For defense, Vikings used large circular shields. Usually, the size of the Viking shields varied between 30″ and 36″ (75 – 90 cm). The shield excavated at a Viking fortress Trelleborg (Denmark) in 2008 was 33,5″ broad. No less renowned are shields from Gokstad Viking ship burial (Norway). With the end of the Viking Age the traditional circular shape was replaced by Continental kite shields with elongated bottom edge that ensured more protection for legs. Viking shields were used as the means of defense in battle, but for ship crews they also functioned as protection from waves and the wind, being fastened to gunwales (the upper edge or planking of the side of a Viking longboat).
Viking Shield Construction
The board of a shield was flat. It consisted of seven to eight planks, which were 8 to 10mm thick in the center and 5 to 6mm thick towards the edges. The planks were usually made from fir, alder or poplar wood. These timbers are light and not very dense. Sagas specifically mention linden, which, however, is not so common in archaeological evidence. For strength and flexibility, Vikings didn’t saw logs into planks, but split them, always along the grain. It is not clear whether the planks were joined directly to each other. Most probably they were held together by other shield parts that were attached to them: leather cover, handle, boss and rim. The other possibility is that the planks were glued together. Gokstad shields did not have leather facing, but they might have been made for the burial, not for battle.
In the center of a Viking shield there was a circular hole covered with a hollow iron boss. It was hemispherical and protected the hand. Usually, the shield boss had a thin flange and was about 6″ diameter. The points of nails, by which the boss was attached to the shield, were bent over or flattened on the inside.
The handle or grip crossed the central hole and went across the whole of the shield, almost from edge to edge. It was tapered towards the ends. Trelleborg shield has a shorter grip with incised interlaced design and an oval central hole. The handle was nailed to the board.
Decoration: shields from the Gokstad ship were painted black and yellow and placed along the longship’s railing alternately. Images on runestones often represent round Viking shields with ‘pinwheel’ patterns.
Unlike oak, timbers that were used to build Viking shields were not likely to split. The thin planks had to absorb the energy of sword blows. The fibers bind around the sword blades, which stuck in the shield. In general, combat techniques of the Vikings seem to suggest shield movements that deflected blows rather than blocked them. At least, the thin and light construction of the Viking shield may point to such use.
One of the widespread warfare techniques was forming a ‘shield wall,’ when warriors formed a line so that each shield was overlapped from both sides by the other warriors’ shields. The wall had to be strong enough to prevent the enemies from penetrating through it.
This video was taken at Gimli Icelandic Festival (Manitoba). It features, first, a berserker attacking a shield wall and then two Viking shield walls attacking each other:
Viking sword and shield training:
Photo: Viking shield wall. Courtesy Snake3yes. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.