Scandinavian Sword Pommel, Needham Market

top, both sides and underneath of sword pommel

A copper alloy gilt Scandinavian sword pommel from near Needham Market, probably dating c. 850-975 AD.

This pommel is ‘zoomorphic’, with elements which take the form of animals. Its sides depict boar’s heads, showing snarling teeth and with their tusks prominently projecting. These flank the central panel on the pommel, which displays a curving space infilled with the incised design of a facing bear-like animal mask with short stubby ears. As both of these are animals noted for their ferocity, the choice seems appropriate to decorate parts of a weapon. Gilding and white-metal coating are visible on the object’s surfaces, suggesting that originally it had an ornate two-tone colour scheme of silver and gold.

Visible on its base are two circular rivet holes which originally would have connected the pommel to a base-plate (now missing). At the middle of this plate the tang of the iron blade itself would have slotted into an aperture, thus securing the pommel in place. Objects of this type are uncommon finds: two others have been recorded on the national Portable Antiquities Scheme database, one from Doncaster and the other from Bedfordshire.

The pommel was probably of Scandinavian manufacture indicated by its stylistic appearance, however the original iron blade (now missing) could potentially have been imported from Frankia. There was an influx of blades from central Europe into Scandinavia from c. 850 AD onwards – this must have become a problem as in 864 AD King Charles the Bald made the importation of weapons to non-Frankish lands punishable by death. Where border controls and laws such as these made legal acquiring of good quality blades difficult, many other examples were probably taken during raids or smuggled illicitly.

Swords were highly prized possessions during this period and many finds demonstrate evidence of long, hard use-lives. Just as in the modern era we customise cars, swords also appear to have been ‘blinged up’ with inlays of silver or gold wire, plating and inscriptions on the hilt assembly, pommel or (very rarely) blade in either the Latin alphabet or runes.

Enhancing the archaeological evidence, literary sources inform us that at least some swords were named: Gramr (fierce), Grasida (grey-sides), Gunnlogi (battle-flame) and Nadr (viper) are just a few examples of these, mostly drawn from the Icelandic Sagas of the 9th-11th centuries. Many weapons appear to have been viewed as imbued with almost supernatural or magical qualities, and the fact that many pre-Christian examples are found buried with their (presumed) owners would suggest that these weapons served important cultural roles both in life and death.

The broad form of many Early Medieval swords is argued to have derived from the late Roman Spatha or cavalry longsword, but during the 9th and 10th centuries swords had begun to differ quite drastically from those produced earlier. Blades from this later period taper more drastically and are often lighter, seemingly reflecting a desire to be able to strike more quickly and perhaps utilise the weapon for stabbing to a greater degree than before. By comparison, earlier swords tend to be noticeably heavier and taper only at the tip, suggesting not only a primary use as edged weapons for hacking or slashing but also the need for durability against heavily armoured opponents.

One noticeable feature about most swords from this period is that they have very short guards that barely extend beyond the width of the blade, which is very indicative that they were used alongside shields rather than employing a simultaneously offensive and defensive capability in being able to attack and parry incoming blows by themselves. The pommel itself could also be used as a bashing or smashing weapon, and it is from this word that the English verb ‘pummel’ is derived.

View the full record on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database

Thank you to the finder for allowing this object to be featured.

This find was recorded by the Suffolk Finds Recording Team, supported by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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