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31.10.2013
Considered one of the greatest swords ever made, it remains a fearsome weapon more than a millennium after it last saw battle. Using cutting edge science and old-fashioned detective work to reconstruct the Ulfberht, we can finally unravel the Secrets of the Viking Sword. Science and detective work are used to reconstruct the revolutionary, high-tech Ulfberht sword. A modern-day swordsmith reverse engineers the ultimate weapon of the Middle Ages—a sword both prized and feared. NARRATOR: The Vikings were some of the fiercest warriors of all time, and a select few carried the ultimate weapon, a sword nearly 1,000 years ahead of its time, built by a mysterious craftsman, from a material unknown to rivals for centuries. ALAN WILLIAMS (The Wallace Collection, London): The swords were far better than any other swords made, before or since, in Europe.
NARRATOR: The secrets behind its design, creation and use have been lost, but now, the world's largest steel company and a modern day blacksmith divine its mysteries and bring the Ulfberht back to life. Master swordsman John Clements has cut with some of the most famous swords ever made, from Damascus steel blades to the legendary samurai sword, the Katana. JOHN CLEMENTS (Association of Renaissance Martial Arts): I think the Katana is a beautiful weapon. JOHN CLEMENTS: You see demonstrations of a sharp sword like this cutting material, all the time, and you think it's impressive because, "Oooh, look what it does!" But that's really not that impressive, and here's why.
NARRATOR: Strength, flexibility, weight and shape all determine how well a blade meets the combat challenges of its time and whether it's a superior sword. FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST (University of Stockholm): They were a luxury, rare and expensive. This high-tech weapon of its time was inscribed with the mysterious word "Ulfberht." Carried by only a few elite warriors, the Ulfberht represented the perfect marriage of form and function in the chaos that was a Viking battle. NARRATOR: The Vikings spread out from Scandinavia, colonizing vast expanses of Europe, from the 8th through 11th centuries.
In Viking times, most men fought with axes and spears, but those who could afford it used swords for close combat.
ALAN WILLIAMS: The swords were far better than any other swords made, before or since, in Europe. NARRATOR: Thousands of Viking swords have been found, most discovered in rivers or excavated from Viking burials across Scandinavia and northern Europe, but only 171 have been identified as Ulfberhts.
NARRATOR: Buried for centuries, only corroded skeletons of the once glorious blades remain. JON ANDERS RISVAAG: They don't look very much today, but in their time, the Ulfberht was the weapon of the upper strata.
NARRATOR: The secret of the Ulfberht's construction has been lost for nearly 1,000 years, but can a modern day blacksmith recapture that technology and bring this remarkable sword back to life? RICHARD FURRER: I'm drawing a full-scale paper model of the sword blade that I'm going to try to recreate. This Ulfberht inlaid sword was popular about 1,000 years ago, and nobody has made a recreation metallurgically accurate since then.
The trick is to piece together from enough archaeological evidence to figure out what the proportions of these blades should be and then the chemistry.
NARRATOR: In London, one of the world's leading experts on historic steel weaponry, Alan Williams recently made a discovery about the Ulfberht that shocked scientists and sword makers alike.
ALAN WILLIAMS: I've been fascinated by armor and swords for a very long time and have always wanted to find out what they were made of and how they were made.
NARRATOR: Medieval blacksmiths in Europe didn't make slag-free steel, because their fires weren't hot enough to fully liquefy the iron. Of the thousands of European swords from the Middle Ages that have been found, all were thought to have been made from this inferior steel, until Williams analyzed the Ulfberht. The first thing that strikes you is that there are none of these long, grey slag inclusions, which make the metal brittle.
NARRATOR: The only swords Williams found that were made of this clean, high-carbon steel were those marked as Ulfberht.
ALAN WILLIAMS: The material used was a novel material, not found anywhere else in Europe in the middle ages.
NARRATOR: So how did these Norsemen, widely viewed, to this day, as barbarians, get this cutting-edge technology? FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST: During the Viking age in Scandinavia, all free men were, by law, forced to possess weapons and go to war.
