Welcome to Bronze Age Scandinavia

Bronze Age Sword

Photo: John Lee, Wikimedia Commons.
Top: A full-hilted, leaf-shaped Bronze Age Sword of the type used by high-status individuals.
Bottom: A scimitar-like Bronze Age Sword with an unusual forged round hilt. It probably belonged to a chieftain or a high-status warrior.

Laguna Woods, Calif.

In this fourth and final installment in the series, we take a look at the warfare and weapons that characterized the age.

In about 375 BCE, four low-slung, canoe-like ships with front and rear double wooden beaks stealthily made their way to the Danish island of Als on Denmark’s southeast coast. Twenty men paddled silently in each boat. So that they could quickly reverse in an instant, helmsmen with steering oars sat at both the sterns and bows of the four boats. These men were on a dangerous raid, one that ended badly, at least for them. The victory, apparently, went to their enemies whom they had hoped to surprise.

At the time they approached the Danish coast in their narrow ships, they did not know the fate that awaited them. But we do today, some 2,375 years later. Most, if not all, of the men were either slain in the course of the raid or captured. One of their boats was filled with the unlucky raiders’ purposely destroyed weapons and other goods that had been sunk in a small Danish lake as a war sacrifice. Based on the number and type of the weapons found in the boat, which was discovered in a modern-day bog in 1921 near Hjortspring, this small army of raiders was made up of 10 to 12 high-status leading warriors and roughly 80 to 82 warriors of lesser status. Small wooden bowls found in the boat are thought to have once contained war paint which the raiders applied to their faces just before their failed attack.

Though the Hjortspring boat dates to the beginning of the Scandinavian Iron Age (500 BCE to 750 CE) archeologists believe this spectacular find gives us a valuable glimpse into the type and nature of warfare practiced in the preceding Bronze Age (1700 – 500 BCE). Early Iron Age life, despite the introduction of iron, closely resembled the way of life followed in the prior era. The big changes in culture and lifestyle that characterized the later Iron Age were yet to come.

Direct evidence of warfare in the Scandinavian Bronze Age has been found in the course of numerous archeological investigations and in the careful study of the large number of petroglyphs from the era that dot the coasts of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. So what can we say about warfare and weapons of this early period of Scandinavian history? Thanks to the brilliant sleuthing of a new generation of Nordic archeologists like Professor Kristian Kristiansen and his equally persistent colleagues, we now know a lot. Of course, for reasons of space, this article will only cover the highlights of what scholars of the Nordic Bronze Age have learned in the last 20 years.

As emphasized in the first article in this series, Scandinavian Bronze Age society was dominated by aggressive chieftains and their loyal retinues of farmer-warriors.* Fighting was apparently rampant throughout the Bronze Age. The beating heart of this warlike northern society was competition for political power and control of trade in precious metals, amber, furs, and slaves.

For the most part, the battles were small in scale and usually involved warrior bands similar in size to the 90 or so unfortunate raiders whose weapons ended up in the bog near Hjortspring, Denmark. However, at times, alliances among cooperating chieftains may have increased the number of warriors engaged in battle into the hundreds, but bigger armies were probably exceedingly rare. The only evidence of a battle in northwest Europe that involved larger numbers of fighters comes from the Tollense Valley in northern Germany, on the flanks of the Scandinavian realm. Excavation of the fallen dead at Tollense suggests a battle in the Bronze Age that may have had up to 2,000 active participants. Tollense, however, may be a classic example of “the exception that proves the rule.”

Ocean-going, low-slung canoes gave wide geographical reach in war to the chieftains and their warriors and offered ample opportunity for long-distance coastal raiding against perceived enemies. Varying in size, these ships could accommodate between six and 60 paddlers plus helmsmen. Often multiple ships were employed on raids with the smaller ships, giving a measure of protection to the largest ships in the fleet.

The most common weapon used by the warriors of the Nordic Bronze was the bronze-tipped spear. The socketed points on these spears frequently had flared cutting edges that gave them the look of small swords. Many archeologists believe the spears were used in both thrusting and cutting actions in combat with other spearmen, as well as sword wielders. Careful analysis of recovered spearheads has revealed that most exhibit clear signs of severe combat damage together with frequent evidence of re-sharpening and repair. Many of their cutting edges exhibit numerous nicks, blow marks, and fractures from repeated and heated engagements with other spearheads, as well as swords. Also, most of the studied spearheads evidence tip damage, perhaps from being temporarily embedded in a shield or in the hard bone of a wounded opponent.

