December 2, 2012 @ 2:40 pm
It's been a week since I saw Cloud Atlas, and I'm still trying to decide whether I liked it or not. While I ponder, enjoy our very first guest post, from Mike Hager, as a follow-up to my anti-Viking rants of Episode 52. Mr. Hager and I have been friends for over 20 years, and have seen one another at our absolute worst. I find it hilarious that he is polite enough to refer to me by my professional title (in public, anyway). And by his archaic use of starred footnotes, which I presume he picked up from Tolkien.
The one or two loyal followers of VSI may remember me as the thickly accented anti-creationist nutjob Dr. Hayes interviewed a year or so ago. I am back to prove that I am not a one-dimensional nutjob. In addition to nurturing my fanatical hatred of creationists, I also obsess about historical arms and armor. I am primarily interested in European swords from 400 AD to 1600 AD.
Recently on VSI, Dr. Hayes used the history of the Ulfbert sword to discuss the role of creative design, not as a departure from the principles of evolution, but rather as a source of variation. At least, I think that's what he said. Sometimes I don't understand his gibberish. Ulfbert swords are of interest because they were made of a better grade of steel then was available in Europe at the time, called crucible steel. Little is definitely known about how the Ulfberts came to be, but some facts are evident. The crucible steel was imported, probably from what is now Northern Iran, and not locally made. Ulfbert is not a Scandinavian name; it's Frankish, an interesting but most likely irrelevant point. There was no one man responsible for the superior swords, since they were made for nearly three hundred years, from about 800 AD to 1050 AD. The Ulfbert blades were inlaid with the name. There were many fake Ulfberts, generally but not always identifiable by a misspelled inlay.
The swords used by Scandinavians (or, as people like to call them, the Vikings*) from about 750 AD to 1100 AD (often called the Viking Age) are generally classified according to differences in the handle and guard**. This is because Viking sword blades remained remarkably consistent throughout this time period, so much so that in Ewartt Oakshott's authoritative work on medieval swords, virtually all Viking swords fall into Type X***. Blades had a convex cross section (referred to as lenticular) and a well-defined fuller that ran most of the length of the blade. Fullers are indentations on both sides of the blade that lighten blades while allowing them to retain a strong, springy character and are sometimes incorrectly called “blood gutters”. Viking swords had spatulate points, meaning that the tip of the blade was shaped like the end of a shovel. Within the spatulate standard there was a lot of variation, some Viking swords were more acutely pointed than others within a limited range of variation. Viking swords are classic slashing weapons and are optimized in every way to cut things off people.
Both the NOVA documentary and Dr. Hayes' post describe the superior penetration of chain mail (the preferred armor of the time) by the Ulfberts' sharper, stronger points when used to thrust. The implication was that as well as being a revolutionary material, crucible steel also sparked changes in usage. If NOVA is correct, we would find Ulfbert swords, or Viking swords of any manufacture, with blade forms more designed for thrusting, especially towards the end of the "Ulfbert Period". A lenticular/fullered cross section lacks the rigidity to be a good thrusting weapon and a spatulate point is clearly not meant for the thrust. There are difficulties in determining for certain what kind of points Ulfbert swords had. The identifying inlays on Ulfberts are always near the base of the blade. Many artifact swords are not whole. Ulfberts are identified by the inlay on a base and tang fragment. Point fragments with no identifying inlay could only be identified as Ulfberts by metallurgical analysis. However, such analysis is not done on random point fragments. In 2009, Alan Williams**** first observed that Ulfbert swords are made from better steel. This study includes images of the swords tested. Of the 44 Ulfbert swords in the study, only 13 are preserved well enough that the shape of their points could be determined (Figures 5, 24, 32, 35, 47, 54, 59, 67, 71, 111, 117, 132, and 135). Of these 13, 11 are very spatulate and unsuited for thrusting. The remaining two swords (Figures 67 and132) are a bit more acutely pointed, but are not outside the normal variation for spatulate Viking sword points.
Another design feature that casts doubt on the deliberate use of the thrust is the cross section of the blades. The lenticular/fullered cross section of an Viking blade allows it to flex, dispersing the energy that would otherwise be used for penetration. A more rigid cross section (such as in an Oakshott type XV or XVIII) concentrates the force on the point, making penetration easier. Blade forms with such rigid cross sections were known to the Vikings and used, for instance, in spear points but never in swords. Every crucible steel sword found has had a lenticular/fullered cross section that allows it to flex, making it less suited for thrusting and more suited for slashing. In other words, Ulfberts would have been better at thrusting but this was incidental and due to the material rather than the design.
Why am I writing about this on an evolution blog other than to say "penetration" a lot? These swords, while being made to be excellent slashing weapons, were incidentally also much better thrusting weapons. Some smiths simply made swords with somewhat more acute points. If an Ulfbert's thrusting ability were valued as was implied, it would have been selected for. Swords would have been made to accommodate the new fighting style.
As I understand it, this would be a nearly textbook case of how a trait evolves. A development that aids one activity incidentally aids another and new structures or behaviors evolve to take advantage. However, there is no evidence that this is the case in regards to Ulfbert swords and thrusting. Why did evolution not occur here? Dr. Hayes, I leave it to you.
* Viking was not originally a noun. It was a verb that could be translated as “Sail south and stealing everything that isn't nailed down.”
**The Petersen Typology is the standard typing of Viking swords by hilt type. The Norwegian Viking Swords by Jan Petersen (1919) An excellent set of images is available at:www.vikingsword.com/vbook/vtypes.pdf
*** Oakshott's typology describes the double edged sword in Europe. Virtually all double edged Viking swords fall into Oakshott's type X, with a very few examples of Type Xa and XI. The Sword in the Age of Chivalry by Ewartt Oakshott, (1994) A brief description is available here:http://www.algonet.se/~enda/oakeshott_eng.htm
**** Published here: GLADIUS Estudios sobre armas antiguas, arte militar y vida cultural en oriente y occidente XXIX (2009), pp. 121-184 ISSN: 0436-029X Available at:http://gladius.revistas.csic.es/index.php/gladius/article/view/218/222