Ulfberht Swords: The Superior Steel of the Vikings

Viking weapons aren’t unusual, but the thousand-year-old Ulfberht swords, whose composition didn’t become standard until the advent of the blast furnace centuries later, most certainly are. So what’s the origin of the Ulfberht swords? Who made the Ulfberht swords? Read on for a sharp focus into this truly perplexing mystery.

14 December 2023

Rivalling the legendary Japanese Masamune sword in their strength, composition and near-indestructibility, few weapons carry the same mystique as the Ulfberht swords, the legendary blades of the Viking Age.

Likely forged between the ninth and eleventh centuries – possibly even earlier – these swords were emblazoned with variations of the word ULFBERHT, a name that has given rise to numerous theories but no definitive explanations. They were not the crude iron weapons of typical Viking raids. These so-called Ulfberht super swords were astonishingly well-made. They were sharper, stronger and more flexible than virtually any other sword of their time and beyond, with a complex metallurgical composition that wouldn’t become standard until the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.

But what are the Ulfberht swords? The allure extends beyond their formidable futuristic properties. Their origin, the true meaning of their name, and the advanced technology used to create them pose questions that cut to the heart of Viking history and trade. Questions that have remained tantalisingly out of reach.

Why these swords were so technologically advanced, and yet appeared only briefly in the span of history, underlines the exceptional character of their creation and the remarkable nature of their mystery and intrigue.

The Ulfberht Swords

Illustration of a sword wielding bloodied viking warrior. (Credit: Lorado via Getty Images)

Over the last 200 years or so, around 170 Viking-era swords have been unearthed across Northern Europe, mostly across Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region but some as far away as England, Spain, France, Ireland, The Netherlands and other Viking trade routes. They’ve become known as the Ulfberht swords. They came to light in various contexts, from riverbeds to Viking burial sites, indicating their widespread use across the Viking world.

The first recognition of their unique properties began in the nineteenth century when antiquarians and historians started categorising and studying Viking weaponry more systematically.

In modern times, with the advent of advanced metallurgical analysis, the exceptional nature of the Ulfberht Viking swords has come into clearer focus. Dating of the swords’ components and the context of their discovery sites typically place their manufacture between the ninth and eleventh centuries, but while the discovery of Viking-age weapons isn’t unusual, these swords have managed to baffle archaeologists, historians and metallurgists.

First, their inscription. Each sword has been inlaid with +VLFBERH+T, +VLFBERHT+ or variations thereof, such as VLFBERH+T or VL EBERHIT.

Second, and the fact setting these remarkable swords apart, is the material from which they were crafted – namely a high-carbon crucible steel that would not be seen again in Europe until the invention of the industrial blast furnace. This metallurgical innovation produced a blade of such exceptional quality that it appears to be a historical anomaly.

Will the Real Ulfberht Please Stand Up

A Viking ulfberht sword originating from Russia (Credit: BEN STANSALL / Stringer via Getty Images)

While the Ulfberht inscription has become synonymous with superior craftsmanship, not all the Ulfberht Viking swords found with this mark share the same level of quality. Detailed metallurgical analyses have revealed a distinction. Some bear the hallmarks of the high-carbon steel that signifies their exceptional craftsmanship, while others appear to be less skillfully crafted, using lower-quality material.

This disparity has led scholars to suggest that during their time of production, the Ulfberht name may have been so revered that it was inscribed on a range of swords, from the finest examples of Viking metallurgy to more inferior blades, possibly serving as an early form of brand imitation or forgery. The existence of such variation offers a nuanced glimpse into the complexities of mediaeval manufacturing and commerce.

So who made the Ulfberht swords, and perhaps more intriguingly, how were they made?

Who - Or What - Was Ulfberht?

Viking artefacts found at a boat burial site (Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Staff via Getty Images)

The origin of the Ulfberht swords remains a mystery. According to a number of linguists, Ulfberht is a Frankish name, which may place the origin of the swords in modern-day France or Germany, but that’s far from certain.

Some believe that Ulfberht was a skilled swordsmith who marked his swords with an early ‘brand name’ to distinguish his quality from other, inferior swords, but given the fact the Ulfberht swords were made over the course of around two centuries, it’s impossible that one man made them all.

Other theories suggest Ulfberht was a trade guild that held the secret to this superior steelmaking process. This could explain the consistent quality and uniform inscriptions across a wide geographic area and over several generations.

