Choose your Weapon: How to Kill your Enemy in pre-Viking Ireland

Prior to the arrival of the Vikings, the Irish had two main weapons, spears and swords, and one line of defence, shields.

  • Spears were the most common weapon and could be used by all levels of society.

As a weapon that could be used by a variety of status-groups and for hunting as well as warfare, it is often difficult to determine the purpose of a spear when it is found in an archaeological context.

After the beginning of the Viking Age, some spearheads from Irish sites show a 'Viking' influence - they have more angled shoulders than Irish spear forms. 

Spears could have been used in hand-to-hand combat or over long distances in the form of a missile. Andy Halpin has suggested that these throwing spearheads were often smaller and lighter than those used in hand-to-hand combat. 

Photo courtesy of Linzi Simpson

There are over 12 different terms for 'spear' in Irish sources: bir, bunnsach, cléttine, cruisech, foga, gablach, gae, gothnait, laigen, lethgae, mánais and sleg.

(See the online dictionary of the Irish language (eDIL) for more detailed definitions)

  • Swords

Swords on the other hand, were expensive and usually used only by the nobility.

According to Nancy Edwards when the Irish came into contact with Romans they abandoned a particular La Tène type of sword in favour of smaller versions of the Roman spatha and gladius. Some swords also show that the Irish metalworkers may also have been influenced by the Germanic world.

There were two types of swords in Ireland before the Vikings:

- the colg, thought to be a small thrusting sword (similar to the Roman spatha);

- the claideb, a longer sword designed for slashing or cutting (similar to the Roman gladius).

Unfortunately, these sword types were no match for the Viking slashing swords and the Irish quickly began to adapt Viking blade forms into the manufacturing of their weapons.

  • Shields

Warriors protected themselves from attack by using small round shields. Usually only the iron bosses of these shields survive in the archaeological record, as the wooden body of the shield decays over time.

Other tools, such as slings, clubs and even flails were mentioned as being used as weapons in some early ninth-century Irish literary sources. 

A Choice Tool: Viking Weapons

Many Viking weapons have been found in furnished burials: although this pagan burial custom had begun to die out among Irish Vikings several generations before the battle of Clontarf. While very little is known about these public ceremonies, the grave goods indicate that weapons and other status-items were placed with the dead by family members as symbols of the person's status in life and to provide them with items they might need in the afterlife.

Viking weapons have also be found occasionally in rivers and wetland contexts.

Although Viking weaponry initially differed from Irish weaponry, the two weapons grew steadily more similar after Viking settlement in Ireland, with the Irish adopting Viking forms and vice versa.

  • Swords

The difference in the shape of blades has allowed archaeologists to determine a variety of sword-types throughout the Viking world. Most found in Dublin correspond to types found in Scandinavia between 800 and 950 AD. Many, but not all, have elaborately decorated hilts.

Many swords were highly decorated, although these decorations do not always survive after hundreds of years of corrosion.

Sometimes these swords were covered with silver-plaiting, twisted silver and gold wires and gilded copper-plaiting. These gleaming weapons would have been impressive to both friends and enemies.

One of the only complete swords from Dublin was found in the excavation of a late eleventh-century building at Christchurch Place. This example is closer in date to swords that would have been used at Clontarf than those from Viking graves. It appears that this sword may have had a lead alloy inlay as opposed to the more impressive silver.

And this particular sword has an intriguing inscription on the blade:

(SINIMIA(I)N(I)AIS, or S*N*M*A*N*A*S)

 The symbols on this inscription appear to be meaningless.

An example of an inscription on a 10th century 'Viking' type sword found in Lough Gur, County Limerick can be seen below:

  • Axes

In the early Viking-Age axeheads are found in a limited range of forms, which may have been used for fighting or for wood-working. Later, the two forms become distinct. From the beginning, the Vikings were closely associated with axes - neither Irish nor Anglo-Saxon groups used them in battle at the beginning of the Viking Age. 

Did you know? Vikings introduced the battle axe into Irish warfare.

