Archaeology History Military

The Reconstruction Of The Ballinderry Sword, A Medieval Ulfberht Blade From Ireland

An Ulfberht Sword is a modern classification for a rare type of Medieval weapon composed of high-quality steel, produced in Europe from circa 800 to 1000 CE. The initial identification of the sword by archaeologists relies on the presence of an inscribed Frankish name in Carolingian script on the upper half of the patterned blade, the eponymous “+Ulfberht+“, though the artefact’s metallurgical composition is of greater significance (some examples may lack the inscription). Despite the fragmentary nature of many extant swords the similarity in materials, production and design has long led researchers to suggest that there was a single source or a handful of related sources for the weapons. The discovery of a number of inferior contemporary copies is thought to give credence to this theory (almost all of the counterfeits are marked out by misspelled inscriptions, poor quality metal or both). The majority of surviving artefacts likely originated in the Rhineland region of Germany and the generic inscription of Ulfberht may have been a type of brand name used by several generations of local blacksmiths. The fact that the word is normally proceeded and followed by a cross has been taken by some scholars to indicate an association with the Medieval Christian Church. Certainly a number of monasteries during the period were profiting from the growing European arms trade and three geographically appropriate religious sites in western Germany, Lorsch, Fulda and Solingen, have been nominated as candidate smithies.

Whatever the case, the swords were exported across the Continent, finding special favour among the military castes of the Scandinavian world, who prised the blades’ relative lightness and durability in combat. While it is popularly believed that genuine Ulfberht weapons are composed solely of exotic high-carbon or crucible steel imported from somewhere in Asia (modern Afghanistan, Iraq and India have all been suggested by historians), its probable that counterfeit copies were produced using lower quality bloomery steel, a method and material well-known among Medieval smiths.

Above is a short documentary from an American company, Baltimore Knife and Sword, examining the reproduction of an original Ulfberht sword, albeit in a somewhat simplified manner for a general audience (and with an over-the-top musical score). Though one of the presenters refers to the source artefact as the “Dublin Ulfberht Sword” it is actually known as the “Ballinderry Sword” in recognition of its discovery site; a remote bog containing the archaeological remains of a crannóg or a 9th century aristocratic lake-dwelling found during drainage work in 1928 near the modern town of Moate in County Westmeath, Ireland. The weapon would have been a valuable and relatively rare item during the period as Medieval Irish warfare placed a greater emphasis on light javelins and close-quarters spears. It was almost certainly acquired through trade or pillage from the early Scandinavian settlements of the east coast and was owned by a local Irish lord or king in the Midlands region.

A reconstructed Ulfbehrt sword
A reconstructed Ulfbehrt sword with the “+Ulfberht+” inscription

2 comments on “The Reconstruction Of The Ballinderry Sword, A Medieval Ulfberht Blade From Ireland

  1. Dara O Rourke

    Might it have been a votive offering? Crom Cruach is in my head….


    • Seems unlikely by the 9th-10th century CE though the Church in Ireland was still complaining about “pagan” practices (i.e. pre-Christian religious rituals) being practised as late as the 700s CE. Albeit in fragmentary form. A number of artefacts were recovered from the site, a partially dried-up lake which became a bog following the construction of the crannóg (and which may have led to its eventual abandonment, though other theories exist). Whoever lived there was clearly wealthy, a probable lord, though the site is very isolated.


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