Homo ergaster about 1.4 million years ago. My grandfather was working with forestry and the axe was his main tool for a long time. It was not until 1960’s when he replaced the axe with the chainsaw.
A tool that was developed into a weapon
In Scandinavia during the viking era the axe was a common weapon since it was a common tool at the farm. But the axes that were used at the farm were heavy and maybe not so well balanced and easy to handle in battle so with time the tool was developed into a weapon. The battle axe is a bit different from the axe used for wood work. Axes used in battle needed to be swift and easy to handle so they were often thinner and therefore lighter than woodworking axes. When my interest for vikings and their axes startet to grow I read that they were thin and I also saw it on pictures, but it was not until I held an actual viking battle axe in my hands that I realized how light and elegant they were. With time the handle also became longer and soon the two handed axe was developed.
When talking about viking age axes they are often referred to different names. You might have heard of a dane axe? or a type L axe? Or the beard axe? Down below you can see a picture of an axe and its anatomy. Right under the picture you can read more info about the most common viking axe designs.
Custom made short bearded woodworking axe, Inspired by a type D axe
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- Bearded axe: The name comes from old norse “Skeggøx”, Skegg=beard and øx = axe. This type of axe is used in battle and as a tool. It is called a beard axe since when looking at it in profile, the cutting edge drops below the width of the butt and kind of looks like a beard. This allows the axe to have a wide cutting edge while keeping the overall weight low. When used as a tool the worker can grip the axe so the hand is behind the cutting edge which increases control and the axe can be used for shaving or planing. This design is maybe not as common as it used to be but the design is still in use by modern woodworkers. In battle the bearded axe can also be useful. The axe can be forged light while still having a wide cutting edge. And the beard can be used as a hook to pull down an opponent's shields or weapons among other things.
- Dane axe: The size of the axe varies but a typical Dane axe has a 20 cm - 30 cm (8 and 12 in) long cutting edge, a very thin blade and with distinct points at the toe and heel. Even though it is a large axe, the weight was only 1 and 2 kg (2.2 and 4.4 lb). This is due to the thin blade. The blade could be as thin as 2 mm (0.08 in). The typical dane axe had a handle that was 0,9 - 1,2 m (3.0 and 3.9 ft) long but there were also larger ones that were used as a status symbol. These could be as long as 1.5 - 1.7 m (5 to 5½ ft).
- Broadaxe: The broadaxe is a tool. As wood was used frequently, the broadaxe was used to make wood into timber for buildings and ships for instance. The shape, size and cutting edge varies depending on the use for the axe. Like the bearded axe the broad axe is not as common as it used to be but many carpenters still prefer a broadaxe.
- Atgeir: The Atgeir is often translated to "halberd". It is mentioned in Njal's saga. Atgeir is related to the old norse geirr, which means spear. So an Atgeir is most likely closer to a bill or Glaive. Could be that it was developed from a tool/type of axe that were used for peatery.
- Axe typology: If you are researching and looking for replicas you might have noticed that some use a kind of typology. Axes are categorized by shape, time period and by intended use. A typology that was created by a Norwegian archeologist, Jan Petersen, is commonly used. Axes are categorized into 12 categories and are referred to “type A-M” (there is no type J). The three main things that differ in the shapes are the blade, neck and spurs.
How they were made
The typical viking axe were forged by the viking blacksmiths. The body of the axe was made out of bloomery iron with a high-carbon steel edge. And with a single edge. There is no evidence that the vikings used double edged axes. Depending on the design it could be made in three different ways. Axes with a wedge cross section were usually made like most modern axes, with a punched eye. Axes with a thin cross section, such as dane axes, were usually made with a folded eye. These two ways are the most common, but some axes also have a weld on the back of the eye, at the butt. Due to the visible weld on the butt one might suggest that the axe body was cut open like a Y shape, and then welded at the back to make the eye.
Showing your status
Even though every farmer owned an axe and could be seen as “poor man's weapon” we got examples that were used as a status symbol and a weapon only a rich person could afford. Axes could be decorated with engravings and silver or gold inlays. A well known axe is the “Mammen axe”. The axe was found in a wealthy grave in Mammen, Denmark. Read more about the Mammen axe here.
For ceremonial use
The axe has been with us for a very long time and has developed from being an essential tool to a weapon and status symbol. Axes without sign of use have also been found and with a shape that did not seem to be practical. Such axes are suggested to have been used for ceremonial use and used in rituals. There are also pictures that give this hint. One picture to mention is the “The Bridal Couple scene” that is a rock carving that was made in Bohuslän, Sweden, between 1700 B.C. - 300 B.C, showing a couple standing close to each other and next to the there is a person with a raised axe. Read more about the rock carving here.
Well done. Very direct and informative.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Thank you for the education! You do an amazing job of getting us to see the truth of what life was really like for the people of the iron age!