This battle axe was quickly adopted by the Irish and became so much a part of the culture that in one version of his twelfth-century Topographia Hibernica, 'The Topography of Ireland', Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) treated the axe as almost the national weapon of Ireland:

... and they also carry, heavy battle-axes of iron, exceedingly well wrought and tempered.  These they borrowed from the Norwegians and Ostmen, of whom we shall speak hereafter.  But in striking with the battle-axe they use only one hand, instead of both, clasping the haft firmly, and raising it above the head, so as to direct the blow with such force that neither the helmets which protect our heads, nor the platting of the coat of mail which defends the rest of our bodies, can resist the stroke.

Thus it has happened, in my own time, that one blow of the axe has cut off a knight's thigh, although it was encased in iron, the thigh and leg falling on one side of his horse, and the body of the dying horseman on the other."

 Giraldus Cambrensis, The Topography of Ireland, ed. and trans. by Thomas Forester, rev. and ed. by Thomas Wright (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 69.

  • Bows and Arrows

Bows and arrows were also re-introduced by the Vikings, but archery never really became popular outside of the Hiberno-Norse towns. In fact, there is little evidence for Gaelic Irish use of archery before the thirteenth century.

Hundreds of arrowheads along with bows have been found in excavations of Viking-Age Dublin. There is no evidence for the importation of bows, which suggests that these weapons were made locally. 

A number of arrowhead types that survive from early medieval Ireland were capable of piercing armour and were used primarily in combat. Many of these arrowheads were also intended for hunting. 

The evidence for the use of a crossbow in Dublin from the early eleventh-century has led some archaeologists to argue that drastic changes could already be seen in military technology in Ireland. 

  • Shields

​In many archaeological excavations the main part of the shield that survives is the 'boss', which sits on the front of a timber shield and is usually made of iron.

Some conical shaped bosses found in Viking-Age contexts from South Great Georges Street and Fishamble Street suggest an Anglo-Saxon, instead of Scandinavian, influence on design. 

Photo courtesy of Linzi Simpson

Two types of these shields are known to derive from the Irish Sea region. Recent research has also identified a 'Dublin type' shield boss that seems to have developed at Dublin in the ninth century, and which is found almost nowhere else. 

Protection in Battle

The Norse were consistently described as wearing armour, which may have included a mail shirt, usually reaching to the knee, worn over a padded undergarment, and a helmet, typically of simple construction in a conical shape.

The only evidence for the use of mail in Hiberno-Norse Dublin comes from a small fragment of mail from an eleventh- or twelfth-century context at Christchurch Place (although this lack of archaeological evidence is not surprising as mail is rare on excavation sites from all periods).

Did you know? The historical Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. This trend for adding illogical handles to a military helmet was much popularised after Wagner's opera Nibelungenlied depicted the Viking characters with horned / winged helmets.

In the literary sources, the Gaelic Irish are often distinguished from Viking warriors by their lack of armour.

While some items of armour likely made their way into Irish hands, either through trade or combat, the Irish are generally depicted going into battle without it.

 

Sources: 

Nancy Edwards, The archaeology of early medieval Ireland (New York, repr. 1996).

Andy Halpin, Weapons and warfare in Viking and medieval Dublin (Dublin, 2008).

Stephen Harrison, 'Appendix I: shield boss from Fishamble Street' in ibid, pp 254-5.

Linzi Simpson, 'The Skeleton's tale' in Sparky Booker and Cherie N. Peters (eds), Tales of medieval Dublin (Four Courts Press, forthcoming). 

Aidan Walsh, 'A summary classification of Viking Age swords in Ireland' in Howard B. Clarke, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Raghnall Ó Floinn (eds), Ireland and Scandinavia in the early Viking Age (Dublin, 1998), pp 222-38.

Aidan Walsh, 'Viking Swords in Ireland' in Archaeology Ireland, vol. 9, no. 3 (1995), pp 37-8.

Trivia: 

Archery was introduced to Ireland by the Vikings, but never really became popular outside the Hiberno-Norse towns