As omnipresent as the axe, the shield was a staple of nordic warfare. Much more than simply a “portable wall” to cover from blows and arrows, the shield could be a deadly weapon in the hands of a cunning warrior, bashing enemies into oblivion.
Allow me to introduce my shield to your face
The most common viking shield design was set by ‘Gulaþing’ laws, which specified that the shields should be between 80-90cm (32-36 inches) in diameter, probably to fit the positions on the sides of their ships or to present a solid, interlocked ‘shield wall’ to a charging enemy. This is not an universal rule, however, as different sizes of shields have been found, such as the Gokstad shields, which were 94cm (37in) across, while some have been found as small as 70cm (28in) in diameter.
Shields were approximately 7mm (1/4in) thick near the center and were chamfered so they were thinner at the edges. Most surviving shields are in the range between 6mm (1/4in) and 12mm (1/2in) thick.
The shields were made of spruce, fir, pine or linden (basswood in N. America) to be as light as possible. Weight would vary due to size and materials used. Thin, unfaced (no leather or linen covering) weighed about 5kg (11lbs), while the thicker, leather covered shields weighed more than 7kg (15lbs).
The Trelleborg Viking Shield is the only preserved example in Denmark to date. It was found in 2008, approximately 40m from the South Gate, in a trench.
Iron Age and Viking Age cultures in Northern Europe crafted shields from thin wooden boards reinforced with animal skins. Until recently these covers were only ever considered in aesthetic terms, but a new research divulged by the. Society for Combat Archeology demonstrates how these shield covers increased strength and enhanced structural integrity.
During there Viking Age, the selection, treatment and application of animal hides for shield skins had advanced to take into account many factors and to increase the strength of the shield. Cattle and sheep skins were the preferred raw materials for shield making, both due to their availability and their durability. The animal skins were carefully chosen before they were treated in several ways to enhance the strength of the shield before being stretched across its surface, making the shield ready for use in hand-to-hand combat.
The original shield discovered at Birka, Sweden, provided many clues to archeologists about shield making in the 9th century. The Birka shield had its rim constructed from dense cattle leather and was likely used to deflect sword, axe and spear blows coming in at different angles, with its facing surface covered in treated sheep leather to receive the full impact of frontal attacks.
The sheepskin in the shield face is also lighter and easier to stretch than cattle hide, with “shock-absorbent qualities” which obstructed blade alignment and helped deflect powerful cuts, qualities that make the shield light and durable.
Following the pattern found in Birka, a replica of the shield was made by the Society for Combat Archeology, in collaboration with Trelleborg Viking Fortress (National Museum of Denmark):
A Viking shield replica of the shield recovered from grave Bj 850 in Birka, Sweden.
Much more than mere protection, the shield was an invaluable tool of warfare for the Viking Warrior. The shield provided defense, identified groups by its markings, and was a formidable skull-bashing weapon!