NARRATOR: Many Vikings were pagans who worshipped their weapons and even believed a sword could help a warrior enter heaven. FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST: The warriors would come to a special place, called "Valhalla," where they would have feasts and fighting. GUNNAR ANDERSSON (National Historical Museum, Sweden): The sagas tell stories about the swords, how powerful they were.
JOHN CLEMENTS: See how your whole weapon's blocked, and there's that sweet opening right there?
NARRATOR: According to John Clements, in the arms race of the day, blades rarely touched each other directly.
JOHN CLEMENTS: The reality of Viking combat is there's not the constant edge-on-edge, blade-on-blade contact.
You've got to think of the sword as a tool that's being used to do things such as warding off blows. NARRATOR: The lack of brittle impurities in the steel made the Ulfberht unusually flexible, and this was a huge advantage. RICHARD FURRER: These blades and these blacksmiths were held in certain esteem and also feared a little, because of this elemental property of what they're working with and what they're producing. NARRATOR: Magic and science have been intertwined throughout human history, And the Ulfberht merged the mysticism of the past with the precision of the modern world to come. RICHARD FURRER: This charcoal will be the carbon source for the steel, so the charcoal here will get absorbed into the steel. NARRATOR: As part of their mystical practices, some medieval smiths might have used a different carbon source to strengthen their swords.
RICHARD FURRER: We fill this all the way to the top, to the tippy top, because we need all the heat. Almost finished; we just have two more bricks, and then we've got it sealed up and ready for the burn run.
If we run this right, it should get almost to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and we should get a nice full liquid on our crucible charge. NARRATOR: Closed at the top and vented from the side, this oven traps more heat than other European furnaces of the time.
The ingredients need to reach nearly 3,000 degrees for the slag to separate from the liquefied steel. RICHARD FURRER: We're hoping that if we run it right, we're going to end up with a crucible steel ingot, but the idea of actually doing all of these steps and putting it into one piece of metal is daunting, because, at absolutely every stage, you can have a fatal error. Swordsmiths across Central Asia produced some of the greatest swords of all time, known as Damascus steel blades. ALAN WILLIAMS: Damascus steel is a separate class of crucible steel, which is similar in chemical composition, but the crucible steel was cooled very slowly, so the iron formed large crystals.
NARRATOR: These unusual swords exhibited many of the same superior qualities as the Ulfberht, but if the Vikings didn't know how to make crucible steel, then where did they get it?
Clues can be found in artifacts excavated from Viking graves, in Scandinavia, as early as the eighth century. The interesting thing is that the most Ulfbehrt swords are dated from exactly the same time when the Volga trade route was open, that is from the early 800s to the mid-1,000s. I think it's very likely that the steel that you find in the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran.
ALAN WILLIAMS: After the 11th century, the Volga trade route is closed, and the manufacture of these Ulfberht swords stops, which, to me, is strong evidence they were made out of an imported raw material.
NARRATOR: The oven that Ric has used as a model was found in Central Asia, near the end of the Volga trade route. NARRATOR: Most of the impurities have separated from the steel and been absorbed by the sand and glass that fall off with the crucible. RICHARD FURRER: It seems like we have a good ingot, let's see if we can turn it into a good Ulfberht blade.
NARRATOR: Crucible steel is difficult to work, because, as it cools, the iron atoms form interlocking crystalline structures, called "dendrites," that look like frost patterns on a window.


RICHARD FURRER: It's solidified into this dendritic tree, and it doesn't want to be anything else.
NARRATOR: To test how good it really is, Ric will send a small piece of the crucible steel he's made with his ancient recipe to the largest steel company in the world. RICHARD SUSSMAN (ArcelorMittal): In the modern steel world, we try to customize the recipe for steel for the particular application, and so there are now hundreds of variety of steel, which are suitable for some applications but not for others. The Vikings, in their day, I'm sure, wanted hardness on the surface of the sword, so it could cut through easily.
NARRATOR: To choose the best metal for a particular application, Sussman's team tests the capacity of different types of steel to withstand stress.
