They were the finest European swords the day, superior to almost any other on the battlefields of the Viking Age. Made from steel no one in Europe would know how to make until the Industrial Revolution. Stronger, more flexible, almost magical in combat, engraved with the mysterious name "+ULFBERH+T
" by unknown makers, these swords were the both fearsome weapons and incredibly expensive prestige possessions. Only 171 have every been identified. And no one had made one from start to finish, using only hand tools, for over 900 years.
The "Ulfberht" swords were viking swords
made between ~800 and 1100 C.E. of crucible steel
. Crucible steel is made by heating iron ore with a source of carbon (often charcoal or bone) close to 3000°F until almost all the impurities ("slag") are removed from the iron and the carbon is absorbed, leaving a purer steel.
The technique for crucible steel was unknown in Northern Europe at the time the Ulfberht Swords were forged, but it was known in places like Afghanistan and Iran. By the Viking Age, warriors to the East had been fighting with superior weapons
made of Damascus Steel
for centuries. The theory is that Viking traders plying the Volga Trade Route
brought back crucible steel ingots. When the Volga Trade Route was closed by the Russians around the 12th century, the making of Ulfberht swords ceased.
Swords in general were prized possessions to the vikings, as most warriors would be armed with spears
. Any sword was a much greater investment in time and materials, and the crucible steel of the Ulberhts made them sharper and (importantly) less likely to chip and break in battle like swords made of lower-grade steel. In a testament to how good the Ulfberht swords were, people went to the trouble of making fakes of lower-quality steel with the Ulfberht brand name on them
. And as is usual with brand-name fakes, the details matter.
The name "Ulfberht" is not Norse, it's Frankish
. Also, the two "+" in "+ULFBERH+T" would, in that age, have been associated with a Bishop's name, or someone else in the Church hierarchy. And Christians (as the Franks were since Clovis I
) were forbidden from trading with the Pagan vikings. But Church armorers would not have access to crucible steel from the East like the vikings, so the mystery of the name reamins unsolved.