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Jeroen Zuiderwijk

Broken back style sax sheaths: fittings, stitchings and suspension

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It's a frequent discussed topic, but I thought I'd open a tread specificially dealing with evidence for broken back style sax sheaths, in particular aimed at the fittings, suspension. Anyone who has looked for information on this subject will find that the archeological evidence is unsatisfactory incomplete. There are quite a lot of leather sheaths found in rubbish pits in the UK and Ireland, but they are nearly always completely stripped of any metalwork. First a summary of the examples that still have metalwork remaining:

The famous hunting knife of Charlemagne, which so far has the most intact sheath known:

SAX_L53bl31w45g220t3_6_KnifeOfCharlemagne_HornGrip_AechenGermany_DSMS.jpgSAX_L53bl31w45g220t3_6_KnifeOfCharlemagne_Scab_HornGrip_AechenGermany_DSMS.jpg 

 

SAX_L53bl31w45g220t3_6_KnifeOfCharlemagne_Xray_HornGrip_AechenGermany_DSMS.jpghunting_knife_charlemagne530hornoliphant8fd2.jpg

hunting_knife_charlemagne.jpg

Not a lot of describing text is available about the sheath (to me). The exact dating is unknown, as is the material of the fittings. It could be gold filligree and glass inlay. The total length of the seax is 52cm. Worth noting is that the shape of the scabbard does not match the blade: the length of the tip beyond the angle is shorter on the sheath as well as the entire blade portion of the sheath. This could mean that the sheath. This could indicate that the sheath was not made for this particular seax. 

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Next is this example from Coppergate, York (no. 115 in "Sheaths abd Scabbards in England AD400-1100");

IMG_3795.JPGIMG_3805.JPG DEi-3WVXgAEa5AI.jpg

It's got an iron mouth band, 8mm wide, fitted with iron nails. At the junction of the blade to handle, there is a rectangular iron plate on both sides (9x27mm), fitted with iron nails. The total length is 319mm.

Note: there are several examples of other sheaths that have a set of three rivet holes at the blade to handle junction of the scabbard, just like this example. To me this indicates that this is probably where the suspension was attached (as well as probably at the mouth piece). However, there is no trace of the actual suspension left. Also, most other examples of sheaths have an undecorated part at the mouth end, which would suggest that this was covered by a similar metal mouth piece. 

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Another sheath form Coppergate, York (no. 214 in "Sheaths abd Scabbards in England AD400-1100"):

IMG_3796.JPG

"It's edges were closed with a maximum of 8 copper alloy rivets or nails bent over at the back, 4 of which remain. The position and size of 3 of these suggest that they also functioned as suspension points. Other marks along the edge suggest that metal platelets may have also been used". The total length is 330mm. 

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Sheath from Berkeley Street, Gloucester  (no. 350 in "Sheaths and Scabbards in England AD400-1100"):

IMG_3798.JPG

"Closed by rivets along the cutting edge at 35 - 50mm intervals. A rectangular iron plate and two metal staples were also part of the riveted seam (at the mouth end). Two localized groups of stitch holes, positioned at 60mm and 100mm below the mouth of the sheath along the seam, mark the attachment of suspension straps. Length: 415mm. Date: 10th-11nd century.

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Last one with any metal remaining on the sheath (lower example) from Billingsgate, no. 10 in "Axpects of Saxo-Norman London: II, Finds and Environmental Evidence":

IMG_3788.JPG

Patternwelded sax, with partial handle (possibly ivory, undecorated) and remains of the leather sheath. The sheath is badly decayed. Analysis shows that it may have been decorated. On the edge side remain what looks like small bronze staples placed at 2mm intervals, which were probably wire (on one side completely decayed). This sax is dated to the 12th century, which makes it the last true sax that I know. 

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Those are all the sheaths of broken back saxes that I know with any metal parts still attached. A lot more sheaths have been found, but were all stripped of any metal parts before being thrown away (all found at rubbish pits). So the only basic indication for metal fittings are the remaining rivet holes. The patterns vary quite a bit. Some have largely spaced rivet holes at more or less equal intervals along the entire edge. Some have a clear separate row rivet holes at the blade either at large distance or close distance to eachother, a set of three at the blade/handle junction and a few holed along the handle part like no. 115 from Coppergate above. Others lack the set of 3 at the blade handle junctions. 

IMG_3815.JPG

IMG_3814.JPGIMG_3813.JPGIMG_3792.JPG

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Some, but not all have evidence of stitching as well as rivet holes, in the form of tunnel stitching (not visible from outside). I don't have an example scanned that shows this. But the stitching usually is nearer to the sax, and the rivet holes closer to the edge of the sheath. 