RICHARD SUSSMAN: It would have been a very inferior sword, because it could have shattered in action. NARRATOR: Now, the machine will measure whether Ric's crucible steel will be able to withstand more stress.
NARRATOR: An examination of the microstructure, with a scanning electron microscope, will reveal whether Ric has succeeded in making a slag-free, pure steel. RICHARD SUSSMAN: As we're moving along here, across the surface, it's quite interesting how clean it is. NARRATOR: The image is nearly free of slag and other inclusions that appear as dark circles. RICHARD SUSSMAN: The inclusions are very small and very minute and very widely distributed. NARRATOR: Two thousand years after it was invented, Sussman, who has spent decades developing modern steels, gives Ric's crucible steel what, for him, is high praise. NARRATOR: After 11 hours of pounding, Ric has transformed his piece of crucible steel into a blade.
We have the blade profiled, and now we're going to start refining the tip to its final shape. JOHN CLEMENTS: The swords of the Norse tended to be swords that are designed to get through the mail armor that they're wearing, the chain-linked armor.
NARRATOR: To show the advantages of the pointed swords that emerged in the Viking era, first Clements tests an earlier replica sword from Roman times against Viking-era chainmail. JOHN CLEMENTS: I don't think a single ring was deformed, split, popped or in any way damaged.
NARRATOR: The Ulfberht's shape was perfectly suited to meet the martial challenges of its time, but its true excellence stemmed from its unusual metal and from the intangible value of its name.
RICHARD FURRER: We're at the point now where we do the inlay, or the cutting of the inlay, for the name Ulfberht.
NARRATOR: Like his mysterious predecessor, 1,000 years ago, Ric's taking a chance by branding the sword. RICHARD FURRER: There is some argument that the cuts actually weaken the blade, so if I do this wrong, I'll have to start over from the beginning. RICHARD FURRER: This is one of the many make-or-break points in this sword manufacture, because we have to cut the name just right and inlay the contrasting iron letter into the crucible steel blade. The fact that they went through the labor to give it that amount of extra effort, that amount of power, by inlaying this name, made them more valuable. FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST: We have no examples, from the written sources from the time, of the name.
The fact that Ulfberhts appear over a 200-year period means they couldn't have been produced by a single craftsman. JON ANDERS RISVAAG: There's actually a small cross in front of the name, and ordinary people would not put a cross in front of their name. NARRATOR: During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church dominated the Frankish empire and more.
FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST: A Greek cross before a signature was only used by bishops and abbots, and so the signature tells us that it was either a bishop's name or an abbot's name, or maybe even the name of a monastery.
NARRATOR: It's possible that the swords were manufactured by the Vikings' rivals in the Roman Catholic Church and then, somehow, smuggled north. FREDRIK CHARPENTIER LJUNGQVIST: But we have no way of really knowing how the Vikings got possession of the Ulfbehrt swords, since it was forbidden to trade with the Scandinavians.
NARRATOR: If people in the Church did make the swords, it begs the question how they got the crucible steel. ALAN WILLIAMS: There are lots of reasons why a Scandinavian might have used a foreign word and have used the cross. JON ANDERS RISVAAG: So, if you look at this mystery, this enigma, of this person Ulfberht, who he was and what kind of position he had, it might not ever be solved.
RICHARD FURRER: I wonder who he was or, rather, who they were, or what this inscription meant to the people that owned the swords. NARRATOR: Whoever or whatever Ulfberht may have been, the inlayed lettering helped reassure customers they were buying from a master craftsman.
RICHARD FURRER: You've got the start of the fuller, and that will get progressively deeper as we go. The fuller allows longer blades, wider blades, yet the same weight as thicker, un-fullered pieces of steel, because it acts like an I-beam. So, in this time period, the blades are getting longer and longer and longer, but the weight remains about the same. NARRATOR: If a fighter didn't get his sword up fast enough to strike an opponent, he might not get another chance.
NIELS LYNNERUP: In a forensics context, what we're looking at is the velocity and the weight of the swords. NARRATOR: When a warrior was killed in violent combat, the living often took precautions to avoid his wrath in the afterlife. NARRATOR: Hundreds of swords, which were heated and then bent, have been unearthed from Viking graves. JON ANDERS RISVAAG: If you took a sword off an enemy, you would make damn sure that he didn't come back in the afterlife and bothered you with the sword.
