One of the most famous and easily recognised historical swords is the distinctive Viking sword. During the migratory period of the Viking age, which started in 750 A.D., a fighter's sword was his most expensive possession. It often became a family heirloom, handed down from father to son. Tribal chieftains and the best warriors carried intricately crafted swords. These weapons featured ornate embellishments including precious gems set in golden hilts.
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The Viking sword had its origins in Dark Age bladed weaponry. Its double-edged, straight blade design was based on the Roman gladiator sword known as the spatha. Like its predecessors, the Viking sword had a single-hand grip with a short crossguard. The fighter held a shield in the other hand. The guards and pommels of Viking swords underwent many evolutionary changes during the course of the Viking age. The famous early Viking age "karolingiske" sword of Germanic origin provided the prototype for following generations of swords.
The Viking sword typology catalogue of Dr. Jan Petersen classified the swords in chronological order. The various Viking sword styles are categorised mostly by hilt design, as the blades are similar throughout the Viking age. The matching pommel and crossguard often featured inlaid precious metals set in herringbone patterns. The most famous Viking sword of any type is the Witham sword found in the River Witham near Monk's Abbey in Lincoln, England. It resides in the London Museum and is featured in almost every book on Viking swords.
The size, morphology, materials and construction methods of the Viking sword hilt varied considerably. Sometimes the pommel had a built-in upper crossguard. It could be a one-piece or a two-piece unit. Either the pommel or the upper guard could be attached to the tip of the tang. The grips were typically wood wrapped with leather. More prestigious swords featured grips wrapped with wire made from precious metals and embossed with Norse designs.
Viking swords had a tapered 24- to 36-inch-long blade that was typically 1.5 to 2.3 inches wide. Early double-edged sword blades were pattern welded in a process of mixing and folding together wrought iron with low- and high-carbon steel. The contrasting metals formed patterns similar to Damascus steel. Viking swordsmiths smelted different types of steel and created a composite material with tensile strength, flexibility and the ability to hold an edge. The best and most famous Viking blades were called Ulfberhts after their manufacturer. They bore the name Ulfberht in raised letters at the sword's hilt.
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