A double-edged sword: swords, bodies, and personhood in early Medieval archaeology and literature

Duncan Sayer, Erin Sebo, Kyle Hughes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


In Anglo-Saxon and Viking literature swords form part of a hero's identity. In addition to being weapons, they represent a material agent for the individual's actions, a physical expression of identity. In this article we bring together the evidence from literature and archaeology concerning Anglo-Saxon and Viking-age swords and argue that these strands of evidence converge on the construction of mortuary identities and particular personhoods. The placement of the sword in funerary contexts is important. Swords were not just objects; they were worn close to the body, intermingling with the physical person. This is reflected in the mortuary context where they were displayed within an emotive aesthetic. Typically, swords were embraced, placed next to the head and shoulders, more like a companion than an object. However, there are exceptions: graves like Birka 581 and Prittlewell show sword locations that contrast with the normal placement, locations which would have jarred with an observer's experience, suggesting unconventional or nuanced identities. By drawing on literary evidence, we aim to use the words of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings to illuminate the significance of swords in mortuary contexts and their wider cultural associations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)542-566
Number of pages25
JournalEuropean Journal of Archaeology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


  • mortuary aesthetics
  • Viking
  • performance of masculinity
  • literature
  • Birka
  • swords
  • body
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • personhood


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