History constantly awakens our imagination and hides many questions we still have no answers to. Such mystery is the so-called Ulfberht sword, which dates from the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries.
Swords were nothing new at that time – the technique they were made, however, was. They were made by metallurgical technology, which was believed to have been discovered only during the Industrial Revolution.
The Symbolism Of The Ulfberht Swords
It is a great mystery why swords of this type bear the inscription Ulfberht, as this name does not appear in written texts of the time. This inscription has several variations, including + VLFBERHT + or VLFBERH + T. The word actually refers to a Frankish personal name. It meant the degree of quality, or what we would call a "trademark" today.
Historians believe that Ulfbercht was a highly esteemed and well-known blacksmith, in whose workshops the best swords of the early Middle Ages in Europe were made. Later, other metal workshops started using this label as well. However, judging by all the Ulfbercht swords found thus far, they maintained the same high quality of steel and blades.
It is also possible that this was the place where the swords were made. Or it could be a name given to the blades to prove their authenticity.
Ulfbercht swords were produced for over two hundred years, indicating that all of them could not have been made by a single blacksmith.
The symbols "+" or crosses in this name refer to the monastic or ecclesiastical origin of swords. There is a chance that a Catholic monastic order ran Ulfbrecht's workshop. Even more interesting, such swords were the most valued among the Vikings, witnessed "pagans" and opponents of Christianity in these centuries.
It is assumed that most of the Ulfbrecht swords arrived in Scandinavia as part of the spoils of war, or smuggling, then as a ransom for high officials of European kingdoms that the Vikings took, or simply as war souvenirs.
A Legendary Blade
About 170 Viking Ulfberht swords have been found so far. Ulfberhts are a real treat for all lovers of mysteries of the past.
These swords were used to cut bones, wood, and armor like paper. Their blades were almost not worn, while their flexibility was legendary – they could easily bend up to ten degrees. Their metallurgical composition resembles the most modern steels obtained at a temperature of 1648.9 oC. The old blacksmiths knew how to extract almost all impurities from iron, something that only some highly specialized foundries can achieve today.
In fact, extracting impurities from iron ore is just one of the problems in creating Ulfberht swords. Another unknown is the addition of 1.5% of carbon to iron and the process of creating so-called strong carbon steel. The more carbon there is in iron, the harder it becomes.
Iron with a high 1.0 to 2.0% carbon is called ultra-high carbon steel. Steel also becomes harder by reducing copper, magnesium, and silicon impurities. Ulfberht swords contain three times more carbon than all known alloys at the time.
The Mysterious Blacksmithing Process
The question is, how could the Vikings create ultra-high carbon steel without modern technology? Making such swords is a challenge for modern blacksmiths as well. One of today's most famous blacksmiths, Richard Furrer, claims that only a few people today can reproduce such swords, and even they will not be able to do so "from the first try."
"Creating a sword with such amazing properties is actually the most complex thing I know in blacksmithing and metallurgy. For me, creating and shaping such a metal is an extremely difficult achievement. Creating weapons from raw ore is a very demanding job. Imagine what it looked like to people in the Middle Ages. They were given exceptional weapons that could not be broken and were not easily blunted. Certainly, the Ulfberht swordsmiths resembled wizards with supernatural abilities."
Interestingly, the first Ulfberht swords appeared after strong trade ties were established with the Middle East. Vikings had especially strong trade relations with blacksmiths from Damascus, famous for making steel.
Vikings' Ulfberht swords steel had recognizable patterns resembling longitudinally cut wood. That pattern is also visible on the so-called damask canvas.
Although there is no historical evidence of the connection between these two technologies, it is difficult not to notice apparent similarities. The resemblance is found both in the performance and quality of the metal.
At that time, the famous Volga trade route connected northern Europe with the Caspian Sea via the Volga River. This route is thought to have served the Vikings to supply cast steel bars from Iran and Afghanistan. The oldest swords date from the period after opening this trade route. And quite expectantly, when the trade route closed, the production of Ulfberht swords stopped.
Ulfberht Swords: A Collectors Gem
Archaeologist and metallurgist Dr. Alan Williams examined forty specimens of Ulfberht swords. Still, he failed to fully explain how the Vikings created this technology, especially how they made swords in more than a hundred identical specimens.
Dr. Williams received specimens of Ulfberht swords from a private collector. After metallurgical analyses in the UK's most famous laboratories and collaboration with three universities, it was discovered that Ulfberht swords were made very similarly to how Japanese swords were made.
Namely, the Northerners shaped the metal by heating and shaping hundreds of layers with light blacksmith's hammers and rapidly cooling it with water, repeating the process until the blacksmith was satisfied with the condition of the metal.
Ulfberht swords disappeared from the market as abruptly as they appeared. As soon as the Russian tribes blocked the trade route with the Middle East, the production of the then deadliest European weapon disappeared.
It should also be noted that most of the famous Ulfberht swords were found in rivers, while their cheap and lower-quality replicas were found in the tombs of Viking greats. The Vikings seem to have sacrificed their best swords to the gods by laying them in rivers. The question remains as to why they did so.
Subsequent research has shown that most specimens of Ulfberht swords from famous museums are cheap copies of burial mounds. In contrast, only a few private collectors have originals of priceless value.