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by Nokki Nollason November 19, 2020 6 min read

Can you close your eyes and picture a Viking warrior for a moment?

What did you imagine?

When we think of a brave Viking warrior, most of us picture fierce warriors dressed in leather armor and equipped with a one-handed weapon like an axe or sword, while carrying a shield in the other hand. Or perhaps you thought of a famous shield wall?

In either case, this simple test shows us that shields are an essential part of Viking heritage, and today it is time to learn more about this invaluable battle item used by every Viking back in the Viking age.

Let's begin.

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The Purpose of a Viking Shield

During the war times, Viking warriors had to defend against numerous attacks and face various types of common weapons (two-handed swords, iron spear, etc). Bearing in mind the cruelty of such battles in which they fearlessly and frequently engaged, it comes as no surprise that the Vikings used shields as the primary form of their protection while fighting. Since not all Vikings could provide themselves with armor that would protect them during battles, the shield was the best defense available without which a Viking would not engage in a war.

Even today, the Vikings are known in the world as great and brave warriors, which is why it is clear that their war strategy was extremely effective. Whether the use of shields contributed to that is up to us to try to find out. What is certain is that shields are one of the most recognizable symbols of a Viking warrior.

Although the primary purpose of the Viking shields was to protect warriors from injury in battle, they also represent an important part of many Scandinavian countries' cultural heritage, especially Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The Viking shield became a symbol of prestige in society and was used to show military ranks and honors. 

Viking shield and axe

Viking shield and axe

Over the past few years, a fair number of Viking round shields have been found throughout Scandinavia (especially in Denmark and Iceland) during various archeological excavations. The most common shields from the Viking Age that have survived to this day were made of individual wooden planks lined up next to each other. However, written evidence indicates that the shields were originally built of two layers of laminated linden wood and were only later made of only one layer.

Archaeological evidence does not match that found in writing. Therefore, opinions regarding the use and construction of Viking shields are divided and are still a frequent discussion topic among historians. This article will mention only the most essential facts about Viking shields, starting with what types of Viking shields existed and what they looked like.

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What Kind of Shields Did Vikings Use?

The evidence discovered by archeologists so far supports the use of round shields. The diameter and the construction of the shield varied, which means that the Vikings adjusted its dimensions to their body's constitution and the fighting style they preferred. Shields that were too small would make warriors more vulnerable but allow him to be more agile in combat. At the same time, Vikings who used shields that were too large had excellent protection but could not move fast and wield their one-hand weapon (sword or axe) with ease.

The most common dimensions of Viking shields were 80-90 cm in diameter. The shield's thickness was generally in the range of 6-12 mm (the thickest were in the central part and narrowed towards the edges). Although written evidence suggests that Viking shields were made of the planks of laminated linden wood that were glued together (linden wood is light and does not split easily on impact), all discovered shields were made of planks of solid spruce wood, pine wood, or fir boards.  

This proves that the written evidence may not be completely accurate. Each Norse saga describes Viking shields as pieces of perfect workmanship, while archeological findings really show how the shields were actually made in practice.

In the middle of the Viking shield, on its inner side, was a hand grip, which in many shields was made of wood, while in some cases, it was made of a combination of wood and iron. Leather was used around the shield's rim to prevent a shield from splitting if the enemy struck its edge with a weapon. Also, the edging with leather strengthened the planks of the shield, and in that way, the shields became more stable. 

On the shields that were discovered so far, there were holes around the edge that are believed to have served to fasten the leather to the edge. Even traces of bronze or iron hoops around the edges were found on some shields. However, the evidence for the use of shields with metal hoops is still negligible.

Did Viking Shields Have Metal Rims?

The answer to this question, to some extent, we have already given in the previous paragraph. Although it is widely believed that certain parts of Viking shields were made of iron, there is very little archaeological evidence to support this. The iron hoops on the shields would make the shields much heavier, and the production costs would also be incomparably higher than the ordinary hields.

Since the Vikings made their own weapons, they had to deal with materials that were available to everyone. When it came to the construction of a Viking shield, the most important thing was that it could repel enemy strikes and be easy to carry and handle. Metal rims might contribute to the shield's durability, but they would undoubtedly make the shield harder to handle.

Another thing to keep in mind is that only the wealthiest Vikings could afford parts of iron armor such as iron bands for example. If we consider this fact we could see how unlikely was that a lot of Vikings had shields with iron parts.

Why do Viking Shields Have Patterns?

Viking shields were decorated for several reasons. One reason was to convey the identity of a Viking to whom the shield belonged. For that purpose, Vikings decorated one side of their shields with the runes, which conveyed a short story about what the shield's owner believed in. Vikings believed that these runes and symbols held powers that could help them ensure victory in combat. The most common carved symbols on the shields were figures of birds and other animals, as well as symbols referring to the Norse gods.

Viking warrior equipped with a shield and axe

Viking warrior equipped with a shield and axe

However, there is more to decorating a Viking shield than this. The shields were painted for practical reasons as well. Unpainted wooden shields would absorb much more water, making them heavier and almost impossible to handle in combat. This is why most shields were painted. Those shields that were not painted were always coated with oil to repel water.

What Colors Were Used To Paint Viking Shields?

Certain archeological discoveries showed us some colors used to decorate Viking shields back in the Viking era. For example, the shields found on the ship Gokstad (Gokstad shields) were painted black and yellow, while the shield that was recently found in Trelleborg was painted red and white.

So, what we know for sure is that the Vikings used white, black, yellow, and red to decorate their shields. However, other available colors were probably also used, but we still do not have concrete evidence to back this up.

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Shield Wall 

We know that the Vikings were known for their revolutionary ship construction methods, which allowed them to move at sea much faster than their enemies. However, when the time came to fight, they were also fierce infantry warriors who fought with courage and honor. Vikings used a highly efficient war formation that allowed them to weaken their enemies without suffering significant losses. Once their enemies were weakened, they would break their lines and crush them with ease. 

This formation is known today as the Shield Wall.

In shield wall formation, Vikings stood next to each other, overlapping their shields (first line of defense), behind which were several more lines that made the formation even stronger. According to written sources from the Byzantine era, the shield wall's ideal density was five to ten lines of warriors. Too few defensive lines would make the formation more vulnerable to the enemy. While on the other hand, too many lines would hinder the mobility of the formation.

Given that the ship's crew of one Viking ship consisted of 40 to 60 warriors, this would mean that there were 8 to 12 warriors in the first line of the shield wall. The rest of the crew formed additional lines that would strengthen the formation. 

Conclusion

Vikings were fearless warriors who were unmatched on a field of battle due to their bravery, constitution, tactics, and last but not least, their shields. Just imagine one of their large military campaigns and the crews of several warships uniting on the battlefield to form a shield wall consisting of several hundred warriors...

My fellow Vikings, would that be a sight to behold or what?!

Until our next meeting,

Skål!


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