Viking Ulfberht Swords, 1000 Years of Mystery

Ulfberht swords surfaced during the Viking Age, an era marked by upheaval that extended from the 8th to the 11th century. Distinguished by superior craftsmanship, these swords featured a unique element—an inscription that read “+VLFBERHT+.”

For many years, the significance of this mysterious inscription was lost, adding to the allure and mystique of these exceptional weapons.

The fascination with Ulfberht swords has captured the attention of historians, archaeologists, and enthusiasts of swords far and wide.

Remarkably, close to 170 antique Ulfberht swords have been found, dispersed among various archaeological digs and private collections. Each of these swords serves as a tangible connection to the Viking Age, showcasing the remarkable skill and creativity of the smiths who forged them.


The distinctive inscription on the Ulfberht swords has become synonymous with their authenticity and superior quality.

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This feature distinguished them from inferior swords and established a legacy that has persisted through the ages. Despite this, the true meaning of the inscription has remained a puzzle, sparking ongoing speculation and scholarly debate.


For centuries, the origin and manufacturing methods of the Ulfberht sword baffled scholars and historians.

The key to its mystery was the sword’s exceptional steel, notable for its unusually high carbon content, which was unprecedented for its era. The Vikings harnessed sophisticated forging methods, including the crucible process, to refine the iron and eliminate impurities.

+VLFBEHT+ inscription on the blade of a 9th-century sword found in 1960 in the Old Rhine close to Friesenheimer Insel, Mannheim
+VLFBEHT+ inscription on the blade of a 9th-century sword found in 1960 in the Old Rhine close to Friesenheimer Insel, Mannheim

The Ulfberht swords are named after the inscription found on their blades. The name “Ulfberht” is believed to be Frankish, and many scholars think that the swords may have been produced in the Frankish Empire, which covered parts of present-day France, Germany, and Italy.

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Despite this possible Frankish origin, the swords have been found across a wide area, from Scandinavia to England, and as far south as Spain, indicating their broad distribution and the high mobility of Viking traders and warriors.

The exact number of these swords discovered so far is around 170, suggesting they were highly prized but not commonplace.

Crucible steel marked a significant metallurgical advancement during the Viking Age. This complex and labour-intensive technique involved selecting high-quality iron ores—often incorporating materials sourced from faraway regions—and combining them in a crucible.

(Photo: Mark Bellshams Photography)

This container was then sealed and subjected to extremely high temperatures. The intense heat facilitated a process known as carburization, where impurities were removed, enhancing the iron’s carbon content.

The result was a superior form of high-carbon steel that was tough, flexible, and often displayed a distinctive patterned texture on the blade.

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Metallurgical Composition

The implementation of crucible steel in the making of the Ulfberht sword is a testament to the Vikings’ deep understanding of metalwork and their commitment to crafting weapons of exceptional quality and effectiveness.

The Ulfberht swords are renowned not just for their craftsmanship but for their advanced metallurgical composition, which set them apart from other contemporary European blades.

These swords were made from a type of steel that exhibited high carbon content, far superior to the typical iron used in the majority of other medieval European swords.

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This steel is often referred to as crucible steel, known for its high purity and the ability to maintain sharpness while being hard enough to withstand rigorous combat without breaking.

Only 167 Ulfberht swords have been found

The secret to the superior quality of Ulfberht swords lies in their carbon content, which is significantly higher than that found in other swords of the same period.

High-carbon steel is much stronger and more flexible than lower carbon steels, allowing Ulfberht swords to be both durable and lethal.

The carbon content in the steel of Ulfberht swords typically ranges between 0.5% and 1.0%, which is comparable to modern steel used in today’s cutlery, and is much higher than the 0.3% carbon content typical in other swords of the time.

Flexible Steel

This high-carbon steel likely resulted from the crucible steel process, a technique that, while known in the East, was highly innovative in Europe at the time. In this process, iron is melted in a crucible with carbon sources like charcoal.

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The material is kept at high temperatures for a period long enough to allow the carbon to dissolve into the iron, creating a much stronger, more flexible steel once forged. The steel would have then been carefully cooled, sometimes with techniques that involved quenching in water or oil, to adjust its hardness and elasticity.

Furthermore, the ability to control the carbon content in the steel indicated an advanced understanding of metallurgy.

Where Ulfberht swords were found, Based on work of Michael Müller-Wille
Where Ulfberht swords were found, Based on work of Michael Müller-Wille

It allowed Viking blacksmiths to produce a blade that was not only hard and sharp but also tough enough to handle impact without shattering — a common problem with lower quality steel weapons of that era.

