A Viking sword from Lesja
Far into the mountains of Oppland in Norway a sword from the Viking Age was stumbled upon by reindeer hunters during the fall of 2017. This sword has now arrived for conservation at the Museum of Cultural History.
Elevated and exposed
The sword was found high in the mountains at an altitude of 1640 meters above sea level, probably the highest elevation a Viking sword has ever been found. Mountain graves from the Viking period are well known. In a grave, however, a sword would be accompanied by other grave-goods. Because of this the finders and archaeologists, as well as a metal detectorist went back into the mountain at Kjølen to see if there were additional objects at the site. However, no more objects were found, which could imply that the sword was lost by someone hiking through the mountains. It is even possible the owner perished there.
The sword was covered by snow during winter, but must have been exposed for periods also as spots of lichen had developed on the surface of the blade. The species seems to be map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) and by applying lichenometri, which is dating the lichen by its growth, the spots seem to have formed within a few decades rather than hundreds of years (pers. com. Professor Atle Nesje, Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen).
Something is however a bit puzzling here. At the scree where the sword was found the snow would have melted for a short period each summer. But if the sword was exposed for a few months every year for a millennium, why is it not covered by more lichen? Could the iron surface of the sword be less accommodating for lichen than the surrounding stones? During the long winters, a subzero temperature would have kept all water frozen and thus inaccessible to corrosion processes. But what about the thousand summers, albeit short summers, when the water would become liquefied and thus promote corrosion? Why is the iron not more deteriorated by corrosion? Our best explanation for now is that the sword must have had optimal ventilation in its location between the large stones of the scree and was thus kept relatively dry. There is also hardly any salts promoting corrosion high in the mountains and the sword has not been in contact with the soil. Attributes related to the alloy of the iron could also be a contributing factor.
Still sharp and functional
The sword was found with the tip poking up between large rocks in a scree. Exposed to the elements like this the iron has seen some surface corrosion, but the preservation is remarkable with the edge still remaining sharp! Fitted with a new grip the sword would still be fully functional today. X-rays seem to reveal a relatively simple blade construction. Some uneven wavy lines along the blade may hint at a steel edge having been welded on, but it could also imply the merging of iron bars in an early stage of the forging process. The blade is not pattern welded nor has it any iron inlays.
Hilt elements from disparate generations
Simple iron parts without any precious metal decoration make up the hilt of the sword. It is a pragmatic sword, probably worn with pride, but not by the highest strata of society. Such simple and unpretentious swords seem to be the norm in mountain graves, and they were probably made or at least hilted in Norway. Aside from being exceptionally well preserved, the sword from Lesja has an interesting trait. The hilt of the sword is actually composed of parts from two different types of hilts, where one part might be 50 years younger than the other. The guard, the part closest to the blade, is of Jan Petersen type C dated to the years 800-850 AD. The pommel is a few generations younger, and of Jan Petersen type M dated to the years 850-950 AD. The first impression was that the sword could perhaps have been an heirloom, but upon closer inspection through x-ray, the guard has cavities or recesses where the blade should have been fitted. The current blade, however, is far wider than the recesses and the guard must originally have belonged to a much narrower blade, probably a slim single-edged blade. This suggests that the guard itself is the oldest part of the sword from Lesja.
We can only speculate what befell the owner of the sword and how it ended up where it was found. Like the people who rediscovered the sword, perhaps also the owner himself was a reindeer hunter who tragically got caught in a blizzard? He lost his sword, perhaps an heirloom, on a mountainside at Kjølen. It would take 1100 years to be rediscovered – still in close to pristine condition.
Petersen, Jan (1919): De norske vikingesverd : en typologisk-kronologisk studie over vikingetidens vaaben. Jacob Dybwad, Kristiania.