New studies are upending our ideas about Viking shields


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Aug 03, 2023

New studies are upending our ideas about Viking shields

One of thebest-preserved ship burial mounds of the Viking Age lies an hour and a

One of thebest-preserved ship burial mounds of the Viking Age lies an hour and a halffrom Oslo, where the Gokstad ship was found.

At thebeginning of the 10th century, the ship had sailed for the last time and wasset ashore to become a burial place for a Viking.

Among the itemsaccompanying the Viking to the grave were 64 yellow- and black-painted shieldswhich, in their heyday, stood along the ship's sides as burial decorations – orso it was believed.

ArchaeologistRolf Fabricius Warming has been analysing the shields since 2019. He has foundclear indications that they were not just decorative.

"We’ve believedthat the Vikings produced thin, simple shields for ceremonial use like burials.But that doesn't make sense given how they were constructed. We’re talkingabout complex weaponry technology craftsmanship," says Warming.

He has foundseveral tricks of the trade in the shield design that would give an advantagein battle.

One of the indicatorsfor shields having more than merely a decorative purpose is that the wood isthinner at the outer edge of the shields.

The two taperingsystems are "gentle tapering" that starts about six centimetres from theedge, and "radical tapering or chamfering," where the wood is sanded just acouple of centimetres around the edge.

Archaeologistsare still not entirely certain what the shields’ actual function was, butWarming believes the radical tapering would make it easier to attach rawhide tothe edge of the shield, while the gentle tapering would make the shield lighterand easier to manoeuvre.

"Shields compriseda critical element of the Vikings' armour, and the tapering made them easier tocontrol and use in combat – rather than just as a passive defence," saysWarming.

As is so oftenthe case with discoveries, this discovery now raises even more questions forthe archaeologist. Some of the areas of interest that Warming hopes toinvestigate further are:

Warming'sscientific article, which has just been published in the journal Arms& Armour, recommends further analysis.

A wooden shieldstruck by arrows, swords and axes cannot avoid getting some serious blows. Anda single shield cannot sustain too many such blows before it becomes morehindrance than help.

However, if ashield maker makes small perforations and attaches rawhide to the shield, itcan withstand much more force.

The perforationsthat Warming has found on the Gokstad shields are another clear sign that they wereprobably used for combat.

"With a rawhidecovering, weapons would have a harder time penetrating the shields. Thisfeature would make sense if the shields were used in battle, but it wouldn't benecessary simply for ceremonial purposes," he says.

Rawhide hasmany different qualities and comes from different animals, and it can betreated in different ways. But animal hide is an organic material that rots, soit is a rare find in archaeological artefacts that are over 1100 years old. Thetype of hide that might have protected the Gokstad shields is thus difficult todetermine.

Although thearchaeologists found some pieces of unknown organic material on the shields, itis impossible to know for sure what they are. Warming hopes that he and hiscolleagues will have the opportunity to analyse the organic material and figureout what it is.

Over the pastfew years, Warming and his colleagues have examined numerous other Vikingshields. They have collaborated with the Trelleborg Museum in Denmark's westernZealand to recreate the hide covering.

If you'rewondering who earned a burial site that consists of a 23,8 metre long ship with aburial chamber and 64 shields, you're not the only one.

"Many peoplehave tried to find out whether the buried man could be one of the kings orprinces at that time, but so far we haven't been able to identify exactly whoit is," says archaeologist Rolf Fabricius Warming. However, he can confirm thatsuch graves are rare.

"We know that hewas a man in his 40s who was powerfully built and has several signs of traumafrom combat. The fact that he had a magnificent burial also indicates that he wasa person of importance," Warming says.

The burialchamber in the Gokstad ship was excavated and examined for the first time in1882 by the Norwegian archaeologist Nicolay Nicolaysen. Since then, it has beenassumed that the shields were made for ceremonial use, as decoration for the burialchamber.

Warming hasbeen sceptical about this interpretation, however.

"Archaeologiststend to explain what we don't understand by saying that artefacts areceremonial," he says.

"I’ve also lookedat the dimensions of the shields and couldn't see anything that suggested theGokstad shields were special. But I’ve tried to be open to bothinterpretations."

Warming'sanalysis of the shields is a bit like skiing off-piste – you can make someexciting discoveries, but you have to find the way yourself.

"Ploughing newground is always difficult – this has been one of our biggest challenges – butit opens up new possibilities," he says.