Compared to the rest of northwest Europe in the Bronze Age, Scandinavia enjoyed a vast richness in swords. Even so, because of their relative expense, the use and possession of swords was probably restricted to the free farmer-warriors who occupied the top tier of Bronze Age society in the north. Like the spearheads, the swords were cast of bronze and the most popular types were those with a leaf-shaped blade. The leaf-bladed sword was narrow below the hilt and then broadened to a wide blade before narrowing again at the tip. There was a variety of other blade types including a single-edged one with a highly-curved tip that resembled a scimitar.

The hilts of these swords were of two basic types: flange-hilted and full-hilted. The hilt of a full-hilted sword was generally of bronze and attached to the blade with a series of rivets. It was round in cross-section and provided a firm grip by means of a flared pommel at the butt end and a widened shoulder at the blade end. Though many full-hilted swords exhibit combat damage, archeologists believe that these swords were used by the chieftains and other leading men in battle. Often these hilts exhibit intricate engraved decorations that suggest elite status for the owner. Because they have less secure round grips and are simply riveted to the sword blade, swords of this type are not considered as durable in combat as the counterpart flange-hilted swords.

Archeologists believe the flange-hilted swords were those used by the “professionals,” the warriors that did most of the hard fighting. The hilt in this kind of sword was forged as one with the blade, and thus, this type of sword was more resilient to hard blows than the riveted full-hilted sword. Viewed in cross-section the forged, but unfinished, flange hilt would resemble an I-beam placed on its side. The flanges on both sides of the unfinished metal hilt would then be fitted with riveted wood or bone insets to complete the handle and create a secure pommel. The finished hilt, being more rectangular in cross-section, would provide a surer grip than that allowed by the round-handled full-hilted sword.

Most flange-hilted and full-hilted swords were general-purpose swords that were good for both slashing and thrusting. Both types usually measured between 60 cm (23 5/8 in.) and 80 cm (31 1/2 in.) in length and usually weighed less than 800 grams (1.8 lbs.). When new, they were effective fighting weapons with well-forged and hardened wafer-thin edges. Studies of these Nordic swords also evidence considerable battle damage and repair, though not as much as found on the spearheads of the period. As expected, the flange-hilted swords of the farmer-warriors, rather than the full-hilted and often decorated swords of the chiefly commanders, show the greatest evidence of repeated combat damage, re-sharpening, and general refurbishing.

Axes were also popular weapons in Bronze Age Scandinavia, but they were not as common on the battlefield as spears and swords. For the most part, the bronze axe heads employed on the battlefield during the period were small in size and wedge-shaped with flared cutting blades. Many of these axe heads were attached by means of sockets to L-shaped, adze-like handles. Such axes were capable of being swung easily and forcefully with one arm, and judging from their shape and weight, could have had a devastating effect on an enemy. 

The only shields that have survived from Scandinavian Bronze Age sites are made of thin bronze, and these highly decorated shields appear to have been too insubstantial to have been used in combat. It is believed that these thin bronze shields were exclusively employed in chiefly displays or in religious rituals. However, warriors holding round shields are frequently featured in the Bronze Age petroglyphs of Scandinavia. Archeologists suggest that the fighting shields portrayed in the rock art were made of hardened leather, wood, or combinations of both leather and wood. If they were similar to the bronze display or ritual shields they would have had center grips and measured between 50 cm (19 11/16 in.) and 70 cm (27 9/16 in.) in diameter. And if the later Vikings resembled their predecessors in shield use, the Bronze Age warriors would have employed them both in defense and in offense. The Vikings not only used their shields to ward off and parry blows, but they also aggressively wielded shields as an offensive weapon, using the rims to deliver hard blows to the bodies of their opponents.

Judging from scenes portrayed in Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art, chariots were also used, at least to a limited extent, in warfare. These were light, two-wheeled affairs pulled by two horses that carried both a driver and a warrior. Their use was probably restricted to the chiefly or elite warriors of the time and only where the terrain was favorable for the use of wheeled vehicles.

Like their Celtic counterparts, the Bronze Age Scandinavians were a warlike bunch. They would have loved to have heard the stories of their contemporaries, the Bronze Age heroes of the Greek Iliad whose illustrious feats of daring have been preserved for us down through the ages through written history. Similar stories of fame and fortune in war were probably told around the long-house hearths of Bronze Age Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. But those ancient Scandinavians did not have a latter-day Homer, like the Greeks, to write down the stories of old before they were forever lost to memory. Today, only archeology can provide us a window, although a murky one, into these distant but fascinating times.

*Note: In the first article in this series, on chieftains [see Volume 130, #3, Feb. 8, 2019], I mistakenly misinterpreted a scholarly estimate on the average territory of Scandinavian chiefdoms of the period as being 20-30 sq. km [7.2 to 11.6 sq. mi]. The numbers actually referred to the average distance across a typical chiefdom. Thus, such chiefdoms were much larger and averaged between 300 and 700 sq. km in size [115.8 sq. mi and 270.3 sq. mi].

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

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