AN ANGLIAN sword found by archaeologists at Bamburgh Castle has been declared the only one of its kind in the world by experts.
X-rays of the 7th century sword revealed its blade is made up of six, individual strands of carbonised iron bonded together to form the blade - a technique, experts say, has rarely been seen before.
Archaeologist Paul Gething explained: "This is an exceptional sword and a stunning find. What makes it unique is that the billet is made up of six strands of carbonised iron which have been micro-welded with flux to bond them together.
"There have been pattern-welded swords found before which have been made of up to four strands. These are rare enough, but none have ever been found with six.
"This is a vastly superior sword which, in its time, would have had serious bling factor. The importance of this find is akin to the discovery of the weapons from Sutton Hoo."
The weapon is known today as 'pattern-welded' or 'snake patterned' because of the herringbone appearance created by the forged strands.
Dr David Starley, science officer at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, said: "We see a lot of swords here, but have never seen anything like this before, it is very exciting. X-rays showed it to be an exceptional sword blade which is obviously of very high status and of European significance."
Archaeologists believe the sword was commissioned and made at Bamburgh for a king at the height of the Anglo Saxon period.
"The role of the king of Northumbria's chief weapons' smith was a prestigious one and the individual would have had a high ranking," said Paul. "It would be this individual who we believe crafted the sword here at Bamburgh, using iron that could have been sourced from the Cheviot Hills nearby."
This would have been an extremely complex process and may have taken over two months to produce the blade, which would have been 70-80cm.
"To produce a weapon of this calibre required state-of-the-art technology of the time," explained Paul. "Those who witnessed the creation of this weapon would have thought it the equivalent of magic."
The sword could have been bestowed as an ostentatious gift upon the king's highest ranking warrior, but perhaps more likely kept for himself.
Paul said: "At the time, pattern-welded swords would be instantly recognisable, but it would be very clear to anyone that this six-strand sword was something different and would look absolutely stunning. It would get the better of anything else side-by-side. In these times it was a case of the more ostentatious the better."
The sword was found in the first-ever excavation at Bamburgh Castle by the late Dr Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960. Following his death in 2001, the sword was found by chance at his home and rescued by the Scottish Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
The sword was returned to its rightful home at Bamburgh Castle in 2005, where Paul and colleague Graeme Young were working on the Bamburgh Research Project, an archaeological excavation. It was only then that the remarkable nature of the sword became known.
"It was obvious upon initial inspection this was an unusual sword, so we decided to send it to the Royal Armouries for further examination," explained Paul. "We thought it may be a pattern welded sword, but had no idea it would be such an exceptional sword and the only one of its kind ever found. It's a dream come true."
Though some of the sword's secrets have been discovered, the archaeologists are keen to know more about its composition and the background in which it came from.
Using new technology, a small sample has been sent back to the Royal Armouries to help experts build a more detailed understanding of the sword. The results will create a 3D image in finer detail of the sword's composition and to show exactly how it would have looked, while metallurgical testing will reveal the exact constituents of the weapon.
Meanwhile, the Bamburgh Research Project began its 2006 season of excavations on Monday with plans to re-excavate the trench in which the sword was found in a bid to discover further clues about this unique weapon.