Ole Kastholm,who is an archaeologist at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, issurprised that the shields have not been analysed more closely before.

He seesWarming's study as a "welcome and important" supplement.

"Both the shipand the burial with all its artefacts are a crucial find from the Viking Age," saysKastholm.

He finds itthought-provoking that the shields could have been more than just decorative "props."

Kastholm saysthat he would like to see an assessment done of whether the wood, which is anorganic and changeable material, might have changed shape over time andaffected the study's measurements and results.

He concurs thatfurther studies could provide a deeper understanding of Viking culture.

"Not only arethe shields quite a unique source of Viking Age weapon use and weapontechnology," says Kastholm, "but more knowledge about the Gokstad shields couldalso shed light on the overall questions of how we should interpret the burialgifts in the elite burials of the Viking Age, how the graves were built andwhat rituals and symbols the people at the time attached to them.

The Trelleborgshield, "Denmark's only Viking shield," was found outside the city of Slagelsenear Trelleborg fortress. It is a very well-preserved shield reminiscent of theshields found at the Gokstad farm in Norway.

Anne-ChristineFrank Larsen, director of the National Museum of Denmark and of the Trelleborg VikingFortress, believes that the studies of the Gokstad shields can contributeimportant knowledge about the Danish Viking find.

"The Gokstadshields exhibit the closest parallels to the Trelleborg shield, making it importantto further explore them. This new knowledge will be fantastic to pass on," Larsen says.

The Gokstadfind consists of a burial mound, a ship, small boats, beds, sledges, tents, assortedother equipment and bones of horses, dogs and birds.

Kastholm pointsout that we can learn more about the burial culture of the Vikings by examiningthe objects that surround the burial sites.

"As we come toknow more about the shields, we also gain better prerequisites forunderstanding the role they played in the burials. That way we learn a littlemore about the culture that surrounded that type of ritual," he says.

Kastholm andWarming both point to the need to create a "completely basic andsystematic presentation of the shields in their entirety, with drawings,photos, measurements and material analyses."

As a rule, theshield boss tends to be the only part of Viking shields to survive, because theorganic materials have disappeared. Warming therefore started by examining theavailable wood fragments from the shields in the Gokstad find.

However, themetal finds are not without significance.

The shield bossis a metal dome, placed centrally on the shield. It covers the hole in the woodwhere a warrior grasps the handle. This feature is an important source ofknowledge about how the Vikings did battle.

"When we find notchesor cuts on the shield bosses on what we thought were ceremonial shields, it'sanother sign that they were used for combat. We still haven't analysed the marks.They might be able to tell us more about the Vikings' fighting techniques," saysWarming.

He hopes thearticle about the shields will lead to more research on the Vikings' most criticalbattle tool.

Accordingto Rolf F. Warming the ship grave inGokstad represents the leaning tower of Pisa of archaeology. Meaning it issomething most people have heard of but may not quite understand.

"Most of the finds of shields from the VikingAge merely consist of shield bosses, as they are often the only preserved part.The shield from Gokstad, together with the shield from Trelleborg, are special becausethey are so well preserved. The Gokstad-shields are however the only find thatcan be used to examine the design and shape of the shield planks in greatdetail," he says.

"For archaeologists, who usually have to makedo with the small dome of metal, it is amazing to be able to study the wood fromthe shields."

One of Warming'scolleagues in this work is Anne-Christine Frank Larsen, who heads the TrelleborgViking Fortress and National Museum of Denmark.

She says thatthe studies of the Gokstad shields are important for understanding the burialfind, but also for being able to convey knowledge about the Vikings.

She considersthese studies an example of how the subject of archaeology is constantlydeveloping through ancient finds that challenge our understanding.

"Revisiting oldexcavations like Gokstad is really interesting, because we can use up-to-dateknowledge to analyse and sometimes reinterpret old research results. That'swhat makes working with the archaeological material so exciting," says Larsen.

"The shields continueto provide us with information, and it will be wonderful to pass this newknowledge on. Maybe," she suggests, "we can use the Trelleborg shield to informus about the Gokstad discovery."

This is onlythe first consideration on a long list of questions that could be interestingto investigate further.

Time will tellwhich questions are studied first.

Translated by: Ingrid P. Nuse


Rolf FabriciusWarming: The Viking Age shields from the ship burial at Gokstad: are-examination of their construction and function. Arms & Armour, 2023.DOI: 10.1080/17416124.2023.2187199

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