The sword, found during a dig in Langeid in southern Norway in 2011, but only publicised this month, is so lavishly embellished with gold, silver and copper alloy that archeologists believe it must have belonged to a powerful man.
“Even before we began the excavation of this grave, I realised it was something quite special. The grave was so big and looked different from the other 20 graves in the burial ground,” Camilla Cecilie Wenn, who coordinated the dig, said in a press release.
“But when we went on digging outside the coffin, our eyes really popped. Our pulses raced when we realised it was the hilt of a sword! And on the other side of the coffin, the metal turned out to be a big battle-axe.”
“Although the weapons were covered in rust when we found them, we realised straight away that they were special and unusual. Were they put there to protect the dead person from enemies, or to display power?”
Wenn’s team also found fragments of silver coins in the grave, one of which was a penny minted under Ethelred II in England, dating from the period 978-1016.
According to the museum's press release, battle-axes similar to the one found in the grave and dating from the same period have been found in the River Thames in London.
Archeologists speculate that these axes were lost in the river or even deliberately thrown into it during the series of attacks on England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute .
The museum cites further evidence linking the excavation to the attacks up the Thames.
The Norwegian king Olav the Holy is known to have been involved in the attack on London in at least one of the invasions, in 1009.
Further down the Setesdal Valley there is a runic stone which says: “Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute “went after” England. God is one.”
The text probably refers to King Canute’s attacks on England in 1013-14.
According to Zanette Glørstad, a project leader at the museum, the sword is unusually ornate.
“The sword is 94cm long, with a well-preserved handle, wrapped with silver thread and with the hilt and pommel at the top are covered in silver with details in gold, edged with a copper alloy thread,” she said.
It is decorated with large spirals, various combinations of letters and cross-like ornaments. The letters are probably Latin, but what the letter combinations meant is still a mystery. At the top of the pommel, there is a picture of a hand holding a cross.
“That’s unique and we don’t know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age,” Wenn said. “Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism.W
She speculates that the sword was produced outside Norway and brought back to the country by a prominent warrior who was then laid to rest in a pagan burial ground.
According to the museum, gold is rarely found on swords from the Viking Age, although Vikings treated their weapons as status objects,
“Based on the descriptions in the literature, we can say that the sword was the male jewellery par excellence of the Viking Age,” said Hanne Lovise Aannestad, the author of a recent article on ornate swords from the days of the Vikings.