Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Beardmore Relics: Hoax or History? the Beginning

The Nipigon Historical Museum thanks the Royal Ontario Museum for the reproductions of the Beardmore Relics. We trust and hope they will enrich our folk lore and cultural awareness.

Permission to reprint A.D. Tushingham's "The Beardmore Relics: Hoax or History" (ROM 1966) has been given courtesy of The Royal Ontario Museum, Rights and Reproductions Coordinator, August 31, 2011. We are going to make numerous posts to tell the story.

What are the Beardmore relics?

The Beardmore relics are either a fraud - or a clue to one of the greatest adventures in Canadian history. Taken at face value, they tell a story 500 years older than Columbus, of a band of Viking rovers who sailed through Hudson's Strait and Hudson's Bay, on into northern Ontario and almost to the Lakehead.(now Thunder Bay)  If the relics could be believed, they would provide the first concrete evidence that the Norsemen, who certainly founded settlements on the Atlantic Coast, had penetrated into the interior of North America. But their discovery has been so clouded by conflicting evidence and disagreement that it is difficult today to consider them more than a hoax. Sifting the evidence is like following a detective story.

The Beardmore relics consist of three major objects, plus several small fragments.  All are iron. The first object is obviously  a sword. New, it may have been slightly more than a yard long, from point to hilt end; over the centuries, however, the blade has corroded at the tip and been broken in the centre. Two large portions are left, each about 15 inches long - one the hilt and upper blade, the other the lower blade - and three small fragments which may well have come from the missing central portion.  Metallurgical analysis indicates that in its forging the blade was subjected to quenching and tempering. From the style and metal the sword appears to be Norse, 900 to 1,000  years old. 

The second object is an axehead, typical of those used in Norway during the 10th century or slightly later. Metallurgical analysis indicates that it was made of wrought iron without subsequent treatment. The absence of a hard steel cutting edge is strange, but as it was probably welded to the wrought iron body of the axehead it may have corroded or broken away completely, leaving no trace.

The third object is far more difficult to identify. It is a flat iron bar, about seven and a quarter inches long, a little more than one inch at its greatest width, and about one-eighth of an inch thick. Round the edge of one face runs a flange. The other face is slightly rounded.  The bar terminates at both ends in hooks which give an overall length of nine and a quarter inches. One hook curves towards the flanged side; probably it once extended beyond present length, for these is a small fragment which looks as if it had been broken off recently. The other hook lies at right angles to the first, and at its outer end has an eyelet formed by bending the metal back on itself.  Metallurgical evidence suggests that the metal was bent in this pattern in ancient times - that the hooks are not the result of some modern distortion. The material is wrought iron, with no trace of hardening.

The object was first thought to be the handle of a shield. The Norse shield was round and made of wood, perhaps overlaid with leather. At its centre a bowl-shaped metal boss protruded outwards, protecting the warrior's fist as he grasped the handle on the inside. The whole was held together by iron rivets. Over the centuries the wood of most shields has rotted away, but the iron parts may endure. The man who found the Beardmore relics reported that over the bar-like object he had found "a dome of rust, slightly flat, about size of goose egg". in other words, what might well have been the remains of a boss.

An alternative theory is that the bar was part of a rangel or rattle - an object frequently found in Viking graves along with weapons. These rattles were something like overgrown safety pins, formed from an iron strip. On them were strung a number of iron rings or other small objects, which rattled together and (according the magic theories of the day) kept away evil spirits. Rangels were attached to sleigh harness in much the same way as sleighbells were used in Canada.

It is hard to believe that our mystery-object was one of these. The massiveness of the bar, and particularly the flange around the edge, suggest that it was a handle of some kind. The flange in that case would have held a piece of wood (the grip) which would be bound to the bar with cord or leather strips. If these were no hooks, and the ends were straight, it could have easily been fitted to a shield with thongs or. perhaps, rivets. If the hooks were set in line it might have formed the handle of a bucket or similar object, although one would have expected such a handle to be curved. But the peculiar configuration of the hooks as they now appear, at right angles one to the other, leave the object's use a puzzle.


