The Viking spear is an incredibly diverse weapon, used for a variety of different purposes. Due to this, it is believed to be the most common weapon during that time. A spear was found at every longhouse and played an important role in the lives of the farmers, hunters, and warriors. Throughout history, spears were more than just a weapon. Spears are a common find when doing excavations. Like swords and axes, a spear could also be a symbol of prestige, power, and status. In this blog post, we will delve into the history and design of the Viking spear, exploring its various forms and uses. Through examining historical finds and accounts from the sagas, we will gain a deeper understanding of this iconic weapon and its place in the Viking world.
The Viking spear in warfare
The spear was one of the primary weapons of the Viking warrior and was very common in battle. Its weight was low, it was versatile and easy to manufacture. Making it a popular weapon for many Vikings. Spears were typically made of wood, with a steel head attached to the end. The head could vary in shape and size, depending on the purpose and fighting style. Even though it could be used as a throwing weapon it was most likely to be used as a two-handed weapon in close combat. Throwing away your spear does not only mean you lose a weapon but also that your enemy gains one weapon and can use it against you.
The Viking spear in everyday life
One explanation why the spear, along with the axe, was so common on the battlefield could be that every home owned one. The axe was used for woodwork among other things and the spear was used for hunting.
One way to use the spear for hunting was together with trapping pits. Trapping pits are one of the most common ancient monuments that are found today.
Trapping pits were about 2,5 meters deep pits dug into the ground or built from stone. These pits were used to trap a variety of animals, with the primary targets being elk, reindeer, and wolves. Some pits could also be made to catch foxes and bears.
These pits were built to make it difficult for the animal to escape once it had fallen in. They were 3-4 meters in diameter and were camouflaged with branches and leaves, making them difficult to spot. Some pits had steep sides lined with planks or masonry, while others had sharpened sticks pointing upwards from the bottom to lacerate the animal, but not kill it, as the meat would go bad within a few hours after the animal died. Some traps could have a way to escape, enabling pets and even humans to escape if an accident occurred.
When the target was captured and the farm was ready for it, the hunter took the spear and killed the animal.
These were used during the stone age until the 19th century. In Sweden, trapping pits got forbidden in 1864.
Exploring Viking spear designs
Viking spearheads came in many different shapes and sizes, typically 20-60cm. In cross-section, spearheads were lozenge-shaped, with a thick central rib and a sharp edge on either side. Spears are ranging from simple points forged out of iron to more exclusive designs that are pattern welded with copper, silver, or gold inlays. Maybe to show the status of its owner?
The spears that are found are usually categorized, and one common system to categorize is the “Petersen typology”, created by Jan Petersen ( a Norwegian archeologist) with groups of A-M. A Swede named Thålin has simplified Petersen’s typology into 3 groups instead. The spears are categorized by design and the categories look like the following:
- Leaf-shaped heads: Thålin Group 1 and Petersen types A-E. These spears were made in a design that was common until 950 AD. (Though some historians have suggested that the use of this design may have continued through the entire period.)
- Angular-shaped heads with short sockets: Thålin Group 2, Petersen types D-H. The shoulders on these spears in this group are placed low on the blade and with a short conical socket that narrows toward the blade. There are also finds with wings on the socket that are categorized into this group. Common 950-1050 AD.
- Angular spearheads with long sockets: Thålin Group 3 and Petersen types F-M. They are all spears with a blade that is narrow and long, shouldered, and ending in a long, narrow, and conical socket. These were common throughout the whole period.
The spear from Lendbreen: An amazing find
In 1974, an incredible discovery was made on the Lendbreen ice patch, in Norway: A complete spear from the Viking Age. While spearheads are a common find in Scandinavia, the preservation of the entire spear shaft is a rare occurrence. Wooden artifacts generally don't last long over the centuries, and it takes special conditions for wood to be well-preserved.
This spear dates from the years 825-950. The spearhead itself is 45.5 cm (18 in) long, with the blade measuring 31 cm (12 in), and is categorized into Thålin’s Group 3 or Petersen types F. The shaft is 185 cm (6 ft) long and 2.2 cm (0.86 in) in diameter at its thickest, tapering towards the spearhead. The shaft is made out of birch. The entire spear, including the shaft, is 230.5 cm (7.5 ft) long. The spearhead has grooves on the socket and was attached to the shaft with an iron nail. Remarkably, the small iron nail has also been found.
This complete Viking Age spear is a truly amazing find, giving us a unique opportunity to learn more about the Viking spears. It's rare to have such a well-preserved example, and it's a testament to the skill of the blacksmith who created it. It's a fascinating piece of history that helps bring the Viking Age to life for us today.
The Importance of the Shaft
One important aspect of the design of Viking spears is the shaft. The sockets on surviving spearheads suggest that the shafts were typically round, with a diameter of 2-3 cm (about one inch). And that the spearheads were fixed to wooden shafts using a rivet or nail. However, the exact length of the shaft is uncertain since the wooden shaft usually doesn't survive. There were likely both longer and shorter shafts. Strong, straight-grained woods such as ash or birch made good shafts.
The nails that attached the spearhead to the shaft on historical weapons were surprisingly small. In some cases, these nails were L-shaped, suggesting that they could be easily removed.
The spear was a versatile and essential weapon for the Vikings. It was used for both hunting and warfare and was common in every household. The shape and size of the spearhead varied and could be forged simply or well-decorated. The spearhead was typically attached to the wooden shaft using a small nail or rivet. The shaft itself was typically made of strong, straight-grained woods such as ash or birch. The spear remains a symbol of the Viking's courage, resourcefulness, and creativity.
Great blog post!
I would love to hear more about the trapping pits in future posts! Also, would be great to read more about hunting & Viking age food!