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A beautifully decorated bent sword, 826-600 BC, part of the finds in a noble's grave at Oss in The Netherlands.

The Killing of Swords: A Destructive Funerary Rite To Release the Spirit of Weapons Into the Afterlife

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The deliberate destruction of grave goods before burial is a funerary practice found in a number of different ancient cultures. The most notable grave goods that are ‘killed’ are weapons such as swords and spearheads. Nevertheless, other objects that are deliberately destroyed before burial include objects made of precious metal and ceramics. Moreover, human and animal sacrifices for funerary purposes may even be considered to be a form of deliberate destruction of objects.

Grave goods. (Jdsteakley / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Grave goods. (Jdsteakley / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Deliberately Destroyed Swords

The burial of weapons with the dead is attested in many ancient cultures. In some of these cultures, the weapons are not only buried with the dead, but also destroyed before deposition in the grave. This practice may be seen, for instance in the Aegean during the Early Iron Age, i.e. from around 1100 to 700 BC. The swords are typically bent out of shape, either into a circle and placed around the neck of a burial urn, or in half. Additionally, there is also evidence of swords being broken, though it is unclear if this was a deliberate act, or simply the result of decay over the millennia. Deliberately destroyed swords have been unearthed mainly in the western part of the Aegean, including such places as Attica, Crete, and Euboea. Apart from swords, destroyed spears and shields were also found in some of these graves.

The term ‘killed’ has been used to describe these deliberately destroyed weapons. The choice of this word is based on the same practice in northern European cultures. In such cultures, weapons are anthropomorphized, given their own names and personalities, and believed to possess their own spirits. Therefore, these weapons have to be ‘killed’, which would release their spirit so that they may accompany their owners into the afterlife. This belief has been traced back to the La Tene period and continued into Roman times. In Early Iron Age Aegeae, however, there is no evidence that weapons were treated in a like manner.

Bent sword from exhibition at The Swedish History Museum. (The Swedish History Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bent sword from exhibition at The Swedish History Museum . (The Swedish History Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Other Explanations?

Instead, other explanations have been proposed in order to explain this phenomenon. One proposal, for instance, is that the weapons were destroyed so that they could fit nicely into the graves. While this practical explanation would work for shields, it does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the ‘killing’ of swords. For instance, much less effort would be required to dig a larger grave to fit the weapons, than that required to bend a sword. Matthew Lloyd has suggested that swords from the 8 th century, in particular those from the Eretria, were ‘killed’ as they had been taken from the enemies.

Lloyd points out, however, that this explanation would not explain the phenomenon of sword killing in the 9 th century. Instead, he suggests that the swords of this period might have been deliberately destroyed because they were prestige goods, and that by removing them out of circulation, the prestige of the remaining weapons would be increased.

Other Grave Goods That Were ‘Killed’

Weapons were not the only prestige goods to be ‘killed’. During the Bronze Age in Ireland, which lasted from around the middle of the 3 rd millennium BC to around 500 BC, gold was used to make various ornaments. Some of the most impressive of these are the gorgets or collars, an example of which is the Gleninsheen Gold Collar. The collar was found to have been roughly bent in two before it was thrown into limestone fissure. It should be pointed out that the collar is not considered to be a grave good and may have been a votive offering. Apart from the Gleninsheen Gold Collar, there are eight other examples of gold collars that were deliberately destroyed before their deposition.

Late Bronze Age gold "gorget", 800-700 BC, found in Dublin. (PKM / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Late Bronze Age gold "gorget", 800-700 BC, found in Dublin. (PKM / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

There are various other reasons for the deliberate destruction of goods intended for burial. For instance, swords and other symbols of authority were closely associated with the dead in certain cultures and considered to be highly personal objects. As it was considered improper to re-use these objects, they were destroyed before being buried with their owners. Yet another reason for this phenomenon is to reduce the risk of tomb robbery, as the destroyed goods would have little or no value to the living. This reason has been given, for instance, by the Eskimo.

Top image: A beautifully decorated bent sword, 826-600 BC, part of the finds in a noble's grave at Oss in The Netherlands.      Source: Donald Trung / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Wu Mingren

References

BREN279, 2013. The Death of All Things – Killing the Objects in Celtic Europe. [Online] Available at: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/killing-the-objects-3/
Colm, 2015. The Gleninsheen Gold Collar, a Bronze Age Treasure. [Online] Available at: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2015/04/the-gleninsheen-gold-collar-a-bronze-age-treasure/
Grinsell, L. V., 1961. The Breaking of Objects as a Funerary Rite. Folklore. 72(3), pp. 475-491. [Online] Available at:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261570734_The_Breaking_of_Objects_as_a_Funerary_Rite
Karvonen, J., 1998. Deliberately Damaged Objects in Iron Age Cremation Cemeteries . Fennoscandia archaeologic. , Volume 15, pp. 3-13. [Online] Available at: http://www.sarks.fi/fa/PDF/FA15_3.pdf
Kent Archaeological Society, 2011. Romano-British Funerary Practices in the 1st and 2nd Centuries A.D. [Online] Available at: https://www.kentarchaeology.org.uk/Research/02/ODAG/01/02.htm
Lloyd, M., 2018. Bending in the grave. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/bending-grave-killing-weapons-early-iron-age-aegean/

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