This Medieval Sword Spent 1,000 Years at the Bottom of a Polish River

Construction crews stumbled upon the weapon while dredging the Vistula River in Włocławek

Sword and Boat
The sword was found at the Włocławek port on the Vistula River. O. Popkiewicz via Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments in Toruń

Workers have unearthed a tenth-century sword at the bottom of a river in Poland. While the weapon has endured over a thousand years of corrosion, scans show that a “mysterious inscription” survives on its blade.

The discovery occurred last month in the Polish city of Włocławek, where construction crews were dredging the Vistula River. One of the workers, Sławomir Mularski, spotted the sword in a pile of extracted muck, according to Science in Poland’s Tomasz Więcławski. Per Google Translate, Mularski says that his heartbeat quickened as an image of “a Viking wielding a sword” began to take shape in his mind.

Mularski alerted officials with the Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments in Toruń (a nearby city), who retrieved and examined the sword. McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft writes that the “rust-covered weapon” featured a “long blade and a pommel that looks almost like a knot.”

Photo and Scan
A photo and a radiograph of the newly discovered sword W. Ochotny via Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments in Toruń

The artifact resembles a class of sword originating in northwestern Europe “characterized by a simple blade that extends symmetrically towards the end,” according to a translated Facebook post from the provincial office. These weapons typically date to around the tenth century C.E.

“This is one of the most famous and at the same time the best—in terms of the quality of the blade—early medieval swords from Europe,” Mateusz Sosnowski, a specialist with Wda Landscape Park who worked on the sword survey, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.

This type of sword likely has roots in Scandinavia and Franconia, a medieval region of present-day Germany. Officials say Scandinavia is thought to have influenced medieval-era Poland, though “the relationship between the Scandinavian Vikings and the region of contemporary Poland is somewhat obscure and continues to be a subject of interest for historians worldwide,” reports CBS News’ Emily Mae Czachor.

Sword and Finder
Sławomir Mularski found the medieval sword while dredging the Vistula River. O. Popkiewicz via Provincial Office for the Protection of Monuments in Toruń

Officials used an X-ray scanner to conduct a close examination of the artifact, allowing them to see beneath layers of corrosive damage and learn more about its construction.

Imaging revealed characters engraved on the sword’s blade. “The inscription reads ‘U[V]LFBERTH,’ which could be read as ‘Ulfberht,’ a marking found on a group of about 170 medieval swords found mainly in northern Europe,” according to CBS News. Only eight of these weapons have been found in Poland. Researchers aren’t certain what the word means, though they think it could spell a Frankish name. 

Sambor Gawiński, Toruń’s provincial conservator of monuments, tells Science in Poland that the find is quite valuable. He adds that the “Ulfberht” swords are of an “exceptionally high technological level” even by today’s standards.

Experts say the sword was created during a significant period in Polish history. In the late 900s, the House of Piast formed, beginning Poland’s earliest known dynasty. In their statement, officials speculate that the newly discovered sword could have armed a person “responsible for the expansion of Piast’s rule in the tenth century to new areas beyond Greater Poland.”

The weapon’s origins, however, remain a mystery. Additionally, while some researchers have suggested a Viking connection, this possibility remains a matter of debate, per Live Science. Researchers are now working to conserve and study the piece at Toruń’s Nicolaus Copernicus University, which could take two or more months.

“[The sword] faces a strenuous process of conservation and scientific development, which may bring us further revelations related to its construction and ornaments, and consequently its wonderful history,” Toruń officials write.

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