The Viking age has always interested many people worldwide. Viking warriors wore thick leather, an ax or sword in one hand, while the other had a Viking shield. It is no surprise that people want to learn more about Viking shields and what they did to help a Viking warriors in battle.
With Viking shields, weapons, and traditions, there are so many different aspects of the culture that we still discover today. However, with the information we have gathered, we can tell you everything you need to know about Viking shields.
What Is the Purpose of a Viking Shield?
During the Viking era, there were a lot of battles and attacks that Viking warriors needed to protect themselves against. They had numerous weapons like swords, spears, axes, and more. These battles were harsh and cruel, but they needed to engage in them. That is where a Viking shield comes in handy because they were able to use it to protect themselves.
Almost all Viking warriors would use a Viking shield, but this is also because many Vikings wouldn’t have any armor to protect themselves. It has been theorized that if Vikings did not have a shield, they would not engage in battle. However, there is not a lot of knowledge about how the Viking shields were used during battle, but they appeared to be effective.
Viking shields have helped protect the Viking warrior holding them, but they are also very important in Scandinavian countries’ cultural heritage. Also, the Viking shield became a symbol of prestige in society and showed off the military ranks amongst the Viking warriors.
Over the last few years, there have been many round shields being found in Denmark and Iceland in archeological excavations. The Viking shields that have survived the longest have been the wooden plank Viking shields. However, research has shown that it was made of two layers of laminated linden wood to begin with until it was changed to only one layer.
Additionally, archeological evidence and writing do not match up, which is why there is a lot of discussion and opinions regarding Viking shields and why they were used.
What the Viking Shields Were Made of
Right now, there has been evidence that supports the use of round shields amongst the Vikings. The shield’s diameter and construction did change depending on its purpose. Also, these dimensions would be changed depending on the warrior and their preferred fighting style. If the shields were smaller, the Vikings would be more vulnerable, but they would be more agile in combat. Alternatively, a larger shield would be great for protection, but they would not be able to move fast.
Other written evidence showed that Viking shields were made of thick wood like solid pine, spruce, or fir. They then would glue these pieces together, so it was sturdy for battle. Then, on the inner side of the shield, there would be a shield grip so that the Vikings could hold their shield. Many of these grips were made of wood, but some were made of wood and iron.
The shield rim was also made of leather, so the Viking shield would not split easily if the enemy were to hit it in battle. Also, the leather edging strengthened the shields, making them more stable. Some of the Viking shields that have been recovered have holes on the edge, and it is believed that this is where they fastened the leather to the edge. Iron and bronze hoops were found, indicating that these may have helped with the fastening, but that is still up for debate.
At the center of the shields were shield bosses. This was a domed piece of iron that would protect the hand of the warrior. It was originally found in Iceland and is believed to have been from the 10th century. There was another one found that has been thought to have come from the Vendel period.
Shield bosses were usually 15cm in diameter. The boss needed to be large enough to put their hand in it and move it around freely during battle. At the beginning, shield bosses were made hemispherical, but this later changed, so they were more flattened.
Were There Metal Rims on the Viking Shields?
People believe that many Viking shields are made with iron, but not much evidence supports this notion. Having the hoops on the rims of shields would already make production costs more expensive, but it would take longer, which is why some people don’t think there are as many metal shields.
Also, during the Viking age, they needed to make all their weapons themselves, which meant they needed to work with the materials and construct everything by hand. These shields needed to be easy to carry, and they needed to protect the Vikings in battle. Even though metal rims would be useful for durability, they would not have been good for agility. This is another reason people believe there weren’t as many metal rims as people think.
Lastly, only the wealthiest Vikings had access to iron, meaning that most Vikings would have their wooden shields and leather rims. This also supports the notion that there were not as many Vikings with iron parts on their shields.
The Patterns on the Viking Shields
There are many reasons why the Viking shield was decorated. First, this was a way for them to identify whose shield it was. That is why on one side of the shield, the Vikings would decorate it with runes and symbols showing what they believed in. They thought these runes would help them succeed in victory, so they would always make sure to put them on their shields. That is also why they would put many symbols of birds and Norse Gods to help them in battle.
However, the Viking shield would be decorated because bare wood would absorb more water compared to painted shields. If the shield were to gather water, it would become too heavy to carry. That is why the shield face was painted red or any other color they wanted. They would cover it in oil if they didn’t want to paint it.
The Shape of Viking Shields
When people think of a Viking shield, it is no surprise that they think of large round shields. This was a staple in creating these shields, which is why they are still recognizable today. However, during the medieval period, Viking shields were smaller than their European counterparts. Luckily, this was not a design flaw because the size of the shield made it a great thing to have during battle.
Since the shields were lightweight and no more than three feet across, they would struggle to protect the warrior if they were to be attacked with a sword or ax. Luckily, that is not what they were made for, but they were made to help Vikings absorb and deflect attacks while they moved. Also, they were used for offensive purposes.
The hand grip was right in the middle of the back of the shield, which made it a pivot point. Warriors would have lighting-fast and nimble movement amongst the others. Also, when they combined this with their fearless combat style, they were hard to defeat.
