The Seax Project
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
One of the first things I bought when I started re-enactment was a long knife, known to Viking Age enthusiasts as a Seax. The name is usually applied to any knife with a straight cutting edge and an angled back and comes from an Old Germanic verb meaning "to cut".
Viking Age seaxes vary in length from small knives less than 6" long to knives between 7"-12" long, widely considered to be hunting knives. Mine had a 12", which I felt was over represented in re-enactment which the majority of surviving examples being 7"-9" long, so i decided to remove the handle and cut it down.
The old grip was removed I decided to take it down to 9", but rather than alter the top of the blade, I thought it would be easier to grind the bottom of the blade away, lengthening the tang.
Once this was done, I decide what was going to do about the handle. One of the best preserved seaxes, unusually complete with sheath, is the Aachen Seax - thought by some to have belonged to Charlemagne himself.
As you can see, the grip is almost as long as the blade, but I didn't fancy boring a whole through 8" of wood (it would be hard to get it completely straight), so I decided to make a the handle in sections as one of the knives from Viking Age York was.
I chose some sections of cherry wood I'd rescued from a fire-wood pile at the Largs Viking Festival a few years ago, and selected an appropriate piece of cow bone. I bored holes in the wood, and when they were fitting nicely I assembled the grip, securing the tang inside the bone section with slivers of wood and glued the handle together.
I'd given myself a bit of extra length and only roughly shaped grip, and once the glue was dry I went about shaping the grip with a rasp and knife. As you can see in the cross section it's got a tear-drop shape - this is partly due to the shape of the bone, but also because it sits nicely in hand.
The next part was to construct the sheath. Leather soaked with water was formed around the blade, stretched and then clamped, and left to dry. You have to make sure the wet leather doesn't touch the blade as both will stain black. Viking Age leather-workers may have slathered the blade in fat, but I wrapped it in clingfilm and gaffer tape!
In the Viking Age, sheaths for large knives like these seem to have always been embossed. From surviving examples it seems that designs on sheaths are organised in specific fields: the front and rear blade fields, the front and rear handle fields and a suspension field on the front and sometime on the back too.
I looked at examples from York and Dublin, and settled on DLS 11, and undated sheath from Fishamble Street in Dublin. The interlace on the front blade & handle fields, described as 'chaotic' in "Scabbards and Sheaths from Viking Medieval Dublin" by Esther Cameron immediately appealed to me as it reminded me of some of the interlace on the stone sculpture at Govan.
The design was embossed using antler scribes and punches on the dampened leather. I started by marking out the fields and lightly marking the designs on blade field and handle field, then the semi-scrolls and step motifs on the suspension field. When I was happy with this I went ahead and tooled the design more heavily.
On the rear,the blade and handle fields were decorated with intersecting arcs like the original, but I got a bit carried away and decorated the suspension field too, which was plain on the original.
I included a "maker's mark" inscription at the top of the handle field, which is not present on DLS 11 but is evidenced on other sheaths from the period. One such inscription reads "Edric mec feci" (Edric made me), misspelling the Latin 'fecit' for made, and using the Old English 'mec' for 'me'. I liked this because it showed an imperfect grasp of literacy and perhaps an Anglo-Saxon's work in Viking Age Dublin, suggesting the multi-cultural links in the Irish Sea - both good talking points in Schools!
Coming Soon - adding the metal work and finally finishing off this project!