What also sets these swords apart is the uniformity in the metal’s quality, suggesting a sophisticated and consistent approach to their manufacturing.

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This level of uniformity could suggest that the swords came from a single or a group of closely related sources or workshops that had mastered this technique, which might explain the presence of the specific Ulfberht inscription as a form of brand or quality assurance.

Craftsmanship and Features

The Ulfberht swords are distinguished not only by their advanced metallurgical composition but also by their exceptional craftsmanship and distinct design features, which highlight the sophistication of Viking age blacksmithing.

These swords stand out primarily due to the +ULFBERH+T inscription on their blades, a mark of quality and prestige that has intrigued scholars and historians for years.

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The design of the Ulfberht swords follows the typical Viking sword pattern, which includes a straight, double-edged blade, a relatively short cross-guard, and a pommel that is often lobed or Brazil-nut shaped, contributing to the overall balance of the sword.

One of three Ulfberht swords found in the territory of the Volga Bulgars. Its hilt (classified as Petersen type T-2) is decorated with three lines of round holes inlaid with twisted silver wire
One of three Ulfberht swords found in the territory of the Volga Bulgars. Its hilt (classified as Petersen type T-2) is decorated with three lines of round holes inlaid with twisted silver wire

The blades are usually about 30 inches long, providing a significant reach in combat. This length was strategic, allowing the wielder to maintain a distance from opponents, which was crucial in the often brutal close-quarters combat of the era.

One of the most remarkable features of these swords is the method used to inscribe the +ULFBERH+T signature.

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This was achieved through the inlay process, where the letters were filled with a different type of metal, often a wire of copper, silver, or even gold, which stood out against the steel of the blade, both visually and metallurgically.

Steel Used in Ulfberht Swords

This not only highlighted the name but also added to the sword’s aesthetic appeal. The precision and clarity of these inscriptions suggest a high level of skill and careful attention to detail by the smiths, indicating that the makers were artisans of high caliber, likely regarded as masters of their craft.

Furthermore, the quality of the steel used in Ulfberht swords allowed for a higher degree of sharpness that could be maintained through multiple battles without the need for frequent resharpening.

The steel’s composition also enabled the blades to be both strong and flexible, properties that are optimal in sword making but difficult to achieve.

Four Ulfberht swords found in Norway (drawings from Lorange 1889)
Four Ulfberht swords found in Norway (drawings from Lorange 1889)

The flexibility meant that the sword could absorb impacts without breaking, while its strength allowed for powerful strikes and the ability to withstand the wear and tear of battle.

The overall construction of the Ulfberht swords involved not only forging the blade but also carefully assembling the hilt, which included the guard, grip, and pommel.

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These components were often made from different materials such as wood, bone, and even ornately decorated metals, which served both functional and decorative purposes. The grip needed to be comfortable and secure in the hand, as losing one’s weapon in battle due to a poor grip could be fatal.

The Ulfberht swords’ assembly required a deep understanding of materials and their properties, as well as a mastery of various blacksmithing techniques.

This level of craftsmanship suggests that the creation of each sword was a labor-intensive process that likely involved multiple skilled artisans.

Mystery of the Inscriptions

The Ulfberht swords are distinguished not only by their exceptional metallurgy and craftsmanship but also by the enigmatic inscription “+ULFBERH+T” that graces their blades. This inscription has long puzzled scholars and enthusiasts alike, becoming a central element of the swords’ allure and mystique.

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Historically, the presence of an inscription on a weapon suggests a level of pride in the craftsmanship and a mark of quality. In the case of the Ulfberht swords, the precise meaning of the inscription remains a topic of debate.

While it is clear that the name Ulfberht refers to the maker or the brand of the sword, the origins and significance of the name are less certain.

The are many theories behind the inscription

The use of the cross symbol “+” both before and after the name in the inscription indicates a possible Christian connotation, which might suggest that these swords were not just weapons but also carried a symbolic or protective significance for their bearers.

Some scholars believe that “Ulfberht” was a workshop or a group of skilled smiths who produced these swords, possibly located in the Frankish Empire, as the Frankish regions were known for their advanced metallurgical skills at the time.

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This theory is supported by the fact that the quality and style of the swords are consistent, indicating that they could have been produced under a single or collective brand.

Ulfberht Might Have Been an Individual

The inscription then, served as a trademark of sorts, a guarantee of high quality, much like a modern branding practice.

