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.