Ninian’s Chape

A sketch of a silver scabbard chape, from St. Ninian’s Isle in Scotland, attached to an imagined leather covered scabbard with key pattern ornamentation.

nin1

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Jake Powning

Jake is a professional swordsmith, artist, and writer who explores the strange place where traditional culture and the land meet.

9 Comments:

  1. henning wilkinson

    hi Jake

    your work is a massive inspiration I have recently started a Viking sword with a two bar twist and high layer count edges I am looking to name the sword and was wondering how you got the norse names of your sword

  2. hope you don’t mind an observation on these:
    Wonderful drawing, but for the original two, I’d very much disagree with them being described as scabbard-chapes.
    the smaller of the two is 46mm wide at at the “mouth” of the beast, 77mm wide at the broadest point. the larger of the two is even broader, 58mm between the two mouths, but about the same, 76-77mm wide at its widest point. For a scabbard, they strike me as way too broad.

    Also, the gap between the parts is way too thin for a scabbard – barely 3mm wide, you’d only just get leather in, without any boards.

    The chances are these were chapes for a long priest or bishop’s stole from a set of liturgical vestments.

  3. Thanks for the perspective J.G. Historical scabbards can be very thin, especially at the tip. The leather is well under a millimeter thick and the wood is also very thin, three mill for a chape is not unreasonable, and the width is not out of the realm of plausibility either. Swords from the 8th century sometimes have blades which are 6cm wide at the hilt with a rounded point, having a scabbard wich is 46mm at the tip would be appropriate for this type of blade. In every archeological description I’ve read of the Ninian’s silvers these are described as chapes. I’m absolutely open to the idea that they served a different function however, do you have more information about them being from liturgical vestment? I’d be fascinated to read it, if a bit disappointed 😉

  4. well, the source I’ve got for them being liturgical stole chapes is from the Aberdeen University published report (it was the university who had funded the archaeological dig two years previously) on them straight after they were conserved in 1960.

    I cant find a print copy, there’s no ISBN No, but a copy is stored in Aberdeen university’s special collections:
    http://calms.abdn.ac.uk/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqCmd=Show.tcl&dsqSearch=RefNo==%27MSU%201332%2F8%2F3%27&dsqDb=Catalog

    the bit about them is as follows:

    PAGE 46
    “Chapes” or hooped mounting. The upper is in mint condition with animal head terminals on both faces but different designs on each side of the hoop. the other was gilded but is badly worn and cracked. There is n inscription on both faces for which various readings are possible. Professor Kenneth Jackson has suggested that on the one side the reading is:
    “in nomine d[ei] s[ummi]” (“in the name of God the Highest)
    and for the other is:
    “resadfilispusscio” (“[the property of] Resad son of Spusscio”).

    T. Julian Brown concurs with the reading of the first but suggests for the second reading:
    “Resadf (or k) ilispu (or b) sscio” which might be interpreted as “the thing of Adkil”, but agrees that Professor Jackson’s reading is probably the right one. It has been suggested that these are chapes, or protective tips for scabbards, but if so the slot between the faces is so narrow that two thicknesses of leather would have had to be so thinned as to be useless. Another suggestion is that they might have formed weighed ends to a stole and if so the first inscription has more point”

    That book was written by Andrew C O’Dell, who was the archaeologist who led the dig, and it has full-scale photos of every angle of all the parts – sadly, in B/W print rather than colour – but also has high-detail line illustrations the parts of the hoard, and photos in pre and post-conserved condition, the drawings often exploded and unfolded to minimise distortion. (So it covers every one of the items except, it should be said, the box that they were found in. am I the only one who thinks its a terrible shame all the metalwork gets attention, but the box they were found in, made of Larch, which was’nt a native wood, is forgotten?) There’s also a foreword and and a few pages of description by the archaeologists, including the bit I quoted above.

    Anyhow, there is one sword-pommel in the hoard, that’s pretty certain – but the other parts, unlike what the National Museum’s site says, I’m not convinced by being described as ‘weapon parts’.
    Alongside the pommel are a set of conical mounts with transverse tubular pins, which I don’t believe are weapon parts at all – as is expressed in that book they’re far more likely staff-ends, as the conical tips are worn with scuffing on each one.

    But for the chapes, its the fact there’s two of them ( one for each end of a stole?), of similar style, and with that inscription? well, my gut instinct on seeing them really is, that the gap’s too thin, and they’re just too broad in proportion to their length to be seated well. had they been 4-5mm thick, or a little longer, I’d say its possible they were from scabbards. but I’m inclined to follow the original report finding, that they’re liturgical, in favour of the later reviews which suggest scabbard parts.

    I’ll see if I can get a good angle to take a photo “end-on” to them next time I’m down south and go in to the National Museum, and will send it over to you, if you like, to show how narrow they are. I suspect its very unlikely I’ll be able to arrange access to handle them and get exact measurements, but I could try.

  5. Thanks very much for the info J.G.!

  6. Promised you a while back I’d get a photo edge-on of that chape to show what I meant – well, its been a wee while, but I hope this is useful:

    Shows just how narrow it is – I’d say thinner even than 3mm as I’d estimated before, its probably closer to 2mm wide

    http://elmslie.co.uk/projects/ninians-isle-chape.jpg

    hope that’s useful

    • It almost looks like it’s designed to fit over a sheet metal scabbard. Interesting how the creatures tongues swell out so the negative space at the top of the fitting describes a lenticular shape.
      Thanks for the photo! and the conversation 🙂

  7. Really like the design on the leather, what was your inspiration for it?

    • Hi Andrew, this type of ornamentation is called Key pattern. you can see historical examples on Pictish stones like the one at Rosemarkie in Ross&Cromarty or the Dunblane stone in Perthshire, it was also used in many of the illuminated manuscripts from the insular period, like the book of Kells and the book of Durrow as well as in Anglo Saxon textiles. I suspect that the pattern originated in woven textiles where it’s difficult to make anything but angles and not so easy to make strait lines.

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