However, other historians suggest that Ulfberht might have been an individual, a master smith whose fame was such that his name became synonymous with supreme quality, and thus was used on swords that adhered to the standards he set.

This could be analogous to the way renowned artists’ names are sometimes used generically to describe a style or level of quality.

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Interestingly, the mystery deepens with the existence of numerous counterfeit Ulfberht swords. These counterfeits often feature misspellings of the inscription or are made from inferior quality steel, lacking the high carbon content that characterises the true Ulfberhts.

The presence of these imitations indicates that the name Ulfberht had significant value and was well recognized across various regions, enough so that others attempted to capitalize on it by producing lesser-quality copies.

The spread of the Ulfberht swords across Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, also suggests a vast trade network and a high demand for these weapons.

This wide distribution not only speaks to the reputation of Ulfberht swords but also to the interconnectedness of European regions during the Viking Age through trade, warfare, and diplomacy.

Religion and Ulfberht Swords

Another fascinating interpretation of the Ulfberht inscription on the Ulfberht sword suggests that it had religious and mystical connotations that extended beyond simple authentication or craftsmanship.

According to this theory, the inscription “+VLFBERHT+” was believed to invoke divine protection or blessings for the bearer.

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In Viking society, where religious beliefs and superstitions were integral, the potency of symbols and inscriptions was profoundly influential.

The Ulfberht sword, already distinguished by its superior quality, was rendered even more remarkable with the mysterious inscription.

It was thought that the divine aspect of the Ulfberht sword was augmented through the sacred invocation embedded within the inscription.

While the exact meaning of the Ulfberht inscription might forever remain elusive, the possibility of its religious and mystical significance lends an added layer of mystique and allure to this already fascinating artifact.

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Envision Viking warriors brandishing the Ulfberht sword, feeling bolstered not just by its physical prowess but also by a believed spiritual linkage to the divine. This perspective transforms the Ulfberht sword from a mere weapon into a powerful amulet of strength and safeguarding.

Historical Impact of Ulfberht swords

|In the context of warfare, the Ulfberht swords represented a significant technological advantage. Their superior strength, sharpness, and durability allowed Viking warriors to be more effective on the battlefield.

The Ulfberht’s ability to withstand bending and breaking, coupled with its sharp edge that required less frequent sharpening, made it an invaluable asset in combat.

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This technological superiority likely contributed to the Vikings’ reputation as fearsome warriors and enabled their expansive raids and conquests across Europe.

As word of the Ulfberht sword’s remarkable properties spread, it sparked a widespread desire among European swordsmiths to emulate its exceptional features.

This pursuit led to the widespread dissemination of the techniques and knowledge associated with its creation, extending well beyond the realms traditionally associated with the Vikings.

Beyond the battlefield, the Ulfberht swords also had a profound social impact. Ownership of such a sword was a status symbol, indicative of wealth and high social standing within Viking communities.

Ulfberht Swords Symbols of Power

The swords were likely owned by chieftains, elite warriors, or wealthy merchants who could afford these expensive weapons.

As such, they were not merely tools of war but symbols of power and prestige, often buried with their owners to signify their status in life as well as in death, as evidenced by their presence in high-status grave sites.

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The production and distribution of Ulfberht swords also highlight the sophisticated trade networks of the Viking Age.

The consistency in the quality and design of these swords across various regions suggests a level of standardisation and control in their manufacture, possibly pointing to a centralised production site or a tightly connected guild of craftsmen.

Moreover, the spread of these swords across Europe—from Scandinavia to the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula—underscores the extensive Viking trade routes and the high demand for quality weaponry in the medieval period.

Economically, the Ulfberht swords are indicative of a vibrant medieval arms trade and the early stages of brand recognition in manufacturing.

Groundbreaking Forging Techniques

The consistent marking of these swords with the Ulfberht inscription suggests an early understanding of brand value, with blacksmiths ensuring that their swords were recognizable for their superior quality.

This not only guaranteed a premium market position but also fostered a legacy that would intrigue scholars and historians for centuries. This sword introduced groundbreaking forging techniques that outperformed those of contemporary blades.

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Its steel, created through the intricate crucible steel process, endowed the Ulfberht with unmatched strength, durability, and flexibility. This fusion of expert craftsmanship and metallurgical innovation placed the Ulfberht sword in a class of its own.

The influence of the Ulfberht sword on European swordmaking was profound. Swordsmiths from various regions began to adopt the sophisticated forging methods and steel compositions pioneered by the Ulfberht.

