A large metal sword.


Object info
Maker unknown
Skerne Sword, 900–1000 AD

Where to see it
Hull and East Riding Museum of Archaeology

Accession number

Purchase a print or image licence
Skerne Sword on Bridgeman Images

About this object

The Skerne sword is a fine pattern-welded sword with a decorated handle. It dates from the tenth century AD Viking period. The Humberside Archaeology Unit found the sword in 1982 while excavating a waterlogged site at Skerne near Driffield, East Yorkshire. It had been dropped, complete with scabbard, into the River Hull from a jetty or bridge.

Looking Closer

Inlaid silver and copper wires in geometric designs decorate the pommel and guard. Beneath is a fine gauze-like silver-wire mesh. Under a microscope, this mesh looks almost like textile weaving. This style of decorative inlay has been recorded on other swords from the Viking period. But the Skerne Sword is particularly striking thanks to its fine state of preservation.

X-rays show the sword blade was pattern-welded in a clear herringbone pattern along its entire length. Only the tip and the cutting edges are plain. The hilt (or grip) has decayed over the centuries. However, enough traces remain for scientists to identify the material as horn.

The Scabbard

An exceptional feature of the weapon was that it was still encased in its wooden scabbard when found. Without the waterlogged conditions of the site, it would have long since decayed. The scabbard is made from willow or poplar and lined with sheepskin.

The Excavation

The excavation revealed a structure made of oak piles sunk into the riverbed. It may have been part of a jetty on the waterfront of the River Hull. Or perhaps it was a wooden bridge carrying the road from Skerne to a settlement at Brigham. The oak piles had slowed the river's current, allowing silt to build up around them. In this silt, excavators found four knives, a drill bit, an adze and wood chippings. Perhaps these were dropped by work men repairing the bridge?

Accident or Ceremony

It's unlikely that such a prestigious (and expensive) weapon was dropped by accident. This has led to the theory that it was thrown into the river as a religious offering. Other finds from the silt might also suggest that the site had a ritual significance. These include a spearhead and the remains of complete animal skeletons (horse, cow, sheep and dog).

The Skerne Sword is not the only Viking Age sword to have been deposited this way. A mid-tenth-century sword with very similar decoration was found in the River Frome at Wareham, Dorset. This is now in the Dorchester Museum. There are two more swords in the British Museum. One from the River Lea at Edmonton and the other from the River Witham in Lincolnshire. 

The custom of throwing or placing offerings in water was more commonly recorded in the Iron Age. However, it seems there may have been something of a revival during the Viking Period.