NARRATOR: The goal of the quench is to harden the sword by heating then rapidly cooling it. NARRATOR: It's uncertain whether the makers of the original Ulfberhts quenched their swords, but Ric believes they did and thinks it offers final proof of a blacksmith's mastery over the metal. RICHARD FURRER: I'm in love with the steel, this very primal interaction with this raw material that's largely unforgiving, and, even if you treat it right, absolutely everything can go wrong.
I don't think a crucible steel with bloomery letter Ulfberht has been made since the originals. NARRATOR: Of the 44 Ulfberhts that Williams has examined, 33 are not made of crucible steel.
ALAN WILLIAMS: To the unsuspecting buyer, it appears to be the genuine Ulfberht, but there's a much greater chance of it snapping, which is, of course, extremely embarrassing in battle. But before his sword can truly be called an Ulfberht, he must see if the inlayed name has survived the process. RICHARD FURRER: It can take a few days of rubbing by all hand work to, to get these cleaned up and looking like people assume swords look. NARRATOR: He uses increasingly fine-grained stones to polish the sword, and only then will he sharpen it. RICHARD FURRER: If the inlay survives all of the grinding, what will happen is, if we add an etchant to it, an acid, then that should create enough of a contrast between the two materials to where the name should be easily readable. A Production of NOVA and National Geographic Television in association with Pangloss Films, LLC. Examine the thousand-year-old art and science behind the making of a Japanese warrior's signature weapon. How did longships and other vessels help the Norsemen navigate distant waters so successfully? Smithsonian archeologist William Fitzhugh reveals what drove the Vikings on their adventures to distant shores. See your name spelled in runes and learn the meaning of each of the letters in the Viking alphabet. David Pogue tests his mettle against the world's strongest stuff, from steel and Kevlar to bioengineered silk.
National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Google and Cancer Treatment Centers of America. But how did Viking sword makers design and build the Ulfberht, and what was its role in history?


Forged by master craftsmen, from the 14th century onward, the samurai sword is renowned for its elegantly curved blade and impressive cutting ability. Many great swords are famous, but there's one few have ever heard of that was perfectly designed for its day.
And these must have been extraordinarily valuable to their contemporaries, because of their properties. I don't need a sword, but I, I have to make them, not because I can't do anything else, but because I can't do anything else. He's one of the few people on the planet who has the skills to unravel the mystery of how the Ulfberht was made.
I hope to figure out if I can recreate accurately how these blades would have been made back then.
You didn't want to give away your manufacturing technology for your weaponry to anybody else. Not only does it have low carbon, it has impurities, known as "slag," that weaken it further. The metal, known as "crucible steel," gave the swords capabilities far ahead of their time.
We have no archaeological evidence of any crucible steel production in Europe until 800 years later. They were highly skilled navigators and traders who are believed to have extended their reach as far as North America and Central Asia.
In a warrior paradise, the only way to get to Valhalla was to be a warrior and die in battle, with your sword in your hand. Many of the swords had personal names, sometimes, that are connected to, for instance, a bear or a wolf. They will melt and chemically bond with the waste material, the other slags, and will help float them away and leave clean metal so the carbon can be absorbed.
And assume, now, that you're using burnt bones even from your ancestor or from a bear or something like that. It's based on an ancient furnace made of clay and brick that was recently uncovered 2,500 miles from Scandinavia, in Central Asia. The trick is to get it contained into such a way that you can deliver that heat long enough for the material to melt inside the crucible.
Even the smallest fracture in the crucible, the container holding the steel, could derail the entire process.
In fact, there's no evidence that anyone in Europe knew how to make it until the industrial revolution in the 18th century. I would guess that you bought it from friendly trading connections in Iran, paid with furs and other Nordic commodities, and took it back on your small ships that you used on the rivers.
So now, we'll start forming it out into a longer bar and draw the sword from there, but it's looking real good. Considering the lack of metallurgical knowledge in its day and the tools that were available, compared to steel making today, it's not bad.
So, obviously, a point that's more rounded, hitting the mail is not going to do as much on puncturing or on even catching it, as will a narrow, tapered, harder point that will get through. But the name seems to be Frankish, from a medieval empire that included France and Germany.
A frequent enemy of the pagan Vikings, the church was a major arms producer and arms dealer. Many experts agree that it was brought by the Vikings from Central Asia or the Middle East, so perhaps the Vikings themselves were the craftsmen despite the foreign inscription. Because we don't know if Ulfberht is a "kenning," a word of power…could be an area, could have been a workshop, because these spanned 150 years.
But Ric won't know if they have set properly until the end of the process, when the sword is polished and the thick layer of iron oxide that's accumulated is removed from the surface. And if it does work, you still have hours and hours of polishing, to verify that all the work you did up to that point actually made a good sword and that the letters exist. These victims of a Viking attack, found in a mass grave in southern Greenland, all show clear evidence of blows to the head.
And you bury it together with the person that owned it, and, in that way, you made sure that the powers of the weapon were buried, as well, and killed, as well. So we hear it as a "tink" or a "ping," and that means that somewhere along that blade, it has cracked, and we need to start over. As of today, Alan Williams has examined 44 Ulfberhts, across five countries, and has made one final discovery. They were made at the same time, by people trying to cash in on the reputation of Ulfberht.
After tempering, or reheating, the sword a final time, to keep it from becoming too brittle, he begins to polish. Fashioned using a process that would remain unknown to the Vikings' rivals for centuries, the Ulfberht was a revolutionary high-tech tool as well as a work of art.
And it has got a carbon content of about three times as much as the medieval steel we looked at a moment ago. By giving it a name, you could also incorporate the power of your ancestor or somebody very strong into the sword.
It took a special steel to withstand such stress, and a sword that could do this might even have been seen to possess magical powers.
And you hammer in the power of the animal or your ancestor into the weapon, in itself, together with charcoal, and you make a perfect steel blade, a very powerful steel blade, probably, as well. But for more than 500 years before the Ulfberht, warriors elsewhere had been fighting with crucible steel weapons.
If it got stuck in a shield, they'd want to be able to extract it without it breaking or twisting or bending.
As the Vikings raided their way across Europe, this inferior iron is what an Ulfberht would most likely have met in battle. And I could feel the blade getting through the cloth and getting into that rubber and that foam underneath.
If you look closely, you can see some parts of the lettering are actually starting to come off, because it's been through a hard time in both…in the earth and through the burial. There are dozens of possible reasons why the makers of these swords could've used the Frankish name Ulfberht. So I wonder about a lot of things, but if you think too much about other things, you make mistakes. So, here, we have the fuller acting as the horizontal, and a little bit thicker material, and then going down to a cutting edge.
This is where the weapon struck and actually managed to cut through quite a lot of the skull, before, finally, some of the bone here was crushed, and then the sword was taken out. According to legend, ancient blacksmiths cooled their swords with anything from water to dragon's blood, but Ric will use oil.
Fashioned using a process that would remain unknown to the Vikings' rivals for centuries, the Ulfberht was a revolutionary high-tech tool as well as a work of art.
Et nous pensions que ni les humains ni les djinns ne sau trouve contre lui un bolide aux aguets.
Sometimes it's a matter of removing a 32nd of an inch here or adding it there or…subtleties that you don't think matter that can, in fact, make a huge difference in how the blade performs. But in the Viking era, carbon could only be introduced incidentally, mainly through the coal in the fire, and the only way to remove the slag from the metal was to try to hammer out the impurities with each strike. So, we want a set amount of carbon, and if the charcoal were to enter, we would have too much. It represents my entire skill set as it sits now, sitting there in a two-pound chunk of steel. Sometimes it's a matter of removing a 32nd of an inch here or adding it there or…subtleties that you don't think matter that can, in fact, make a huge difference in how the blade performs. It takes some force to wield the sword, and, having done a full stroke, you need to swing it back up.



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