When we create a reproduction our first step is to research the original sword. This can happen in a variety of ways. We will look at some of these today and discuss a few pros and cons of each.
Probably the most common way one can research swords is by looking at images. This has become far easier in the digital age than it used to be. Before that one was limited mostly to published material and any images one was able to capture on visits to collections.
The trouble with published depictions of swords is they are often only profile views or may not include the entire sword. If it is the full-length image it can be difficult to see the hilt detail. Especially if the image is small. Try to imagine creating a replica from an image like this...
The basic form is discernible but if it was all the evidence you had you would need to do a fair bit of educated guessing to make this piece.
A second issue can be perspective. If the sword is shot with the camera centered on the hilt or the blade you will have different perspectives and if you are judging dimensions it can be difficult to get an accurate estimate.
Display in the Irish National Museum of Archeology
Working on a piece with this square on shot is not too bad. The way we would approach this for research details would be to get multiple images so one can access the third dimension when fabricating a piece.
A shot like the one above adds a great deal to being able to access what you are trying to replicate. Some items will transform completely when you see them from a different angle.
This image for example shows some viking swords and they all seem relatively straightforward in design.
When you examine the sword in the center from the side you see it is far from typical with a uniquely shaped pommel that may have been this shape or constructed like this to have some type of different material applied to the pommel. It is bronze with a flat bottom shelf and a thin ridge down the center from sided to side.
the sword on the left in this image
Another factor when seeing items in public collections is the ability to determine size. Many museums provide some type of description and some will include a dimension or two. But there are many that do not. This leaves one to hopefully find a more detailed description in a museum publication, but this may be difficult to find or it may not exist.
That is when you try to evolve some tactics to help your research. The other items in the display may have dimensions you can find and if the perspective is appropriate use that to calculate the size. Another trick we use is to look at the identification fixtures in the case.
Here we see the numbers for each item. When at the museum it is often easier to get a good idea of the size of their fixtures like this and estimate size from those. In this case they are about .25 inches in height.
Today we have even more options to look at items in the virtual world. Part of the research and educational efforts of some forward looking collections is the publications of 3D models of artifacts to allow a person to interact with the objects virtually. Our work with The Oakeshott Institute has been pushing the use of this technology and you can see some examples below.
In the above model we are able to see not only the form of the sword but details of how it was assembled as the original was disassembled at some point in its life.
In the case of complex hilts this is particularly valuable as the three dimensional structure of the hilt can not be seen clearly from even two perspectives.
Another great advantage to these models is to experience the detail that goes into the original artifact. In this example the form of the sword is pretty straight forward but if you zoom in on the hilt it is covered in very fine lines. This kind of decoration might be difficult to see even in a well light display case at a museum but in the virtual world one can even see the work of the craftsmans tool marks in the fine elements.
In the hand
To conduct research with the item in hand is by far our preferred way to explore a sword. We have been very lucky over the years to know and collaborate with curators, collectors and researchers to be able to gather information and do research. This allows us to spend time with a sword and get detailed notes and a sense of the object that is beyond just noting materials and dimensions. Our love of these objects is one of our main motivations to produce replica swords. It allows us to share these pieces with others that see the beauty and knowledge of the past today.
Chris Poor researching at the Wallace Collection London
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.