This can be observed in the evolution of subsequent sword designs, which incorporated aspects of the Ulfberht’s construction and aesthetic.

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Moreover, the Ulfberht sword played a pivotal role in advancing the technology of medieval swordmaking. The challenge of crafting swords that rivaled the quality and performance of the Ulfberht inspired swordsmiths to innovate, experiment, and refine their forging techniques.

This relentless pursuit of excellence led to the emergence of new swordmaking traditions and the enhancement of existing techniques.

The Numbers

A total of 167 Ulfberht swords have been discovered, predominantly in Scandinavia and around the Baltic Sea. The count of these swords found in Finland varies; Stalsberg has identified 14 Finnish Ulfberht swords, whereas Moilanen has noted 31.

The precise number of these swords remains uncertain due to the fragmentary nature of some artifacts and because some inscriptions may simply be indicative of the Ulfberht style rather than confirming the artifact as a genuine Ulfberht sword.

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The frequent occurrence of Ulfberht swords in the archaeological record of Northern Europe does not necessarily mean that these swords were more commonly used there than in Francia.

The pagan custom of placing weapons in warrior graves significantly boosts the archaeological visibility of such items in areas of Europe that remained pagan during this period (a large number of Ulfberht swords found in Norway, for example, come from warrior graves).

In contrast, swords found in continental Europe and England after the 7th century are predominantly stray finds, such as those recovered from riverbeds.

This pattern aligns with shifts in the geographical distribution observed in the late Viking Age, which saw the Christianization of much of previously pagan Europe.

No Ulfberht swords in Norway have been dated later than the early to middle 11th century, aligning with the cessation of pagan burial practices in the region.

1000 Year Old Fakes

It must have been a shocking realization for a Viking when he discovered that he had traded two cows for a counterfeit designer sword. In battle, a clash of blades could cause his seemingly sharp and formidable sword to shatter like glass.

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“You really didn’t want to have that happen,” remarked Dr. Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection in London, home to one of the world’s finest collections of ancient weaponry.

Ulfberht type sword with silver lettering – a fake?

Alongside Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, southwest London, Williams has unraveled a mystery that might have been vaguely perceived by Viking swordsmiths but never fully understood.

While some Viking swords rank among the finest ever crafted, still deadly even after a millennium, others are notoriously inferior.

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Both the best and worst examples bear the maker’s name, Ulfberht, inscribed in raised letters near the hilt. However, they are often found in starkly different conditions; the worst are typically discovered in fragments at battle sites or in graves.

Ulfberht Swords Appeared Identical

The Vikings likely couldn’t distinguish between a genuine and a fake Ulfberht when purchasing a new sword, as both would have appeared identical and razor-sharp. The critical difference in quality would tragically become apparent only during use, often with deadly consequences.

Dr. Williams began to examine the Ulfberht blades when a private collector presented one at the Wallace Collection. His investigations revealed significant variations in quality.

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Tests conducted at the National Physical Laboratory demonstrated that the inferior swords were made from locally sourced iron in northern Europe.

In contrast, the authentic swords were forged from crucible steel ingots, sourced from furnaces thousands of miles away in what is now modern Afghanistan and Iran.

+ ULFBERHT + instead of +VLFBERH+T
“Times” font with serifs
hadn’t been invented then

These genuine Ulfberht swords contained a phenomenally high carbon content, three times that of the counterfeits and significantly greater than that of modern carbon steel.

The counterfeit Ulfberhts, though utilizing the best of northern European metalworking techniques, were fatally flawed.

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The process of quenching, which involved plunging the red-hot blade into cold water, did provide a sharp edge, but it also rendered the blade extremely brittle and prone to shattering.

Ulfberht Swords Recovered from Rivers

By the 11th century, Russian blockades had cut off the supply of crucible steel, leading to a decline in the quality of these swords.

Archaeological evidence suggests that many swords found in burials were either counterfeits or the work of less renowned makers.

Interestingly, genuine Ulfberhts are most often recovered from rivers near settlements. Williams speculates that these finds are not ritual offerings but rather the results of unfortunate incidents such as a drunken individual falling into the river and losing his precious sword—a costly blunder.

The investigations have also revealed that many Ulfberht swords in some of the world’s most renowned weapons collections are counterfeits.

However, the sword at the Wallace Collection is confirmed as genuine, while the one that initially sparked this extensive investigation turned out to be a fake.