The University of Nottingham is leading a collaborative study that aims to identify the place of origin of iron Viking weapons, using their chemical fingerprints. For example, Viking weapons made with Scandinavian iron have a different “history” than Viking weapons made from British iron. This, it is hoped, will lead to greater insights about significant events that changed the course of English history.
According to the University of Nottingham report, the researchers will examine 90 Viking Age iron artifacts from a number of sites across England. The team will study weapons used by the Norse invaders in the battles at Fulford in North Yorkshire and Bebington Heath (southwest of Liverpool), and those from the Viking camp at Torksey in Lincolnshire, and also Viking artifacts found at the former Viking seaport of Meols (just west of Liverpool).
Iron spearhead is one of the 90 Viking weapon artifacts to be analyzed in the study. ( University of Nottingham )
Viking Weapons Fueled Their Territorial Gains Across Britain
No matter how many times the Vikings were beaten back, from AD 793 when they first landed in Britain to AD 1066 when William the Conqueror became king of England, they showed remarkable perseverance and always returned. The period in between was marked by battles won and battles lost by both sides, the early English and the fairly-old Vikings or Norsemen.
The Battle at Fulford was one of the last of these see-saw engagements between the Anglo-Saxon and Norse forces in 1066 with first one side and then the other emerging victorious. The Battle of Hastings , south of London, on October 14, 1066, was the final defeat for the Anglo-Saxons.
Iron axe head being examined in the study. ( University of Nottingham )
At the Battle of Fulford, fought on 20 September 1066, just south of York, the Vikings defeated the English forces, only to themselves be beaten five days later at the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.
According to Medievalists.net, in between the two battles, the Vikings established short-lived iron recycling sites at the camp at Fulford that had to be abandoned following their defeat at Stamford. A large number of the weapons being examined by the Nottingham University led research team came from the Viking camp at Fulford.
The University of Nottingham website reveals that the iron artifacts from Bebington Heath were recovered from what was possibly the site of the Battle of Brunanburh between Norse-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon armies in AD 937 that resulted in an Anglo-Saxon victory. The material belongs to the late Saxon/Viking period and is quite similar to the artifacts from Fulford.
Torksey in the lower Trent Valley in Lincolnshire, was where The Great Heathen Army, also known as the Viking Great Army, set up winter camp in 872-73 AD after invading England in 865 AD. The Viking coalition forces fought together with different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms across England between 865 and 878 AD. Viking weapon iron working evidence has been documented at the Torksey site.
This iron Viking weapon is one of many that the University of Nottingham’s English research team hopes to analyze to determine its origins through its chemical fingerprints. ( University of Nottingham )
Chemical Fingerprints to Identify Source of Historical Artifacts
The research team is being led by Stephen Harding, an expert in the scientific study of Viking artifacts, and includes his colleague Mark Pearce, Jean Milot of the University of Toulouse, Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards the University of York, Chas Jones of the Fulford Battlefield Society, and Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey at Keyworth.
The University of Nottingham website quotes Harding explaining the technique that the team will be using to examine the Viking weapons:
“In this study we will be testing our hypothesis that it is possible to use isotope analysis with iron to pinpoint more specifically than ever before where the artifact originates from. If successful, it could lead to this method being used with many more historic artifacts, which will help us learn more about historic events and people.”
They hope to identify the chemical isotope signature of the metal in the Viking weapons using iron, lead, and strontium isotope analysis . Lead isotope analysis has already been successfully used for identifying the origins of ancient metal artifacts of silver and copper and the team has already conducted a successful pilot study on a smaller sample of artifacts that showed this combination of analysis is effective for finding out where the iron artifacts came from, even when the items are highly corroded.
Professor of Mediterranean Prehistory, Mark Pearce, according to the University of Nottingham website , said:
“This is an exciting collaboration that will use the latest scientific techniques to reveal the unique isotope composition of these ancient artifacts and how this informs us where they were made. The project will revolutionize our understanding of archaeological iron objects, finally giving us a method accurately to pinpoint their origin.”
A smaller pilot study applying the isotope analysis technique already in use for silver and copper artifacts has shown promise. It is to be hoped that the wider study on the origins of Viking weapons will be equally successful. This collaboration between history and science has potential for wider applications that can transform the study of history.
Top image: Viking weapons were made and left all over England by the repeated invasions of early Britain by the Norsemen and their coalition of warriors. Source: PatSM / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey