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Sheath Linings? Especially early Middle Ages

Aiden CC

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I've recently been reading the book "Covering the Blade: Archaeological Leather Sheaths and Scabbards," which I would definitely recommend. As with most interesting work, it has raised a lot of questions. I will definitely reach out to the authors as well, but I figured I would see what folks here thought as well. 


There are a lot of interesting points that show the ways that historical sheaths were often different than many of the modern works inspired by them (sax sheath construction, fittings, and suspension are an interesting area here, I hope to post more on that in another thread). One of the hypotheses put forward by the authors I find the most interesting is that vegetable tanned leather sheaths were usually lined with some material with a neutral pH and often filled with grease. The reasoning is that because of the tendency of vegetable tanned leather to absorb water and create an environment which enables corrosion, that sheaths were very likely lined with some material to mitigate this, such as parchment or hair-on sheep/goat skin. They go on to talk about corrosion in "iron" and "steel" saying the former is more much susceptible than the latter, which I might contest (maybe they mean "steel" in a modern sense, i.e. stainless?). From what I can tell, the argument is more about necessity than positive evidence, the gist being that these materials do not survive as well as leather due to their higher pH (though I believe some finds do show hairs preserved inside of the sheath/scabbard). The authors also point to a lack of cut marks on the inside of many sheaths as evidence of linings, which I would agree is a good (though not iron clad) point.


What do you all think about this? It is an interesting argument but to me assuming that a lining must have been present in cases where there isn't any material preserved just because it would make for a better sheath could be a bit of an over-interpretation, especially given the other possibilities. First, was old leather more corrosive than modern vegetable tanned material? Lots of people store knives in sheaths (even though it isn't ideal), and they generally do alright, though they generally don't walk around with them all the time in the northern European rain. Second, I know next to nothing about the survival of different materials in an archaeological context, does it seem reasonable that a sheath lined with skin/parchment would decompose such that the leather remains in fragments or entirely but the un-tanned lining material is gone? 


To me there are a few ways that the sheaths could have been un-lined and worked fine. First, it could be that the leather and knife were covered in grease/oil to prevent corrosion, though the authors mention this, suggesting that some blade coverings (iron age sword scabbards for example) might have been packed with grease to make an air tight seal. Second, it seems to me possible that, as is recommended today, sheaths were not used for long term storage of blades. Finally, especially for working knives, blades could have been simply allowed to patinate and corrode. 


I have picked up a few materials to play around with as, regardless of how ubiquitous it was, the idea of lining a leather sheath does make a lot of sense. In reproductions they made, the authors used "dried lambskin" which sounds kind of like rawhide? The material they used was fairly flexible though. Would tanned sheep skin lose the chemical benefits with respect to corrosion? It's all I could find, so it's what I will be working with. I also got some un-dyed wool felt and have ordered some goat parchment to play around with. 


One other question I have is less historical and more technical, but I figured I'll as it here too. A lot of sheaths show evidence of a serpentine stitch. When doing that it leather, should the awl go straight through both layers of leather, or be angled in the direction of the stitch? From a well preserved sax sheath cover, it looks like the holes are lined up straight across on both sides, but that is based off of the drawing of both sides and how they are lined up (though I would imagine that archaeological drawings are pretty accurate in this regard?). 


Thanks for reading, I would definitely be interested to hear thoughts about this.

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From an archaeological preservation perspective, hair/wool generally does not last except in very dry conditions, like mummification in a dry cave, or when frozen or in peat bogs.  Anaerobic wet burial (river mud) will preserve leather very well, but not hair/fur/wool.  Low Ph damp clay soils will preserve the imprint of these materials in the form of mineralized replacement, i.e. rust in the form of fibers, etc.  Copper alloy in contact with organic material will preserve it in many cases.  I need to get that book...

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Thank you Alan, that is very interesting. Would the same be true of some non-tanned skin product like parchment (i.e. deteriorating while leather is preserved)? There were some discussions of mineralized material, both hair and textile in different cases IIRC. 


1 hour ago, Alan Longmire said:

I need to get that book...

It is a bit pricey, but has been worth it for me. I thought I recognized the makers mark on the sax that the recreated sheath was made for, and in fact it was made by Gaël Fabre, who I follow on instagram. His work is well worth looking at in its own right. The links below show the sax and sheath, and hopefully are viewable without an account. I may try reaching out to Gaël as well, the whole project seems like it was very interesting.




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That is nice work!  


As for tanned vs. untanned/dried/rawhide/parchment, it all depends on burial context.  Anaerobic is best, followed by dry.  What we know about linen on Viking era scabbards comes from river finds where the linen was preserved as rust.  I know of a river-found sword from Latvia that showed evidence of silk wrapping over the leather grip, but it was not conserved properly (through no fault of the current owner!) and turned to dust over the course of ten years or so out of the mud.  


Tanned leather will outlast untanned, but as I said it all depends on context and conditions.  


You might like looking into "the Garbage Project," a study by archaeologist Bill Rathje. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tucson_Garbage_Project  After his work in Tucson got published he was hired to sample landfills across the country to see how trash was decomposing.  The most surprising thing was in the Fresh Kills landfill in New Jersey, which opened in 1948.  Rathje gave a talk for my graduate program about that one.  Turns out that when you pile trash on impervious clay and cap it with impervious clay, nothing rots.  Apple peels, newspapers, coffee grounds, clothes, everything was still fresh-looking and good as new, as it were.  Since moisture is inevitable in locations like that over the course of a couple thousand years, I'd bet the newspaper would be gone in a couple of hundred years. 


Newspaper is notoriously acidic, and is banned in museum conservation because it rusts steel, greens copper, and makes cloth crumble under normal indoor atmospheric conditions.  Don't wrap stuff in newspaper if you want to keep it, in other words.  Chrome-tanned leather is the same, which is why we always tell people to use veg tan.  Even then, if not properly cleaned after tanning it'll still be acidic enough to cause problems.  The ancients had that figured out, and always tried their best to make the best non-corrosive leather they could.  That went away with modern mass produced leather starting in the mid-19th century.  Books, boots, and gloves from the middle ages up to around 1820 are usually fine if properly stored.  The same items made after 1820-ish eat themselves from within in about 50-75 years.  Shortcuts in the name of profit.  


Peat bogs preserve organics by tanning them, so yeah, there is a slight advantage there, but only if the acidic environment is maintained.  Take a bog body out of the bog and let it dry without treatment, it crumbles to dust.  


Dry storage with uniform temperature and low humidity is best of all for some materials.  We've got 2,500-year-old twined plant fiber shoes from Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, along with human feces and a couple of mummified people.  That's why stuff in Egypt is so well preserved as well.  They didn't absolutely need to use natron and pitch to mummify people, a shallow grave in dry sand will do it fine. 


Then there's the Marco Island stuff from Florida.  Lots of wood carvings from around 500 AD, perfectly preserved by being buried in constantly damp sand.  Wet is good if it's always uniformly wet, dry is good if it's always uniformly dry.  It's fluctuations in humidity that cause problems.   


I know I'm not answering your exact question, but the answer, as usual, is "it depends..."  


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Thank you for all of the info on this! “It depends” answer makes sense. It’s the answer to pretty much every question in metallurgy, so I’m getting accustomed to it by now. 

That’s interesting about leather quality over time. I imagine leather was more valuable before the beginnings of industrial agriculture and tanning as well. I imagine modern vegetable tanned leather suffers from similar issues? 

It’s always cool to see we’ll preserved organics. It reminds me of looking at colorized pictures of the past where you realize your ideas about a place and time were limited by what was left over. 

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18 hours ago, Aiden CC said:

I imagine modern vegetable tanned leather suffers from similar issues? 


The good stuff doesn't.  But there's a lot of not-so-good stuff. :lol:  Saddlery leather is always the best, because horse people don't screw around. If it's not good, word gets out and nobody buys from you again.  That's why Wickett & Craig (https://wickett-craig.com/leathers/tooling-holster-carving/) have such a good reputation (and correspondingly high price).  Tandy/the Leather Factory is wildly variable depending on where they source the tanned hides.   


To test your leather, dampen a scrap like you were going to tool it and set it on a scrap of clean (bright, unoiled) carbon steel.  Check it after a week or two. well-tanned leather will not cause much if any rust or staining. Poorly tanned (or chrome tanned) leather will leave a black stain with a fair bit of rust.  


Properly prepared rawhide/parchment will do the same, since it shouldn't have any acidic residues.  I have zero idea about Scandinavian half-tan, but I'd bet it's pretty good given the price. 


The history lesson was just an example of the rise of mass production, the pursuit of profit over quality.  It's a known conservation issue: https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Red_rot. Although that article suggests it's due to sulfur dioxide from pollution (coal smoke) it's really just greed leading to insufficient tanning/not enough washing after tanning. If it were due to coal smoke, it would have appeared in leather made in the 1700s.  

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Thanks, I'll try that test out for corrosion! I have found a lot of variation in the properties of leather in general, even from the same supplier. The sheath I linked to above used un-tanned sheep skin for a lining. I don't know where they got it, but the closest thing I could find was a goat drumskin, which I think is going to be a challenge to sew, but could be interesting. I have some hair-on vegetable tanned sheep skin (which I had to specifically look for, I think it's usually chrome tanned), I'm not sure how that will be with respect to corrosion. I also have a piece of parchment on the way to try out. That material seems somewhat more speculative with respect to the finds, I don't recall if there was any direct evidence provided for it's use, though a sheath without any cut marks or evidence of hair on the inside could be a good candidate for a thin, un-tanned lining. 

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