  1. The Viking method of making axes is to use softer low carbon, somewhat malluable, iron for the majority of the axehead. Once it is done being shaped a deep groove is hot chiseled into the edge. Then a 1-2" wide strip of very hard, rather brittle, high carbon steel (Razor steel if you like) is hot welded into the cutting edge of the axe. The higher the carbon content the faster a n item will rust. So naturally, the edge of the Beardmore Axe would quickly rust away to nothing while the iron axehead would survive.

    Erik Rurikson, historian and amateur medieval weapon smith

  2. The wrought iron grip WAS bent at some time after its "burial", perhaps by an explosion. I am in the process of making an authentic Viking shield. I will forge my own version of this sword grip and install it. I expect it to work very well.

    Erik Rurikson

  3. From what little I can tell from the photo, the Beardmore sword may well be from the earlier part of the Viking Age. The groove, or fuller, running down the length of the blade is rather wide and nearly reaches the fairly blunt tip of the sword. Later blades tended to have slightly narrower fullers which did not come so close to the tip and the tips tended to be a bit more pointy. of course theses are just general trends.

    Another possible indicator that this is an early Viking Age weapon is the simplicity and straightness of the upper and lower guards. As time went on, these two parts of the typical Viking sword hilt became more and more curved, leading eventually to the very droopy lower guards found on Scoto-Irish broadswords and continental kniights' broadswords in the 1200's.

    So, this DOES seem to be an earlier sword, I would guess being created anywhere from 700 to 1000AD; with the earlier dates being more likely. On the other hand, swords were commonly passed down through several generations and too valuable to be retired. Even when buried with a great hero (ordinary warriors were buried most often with only a spear and knife), it was considered an honorable deed for a person from a later generation to dig into a burial to retrieve the blade and put it back into service to the family. So, a swords construction date has little relation to its final burial date. Finding a sword created in one century with an axe from a later century is not unusual at all.

    Each sword throughout the Viking era was a unique work of art, its design often varying due to the varied tastes of the smith. Swords traveled widely, were lifted by the man who killed its owner, got sold in markets all over the Viking trade network and considered a most valuable possession by non-Viking as well as Northmen. For these reasons, it is rather misleading to claim that a sword is FROM a particular region of Europe, or even FROM a specific century. Dating and locating the origin of medieval weapons is a very difficult business.

    So, the Beardmore Sword was probably created sometime before 1000AD in a place called Europe. Anything else is really guesswork.

    Erik Rurikson

  4. Now for the REAL MYSTERY. the Beardmore Sword is missing its Pommel. Every Viking Age sword has a pommel pinned onto its upper (away from the blade) cross-guard. This item is not just for appearances, it actually makes the sword able to function properly.

    A Viking sword weighs at least 3 pounds. This may sound like very little weight, but just compare it to a typical 1 1/2 pound fencing foil. Unlike a fencing foil, a Vikng Age sword is not light a quick in the hand. in fact it can feel somewhat like swinging a one handed axe. But, without the counter balancing effect of the hefty pommel, such a blade will feel like swinging a baseball bat with your left hand. So, for a Viking sword the Pommel is absolutely essential.

    Now, another well know fact (to swordsmen anyways) is that Viking pommels were notorious for coming loose in the shock of combat. Norse sagas are full of examples of swords becoming unbalanced when the thin pins hold the pommel onto the guard gave way and the pommel flew across the battlefield.

    Beardmore's sword is missing its pommel. Mr Dodd, the supposed finder of the weapon, did not know that it was missing. I wonder if the director of the Royal Ontario Museum noticed that it was missing. in fact, I don't think anyone has ever commented on the fact that the pommel is missing. But, I am very happy to see that it is gone.

    Here is why: IF Mr. Dodd did not plant the Beardmore artifacts, but did indeed dynamite them out of the bedrock, then it is very likely that the missing pommel is still within a few feet of the original find site. If this missing pommel is discovered there by an archaeologist, then Dodd's claim would be proven! Anyone who claims that such a pommel has been planted could prove it by showing that the pommel EXACTLY matches the upper crossguard on the Beardmore sword itself. Of course, if it does match then the debate is over and a Northman's war gear was dropped, or burial in northern Ontario at least 900 years ago.

    Now, all we need is an archaeologist with the guts to do a little field work which will probably destroy his reputation and endanger his career. Good luck with that!!!

    Erik Rurikson, a Historian with some Archaeological training and no career worth protecting