Did the Ulfberht super swords have a religious or monastic connection? It has been speculated that the cross in the inscription suggests they may have been produced under the auspices of a monastery or ecclesiastical workshop, which was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Such workshops often had the resources and accumulated knowledge to produce works of superior craftsmanship, including weapons. However, there’s no direct evidence linking their manufacture with monastic or religious sites.

The true identification of Ulfberht remains elusive, and it’s a subject of ongoing research and debate. The combination of a mysterious name, a technologically advanced metalworking process, and the high status of the swords themselves makes the Ulfberht phenomenon a compelling puzzle for historians. Each theory offers a different lens through which to view the nexus of trade, technology, and culture in the Viking Age and Early Medieval period.

Magnificent Metallurgy

An engraving found on a Viking 'ulfberht sword’ (Credit: BEN STANSALL / Stringer via Getty Images)

Even more perplexing than attempting to discover who made the Ulfberht swords is trying to understand how swords of such quality were forged, given that the complex processes involved didn’t become commonplace for hundreds of years.

The making of the Ulfberht swords would have been a costly and time-consuming process, available only to the wealthiest and most powerful warriors. The expertise required to produce such a weapon implies that the blacksmiths who made them had a profound understanding of the materials and techniques at their disposal, which was unmatched in Europe at the time. These swords were not only weapons but also highly coveted status symbols, and their rarity and value made them treasured possessions that would have been handed down through generations.

High-Carbon Steel Content

The most significant aspect of the Ulfberht swords is the high carbon content of the steel. Carbon is the crucial element that allows steel to be hardened more than pure iron. The Ulfberht swords have a carbon content around three times that of swords typical of the time and it rendered them much lighter, stronger, sharper and more flexible. This was a composition that wouldn’t become standard until the Industrial Revolution.

Crucible Steel

The swords were made from a type of crucible steel, which was produced by a process that involved melting iron with carbon (in the form of charcoal) in a crucible – a refractory container capable of withstanding very high temperatures. This process allowed the carbon to fully dissolve into the iron, eliminating impurities and creating a more uniform and stronger material.

The Inscription

The name ‘Ulfberht’ was inscribed on the swords during the forging process, typically inlaid with wire of a contrasting metal to stand out against the dark steel. This was done with considerable skill, and the consistent quality of the inscription across numerous swords suggests that it was likely a mark of a workshop or guild rather than an individual smith.

A Sign of the Times

Traditional handmade knife made of Damascus steel. (Credit: Dmitry_Chulov via Getty Images)

The precise manufacturing techniques behind the Ulfberht Viking swords are comparable to those used in the creation of Wootz, or Damascus steel, known in India and the Middle East for its distinct pattern and superior qualities. Although the production of crucible steel was not prevalent in Europe during the Viking era, it was well-established in parts of Asia, suggesting a potential exchange of knowledge or materials along extensive trade networks.

This speculation about the origin of the Ulfberht swords indicates that Viking traders and explorers might have had access to or were influenced by the high-quality steel of the East through their extensive contacts with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.

The presence of such advanced metallurgical technology in Viking hands points to a mediaeval period rich in cross-cultural exchanges and the sharing of technology and craftsmanship. The true origins of the Ulfberht swords’ manufacturing techniques remain a mystery, but it’s known that Vikings travelled to and from the East via the Volga Trade Route which links modern-day Stockholm in Sweden with northern Iran – the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea – and this is one of the theories posited as to where the steel came from.

The Ulfberht Swords: Cutting Edge Technology

A reenactment of Vikings with their swords and weapons raised (Credit: Mike Raabe via Getty Images)

Swedish historian Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist described them as ‘the Rolls-Royce of swords’, yet we are no closer to definitively answering the question, ‘What are the Ulfberht swords?

Experts believe that the Ulfberht swords were forged between around 800 AD and 1000 AD, but with the decline of the Viking era, so too disappeared the secrets of their creation. It’s possible the trade routes supplying the crucial materials for these swords ceased, or perhaps the specialised knowledge simply vanished as the sociopolitical landscapes shifted.

Much like the swords, our understanding of the Vikings’ daily existence is veiled in obscurity, given their scant written legacy, leaving the collective knowledge we have of their culture and technological acumen pieced together mostly from archaeological discoveries and the accounts of contemporary civilisations.

The Ulfberht super swords, with their high-carbon content and association with the far-reaching trade networks of the Viking Age, suggest a world where knowledge traversed borders, infusing the Norse culture with a technological prowess that would not be seen again in Europe for centuries.


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