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The Vikings were among the fiercest warriors of all time, and a select few carried the ultimate weapon: a sword nearly 1,000 years ahead of its time. But the secrets behind this super sword's design, creation and use have remained hidden for centuries. Now, through a mix of science, archeology, metallurgy and history, a new NOVA/National Geographic co-production unravels the mystery and recreates this Viking uber-weapon -- the Ulfberht sword -- to kick off the new fall season of NOVA. SECRETS OF THE VIKING SWORD premieres Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 9PM/8c on PBS (check local listings).
Fashioned using a process unknown to The Vikings' rivals, the Ulfberht sword was a revolutionary high-tech blade as well as a work of art. Considered by some to be one of the greatest swords ever made, it remains a fearsome weapon more than a millennium after it last saw battle. But how did master swordsmiths of the Middle Ages come up with the Ulfberht's complex recipe, and what was its role in history? So far, no one has been able to forge a metallurgically accurate Ulfberht.
Produced between 800 to 1000 AD, the Ulfberht offered unique advantages as a weapon. Its combination of strength, lightness, and flexibility represented the perfect marriage of form and function in the chaos that was a Viking battle. Thousands of Viking swords have since been found, most discovered in rivers or excavated from burials across Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Of those, only 171 are marked Ulfberht-- most only corroded skeletons of once magnificent blades--further cloaking the mysteries of what some experts deem the ultimate weapon of the fiercest warriors.
In Secrets of the Viking Sword, NOVA and National Geographic follow modern day swordsmith Ric Furrer as he endeavors to become the first person in a thousand years to bring this mysterious sword back to life. Furrer reverse engineers this legendary sword with the help of new findings about the chemistry of the Ulfberht's steel. Viewers will watch every step of the way as he uses period tools and methods to build a special oven, heat and cool the raw iron, and skillfully wield the mallet to shape and forge the metal by hand, hammer blow by powerful hammer blow.
One of the deepest mysteries scientists have grappled with surrounding the sword has been the metallic composition of the Ulfberht, which was forged from high quality steel that would not be seen again in Europe until the advent of industrial blast furnaces nearly 1,000 years later. Most weapons from Viking times were comprised of "bloomery iron," a low-carbon material that was relatively soft and brittle. The Ulfberht blade, however, was made from high-carbon steel that was smelted in a sealed crucible or small furnace, and slowly allowed to cool. This gave this sword flexibility and strength far ahead of its time. But the novel material used was not found anywhere else in Europe in the Middle Ages. So where did the crucible steel come from?