Like faithful companions, Viking shields were the main weapon used by Norse warriors during their attacks on their European neighbors.
But the manufacture of these circular weapons is part of a preserved tradition. Even if no document from the Nordic peoples accurately describes the characteristics of Viking shields, research has revealed a lot about them.
Thin around the edges, Viking shields averaged 60mm thick. They had a round shape and an average diameter between 80 and 90 cm. Since it would have been difficult to find trees of this diameter to make so many shields, boards of small adjusted widths were used.
It was a plank layer made up of about seven or eight white pine planks. The boards were laid side by side and glued together. The resistance of the unit was reinforced by the fasteners of the handle, that of the umbo and that of the strapping of leather.
Some excavations have revealed that small bridles of iron or sheet bronze were sometimes regularly added above the strapping leather to create a continuity effect on the edges, especially in case of damage to an edge.
A leather covering
Medieval Viking shields were wrapped in calfskin around the edges and covered with lambskin or calfskin on both the front and back sides. The wooden board is therefore sandwiched between the leather pieces.
In order for them to be able to withstand the merciless impact of enemy spears, swords and axes , they were covered in leather as reinforcement. Although it seems obvious, it is only recently that archaeological excavations have found four medieval shields from northern Europe.
They were of the time ranging from 500 to 580 BCE . These discoveries have indeed made it possible to establish that the Viking shields were covered with protections intended to make them more resistant.
Coating treated to resist time
If it is true that the shields were covered with leather protections, the leather used, was it raw, tanned, or if it was untreated hides. Through analyzes of microfibers extracted from leather trimmings , tannins have been discovered in the leather. Further research revealed that in addition to heifer and calfskin, lambskin was also used.
Although its use in the manufacture of shields was prohibited by an English law of around 930 given its low relative strength, lambskin was still used by some manufacturers because it was the most accessible. They had lambs on their farms . To counter its relative weakness, they treated the material with tannins to increase its resistance and longevity.
Some of the shields discovered during the archaeological excavations, in particular those found on the ship of Gokstad (Norway, 905 after Jesus Christ) were not only covered with leather. They were also painted.
Remember that at the beginning of this article we said that the thickness of these weapons is usually 60 mm. You were probably surprised to realize that these weapons weren't as sturdy as you imagined. Let's say that the researchers had the same thought.
To confirm whether these were really shields used in battle or whether they were just decorative objects, research was carried out. The results proved that these Viking shields were functional for combat. Their coating was often painted in yellow, black or red.
In their center, the Viking shields had circular holes through which one passed and tied the leather strings to fix the leather protection. It must be believed that the leather skins were not wide enough. To fully cover their weapons, the warriors had to tie two pieces of leather between them.
The handle or grip
The handles of Viking shields were long and could measure the diameter of the shield. Towards their two extremities, they were tapered. Their termination can be spatula, so that their ends are nailed directly to the panel.
Umbos and rivets
The circular holes in the center of medieval Viking shields were covered by a steel umbo in the shape of a hemisphere about 15 cm in diameter. The umbos were usually held together by iron rivets with large heads, matted or flattened on both sides.
It should be noted that the umbos could have two main forms. Some had a pronounced neck and a rather high dome while the other models had a low arch and no neck.
Other umbo models also existed, but they were uncommon. These are the squat model , the conical model sometimes fitted with an apical knob, the serrated edge model, angled, refined, etc.
It should also be noted that several other metal fittings were found on the shields found during the excavations . One found in the excavated tombs, rings located on the back face of the shield and held by eyelets crossing the panels and in certain cases, the handle. These rings certainly served as a hook or attachment point.
Today, these discoveries have made it possible to reproduce completely authentic models of Viking shields.