Notes: Scandinavian Blacksmithing in the Iron Age

I took a few notes as I was reading a master’s thesis written by Sverre Christoffer Guldberg, “The Smith on the Edge of Worlds: New Perspectives on Technology and Ideology in the Late Norwegian Iron Age” in 2014 at the University of Oslo. This is not meant to be a summary of the document, but just my notes of things I learned or confirmed by this reading.

  • Viking-age anvils and hammers were on the small side.
  • Smaller pieces of metal were welded together to make larger objects.
  • Stones may have been used as anvils.
  • Viking-age anvils had horns and holes.
  • Pattern welded weapons were rare, but existed.
  • Crafting specialization was unlikely, meaning metalsmiths probably also worked wood, bone, soapstone, leather, etc.
  • Some tools were made of soapstone and it was a main material in tuyeres.
  • There was a type of shears that resembled a modern scissors but with arms bent upwards like a cloth-cutting scissors.
  • Saws existed but with low-carbon steel they were thicker and coarser. Some were meant to be used by pushing not pulling. Among other things, they were used to make bone combs.
  • A division between farmer smiths and (perhaps itinerant) specialist smiths seems supported by things like scales and dice in some graves.
  • Farmer smiths were more likely to be multi-crafters.
  • Weapons (not including axes and knives) were common objects for metalsmiths. Axes and knives were so common that they cannot be considered as weapons.
  • Shields and arrows aren’t really associated with metalworking.
  • In mythology, dwarves are exclusively connected to metal working.
  • The Old Norse word “smiðr” encompasses both metal and wood working and is probably better interpreted as “crafter” or “creator” rather than “smith”. The current use of the word “smith” has different connotations.
  • Smiths were likely part of the warrior structure.
  • Weapons production was decentralized as you could obtain weapons through the entire country.
  • There’s an old Anglo-Saxon calendar (sixth century) that describes October as the month for metalworking on the farm after the harvest.
  • There is a single mention of a female smith (smiðkona) named Þórgríma in the Harðar Saga. She was also considered a sorceress.
  • Egils Saga mentions a smith (Skalla-Grímr Kveldulfsson) as also creating poetry in his smithy.
  • Smithing was considered to be a proper skill for a king’s son.
  • The old Norse concept of “knowledge” or “wisdom” involved action, interaction, and experience. And smithing definitely involves those things. Our current understanding of knowledge and wisdom is much more passive.
  • Tools are found in both “rich” and “poor” graves. To quote: “you did not have to be a king in order to be knowledgeable, (- ideally -) you had to be knowledgeable in order to be a king.”

Next to Read

Carsten, 2012, “Might and Magic: The Smith in the Old Norse Literature” – a chapter in “Goldsmith Mysteries. Archeological, pictorial, and documentary evidence from the 1st millennium AD in Northern Europe” by Alexander G. Pesch, 2011