One of the swords found in the Viking graves on the island of Sollerön in Sweden has a name engraved on it, Ulfberht. It was found in the first grave to be discovered. The temptation is to assume that this was the name of the Viking chieftain whose remains was buried there. Actually, the name is probably the first international “brand name”, ever.
The popular image of a Viking is that of a man with a sword and shield, but in fact, this is far from the truth. Reliable swords were very, very expensive weapons. There were some relatively cheap ones, but the chances are that they would bend or break at the first battle leaving the warrior with no protection. That is why many Vikings preferred a spear or an axe.
At the end of the tenth century knowledge of a new technique in steel production reached Europe from either the Middle East or India. It was known as “Damascus Steel”.
The secret of “Damascus Steel” was the precise proportion and distribution of carbon in the steel making process and the addition of very small quantities of other elements. In producing weapons, if too much carbon is added the sword becomes brittle and breaks. Add too little, and it will just bend. The Ulfberht swords used the perfect formula to produce blades that were sharper and more durable than any other made. The difficulty in producing them was reflected in the price, they were extremely expensive and only those with high status and great wealth could afford them.
Ulfberht is a personal “Frankish” name, (from the area between modern France and Germany), and it seems most likely that originally the swords were produced by a sword smith of that name. He either learnt to use the special technique to produce “Damascus Steel”, or he imported the steel from the Middle East or India and used it to produce sword blades. The swords were around 91 cms long and 5 centimetres wide. They weighed about 1.2 kgs. Something of a mystery still surrounds how the steel was made and modern attempts to copy the technique have required far higher temperatures than a medieval metal worker could have achieved.
The weapons were said to be stronger, sharper and more flexible than any other sword produced and thus gave the owner a significant advantage in battle. It was therefore the weapon of choice for those who could afford one. This is clear from the fact that to date, 170 “true” Ulfberht swords have been found. While they were discovered in different parts of Europe the majority were discovered in Scandinavia indicating the weapons popularity in the Viking Age.
However, just like modern brand names, “Ulfberht” was pirated and cheap, unreliable imitations were made with the same name on the blade. So, is the sword found on Sollerön a real Ulfberht or an imitation? I am not aware that any tests have been carried out on the metal. In all probability it is a real one, otherwise it is unlikely that the steel blade would have survived a thousand years in the ground.