Later, the circular shields were replaced with kite shields, an innovation during the Viking period. Kite shields were made by the Normans, who were descendants of Vikings that had invaded western France. These shields were also lightweight, but they were great for protecting the warriors’ lower bodies and legs.
The Shield Wall
Vikings would go into battle head-on, which meant they needed to figure out how to protect themselves as a group. Since they fought on foot, they were at greater risk of becoming hurt when the enemy struck. Researchers had found information about the infamous shield wall that Vikings would create when they were in battle during the Viking period.
When a shield wall needed to be created, the Vikings would need to stand shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping each other. This teamwork would save a lot of people during battle, which is probably why people were able to stay safe during battle. The shields could be lifted to form a cover from all sorts of arrows and other missiles.
They wanted to ensure that the shield wall was at least five to 10 shields deep, so they would be protected. If there were too many shields, this could confuse the warriors in battle, but if there were too few, they might end up being pushed back by the enemy.
There are many ways that the shield wall was created, but it was an interesting defense tactic that the Vikings used during many battles and instances.
Criticism About the Shield Wall
Researchers and historians believe the shield wall was real, but some believe it never happened. Rolf Warming from the University of Copenhagen is one of the researchers considering the shield wall would not have been used. This is because he says that a Viking shield would not be able to withstand so much pressure and repeated blows during battle like incoming spears.
He says that the idea of a shield wall was created for poetic reasons. Instead, he says that they would charge into battle with their shields in different formations, so they could try to overwhelm the enemy. Many other experts agree with this theory because they also say that Vikings were more known for being fierce warriors that would charge into battle during the Viking age.
They have said that a shield wall is a bad strategy, but it would be good to move forward. This would help them remove space between them and the enemy, making their blows less powerful. With the decrease in force and power from the enemies’ blows, it would mean that the shields may have had an easier time holding up, but they would still routinely break.
These valid points allow historians and researchers to debate many other concepts about Vikings and their shields. This criticism is also impacting because more people are talking about the shield wall, and shows are now discussing whether they should use it in battle scenes.
The Gokstad Ship
The Gokstad ship is one of the best-known, and well-preserved Viking ships researchers found. It was in a burial mound in Norway and a burial site for a Viking noble. Also, 12 horses, one peacock, and six dogs were buried there in a sacrificial ceremony. However, this ship is being brought up in this post about shields because it has many wooden shields on its surface, and they were preserved without a scratch.
That is where the term ‘Gokstad shields’ came from. These shields were huge, and they are still the largest Viking shields that have been found. They were connected to the boat with broad-headed iron nails on the front of the shield, painted yellow and black. They were also made of several layers of planks.
Small holes on the side of these shields indicate that they might have been used to clamp the leather to the wood with iron bands. However, these bands may have also been for a different reason because these shields were not used in battle but rather for burial purposes. This may also be connected to the size of the shield because we now know that the smaller shields were good for protecting them in battle while keeping them agile. However, a larger shield would give them more room to decorate for burial purposes.
Also, this particular Viking shield was a lot thinner compared to the other ones. They would have broken easily if they were to be used in battle. This eludes to the idea that these shields were definitely not made for battle.
Frequently Asked Questions About Viking Shields
What Colors Were Used on Viking Shields?
Some shields have been found in yellow, black, white, and red. There are a few different theories about why the Viking shields were colored to show meaning. They think that green symbolizes hope, a red shield means strength and danger, a white shield represents innocence or neutrality, and black would be death. The Gokstad shields were found on ships, and they were painted black and yellow.
How Do Historians Know When a Viking Shield was Made?
The type of shields that the Vikings used can be traced all the way back to the Iron Age. They were made with thin planks and glued into a circular shape, so they could try to protect themselves. In the middle of the shield is a dome called a shield boss, which would be used to protect the warrior’s hand. This is the only part that has been preserved as archaeological evidence after being in the ground for over 1,000 years.
When a historian is trying to figure out the age of a shield, they can learn this information by looking at the boss. The boss changed throughout the Iron Age and the Viking period. After completing specific tests, they are able to determine when this shield was made. Also, many shields were usually found in burial sites because the Vikings would have buried them. This is because they believed that they would need this shield for their last journey.
Is There a Complete Shield Preserved Somewhere?
In 2008, at Trelleborg near Slagelse, there were some archeological findings that shook the world of Viking historians. They found a shield that was nearly complete. This shield was made of pine wood, and it was around 80cm. Historians believe that this shield was used in the fortress when it was in operation at the end of the 900s.
This is the second site that has been able to give researchers a nearly perfect shield to look at in Scandinavia. It was in a saturated condition, which helped with preserving it for all this time. However, the boss was missing on the shield, which does make it harder to figure out when this shield was made. After looking for the boss in other areas of the site, it was never found, meaning that it might have broken off elsewhere during battle.
Many people have seen a Viking shield in movies, museums, and shows, which is why people continuously want to learn about them. The Vikings were warriors in the Norse Lands, and they have greatly impacted the world with their fighting and traditions. However, they are still somewhat mysterious because there are still a lot of things that we do not know about the Vikings and their way of life.
This will not stop researchers and historians from figuring out as much as possible regarding Vikings and their lives. With new artifacts being found, there are sure to be more theories as to why the Vikings lived the way they did while taking part in their cultural practices.