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Unfortunately there are also virtually no known loose scabbard mount finds. Probably they exist, but are not described, and/or not possible to date accurately. One example is this very fancy chape, dating to the late 8th century from Westminster Bridge, London:

scabbard_fitting_late_8thC_Westminster_Bridge_London_gilded_silver_blue_glass_eyes_188mm.jpg 

scabbard_fitting_late_8thC_Westminster_Bridge_London_gilded_silver_blue_glass_eyes_188mm5.jpg

More information about this particular piece can be found here:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1237377001&objectid=98159

The dating could mean that this belonged to a broken back style seax sheath. It's incomplete, and originally had a V shape. What's interesting is the sets of three rivets by which it was attached. That matches this scabbard, which has such rivet holes along the spine side of the blade (no. DLS 11 from "Scabbards and Sheaths from Viking and Medieval Dublin"):

IMG_3809.JPG

 

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With regards to pictorial evidence of seaxes, while there are quite a few contemporary drawings of broken back style seaxes being wielded, non of the bearers is depicted with a sheath. The only exception is this 10th century burial cross from Middelton:

8cfc40d88985e5fa8216de7a3b18028d.jpgIMG_3801.JPG

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Oh, last one. This one is also usually shown as example with regard to broken back style seax scabbards. It is an ivory knife scabbard from Bamberg, Germany. While the knife isn't particularly a broken backs style seax, and the scabbard is also quite small I believe, the style does look like broken back style seax sheaths. Knife sheaths are normally very different from contemporary seax sheaths. It's dated first half of the 8th century, so that may be a little early for a broken back style seax. Worth noting though is that the rivet pattern of the fittings does not match any of the rivet patterns I've seen on actual broken back style sheats. 

MesserdesHlgPetrusimDomschatzzuBambergKopie-OriginalimDioumlsesanmuseumBAEisenmessermitHorngriffLaumlnge21cmundScheideausElf_zpsbb89f851.JPGpost-38172-0-01131400-1397148048_zpse91bfdac.JPG

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There's this depiction of a Client King on the St. Andrews sarcophagus - it's hard to say for sure, but he seems to have a large broken back sheath suspended vertically, edge forward, on his right hand side:

 

st andrews sarc.jpg

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Oh right, I thought that one was earlier, but apparently late 8th century. This does show the suspension, so that makes it very interesting. Also that it's practically vertical, rather then horizontal. Some more images:

Scotland,_St_Andrew_Sarcophagus.jpgScotland,_St_Andrew_Sarcophagus2.jpgScotland_St_Andrew_Sarcophagus3.jpgSt._Andrew_Sarcophagus.jpg

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I just came across a much better detailed photo of the hunting knife of Charlemagne and sheath, showing the sheath fittings and hilt ferrule are gold or most likely gilded silver:

89959863_o.jpg

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You have covered the evidence well, I know of no other examples (but I am constantly on the lookout for more).  The resemblance between the fittings on the Aachen seax sheath and some belt fittings makes me wonder if some artifacts have been misidentified.  One would think that there would be an occasional sheath fitting showing up in the archeological record, but I've had no luck identifying any.

I'm also keeping an eye out for period illustrations in manuscripts, surely more exist that we haven't noticed.

Thanks for putting all this together.

Edited by GEzell
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Another important find I've recently come across: the Cumwhitton seax. I've known about this seax due to it's horn hilt with silver inlay, but apparently it also includes copper alloy strips that were part of of the sheath fittings. 

"Grave 25 Seax SF 885 Iron seax with a horn handle and remains of a leather scabbard on the blade, was lifted in a soil block and carefully excavated in the laboratory (Fig. 29). Although the iron blade remains in one piece, with large corrosion blisters, the organic additions are very friable. Fine non-ferrous (probably silver) wires formed into two different shapes have been inlaid into the horn handle. These are organised as lines of the same motif running the length of the tang. It was not possible to clarify this detail on the object and the X-radiograph remains the only image of the overall design (Figs. 30 and 31). The leather scabbard was originally reinforced at the edges with copper alloy bar sewn onto both sides (Fig. 29), although these may have been a single piece chape originally (one piece measures at least 150 x 5 x 2mm)."

Source: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjYwr_p5cTfAhUIJVAKHcEwCMMQFjABegQIBRAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fresearch.historicengland.org.uk%2Fredirect.aspx%3Fid%3D6009%7CTownfoot%20Farm%2C%20Cumwhitton%2C%20Cumbria%3A%20Investigative%20Conservation%20of%20Material%20from%20the%20Viking%20Cemetery&usg=AOvVaw1RDx_M-Ixu0kYrkrSr9l3o

 

Cumwhitton_seax_copper_alloy_sheath_fittings.jpg

Edited by Jeroen Zuiderwijk
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Very interesting find, great how modern x-Ray technology can reveal so much detail in something that looks like dirt at first glance.

I think it is interesting that the sheath fittings were sewn on,  I believed these sheaths were always riveted before.

I love the silver handle inlays, real nice to find evidence of handle decoration on seaxes.

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Wow. That's going to take a while to read and digest all that. Thanks Jeroen!

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On 12/29/2018 at 12:44 PM, Pieter-Paul Derks said:

Very interesting find, great how modern x-Ray technology can reveal so much detail in something that looks like dirt at first glance.

I think it is interesting that the sheath fittings were sewn on,  I believed these sheaths were always riveted before.

I love the silver handle inlays, real nice to find evidence of handle decoration on seaxes.

I would take the sewn part with a few grains of salt, until I can see why they think it was sewn on. It may just as well have been riveted. But since the metal is competely mineralized, there is not much to recognize. The strips were probably also a lot thinner originally.

Edited by Jeroen Zuiderwijk

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