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Sword fight. Credit: Oleksandr / Adobe Stock

Experiment Reveals Secrets to Brutal Bronze Age Warfare

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Experimental archaeology is a relatively new field and it is allowing experts to test their hypotheses about the past in a new hands-on way. A fascinating recent experiment has solved the mystery as to how swords were used in Bronze Age warfare and revealed how different fighting techniques spread across Europe.

Many thousands of Bronze Age swords have been found in peatland, rivers and burials across Europe. These weapons were made of an alloy of tin and copper and they were more likely to snap and become mangled in a fight than later iron blades. Science Magazine quotes Brian Molly, an archaeologist from University College Dublin, stating “clumsily use them, and you’ll destroy them.” This has led some to question if the bronze weapons were only used to show social status or as offering in religious rituals.

Photo from the actualistic weapon tests (final stance of the fifth play), where the researchers are acting out possible Bronze Age warfare fighting techniques.            Source: (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

Photo from the actualistic weapon tests (final stance of the fifth play), where the researchers are acting out possible Bronze Age warfare fighting techniques.            Source: (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory )

Deadly Weapons or Ceremonial Objects?

However, Science quotes Raphael Hermann of the University Göttingen as saying that “swords are the initial items created purely to kill a person.” Herman and his colleagues decided to solve this puzzle and determine once and for all whether Bronze Age swords were only ceremonial objects or if they were used in hand-to-hand combat.

The Bronze Age replica swords used in the study. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

The Bronze Age replica swords used in the study. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory )

He hypothesized that the weapons were used in combat but in a specific way to ensure that the metal was mot mangled. They may have only been used to stab an opponent. Science reports Herman as saying “stab somebody in the guts, and you won’t have a mark on your sword at all.”

He and his colleagues decided to test whether or not Bronze Age swords were used in duels and close quarter combat.  They had seven replicas and shields made by a traditional bronzesmith and these were used in controlled weapon tests. The researchers wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory   the “the controlled weapon tests (CWTs) were designed to recreate prehistoric one-on-one combat.” The results of the CWTs did not satisfy Herman and his research team.

The experts performed the controlled weapons, where they practiced possible fighting techniques of Bronze Age warfare. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

The experts performed the controlled weapons, where they practiced possible fighting techniques of Bronze Age warfare. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory )

Modern Weapons Test Reveals Clues

While studying at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom the study’s lead researcher asked members of a local club to help him in his investigations. The club members were “dedicated to recreating and instructing medieval European combat styles,” reports TeCake.

During the study, they engaged in controlled weapon tests based on instruction manuals from the Middle Ages . These were actualized weapon tests (AWTs) and “intended to test the capabilities of Bronze Age swords and combatants as an integrated functional unit, as would happen in real-life fencing,” reports the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory .

These were recorded and the researchers collected data on the location of dings, notches and dents on the blades after each pre-planned fight. This allowed them to observe wear and damage patterns on the replicas and related them to historically documented sword-fighting moves.

Actualistic weapon test where the researchers try out possible fighting techniques of Bronze Age warfare. In this instance, the defender binds the swords to control the opponent’s blade. This caused a distinctive bulge in the cutting edge of the attacking sword. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory)

Actualistic weapon test where the researchers try out possible fighting techniques of Bronze Age warfare. In this instance, the defender binds the swords to control the opponent’s blade. This caused a distinctive bulge in the cutting edge of the attacking sword. (R. Herman et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory )

They found that there was a close correlation between patterns and certain fighting styles, such as the “technique known to medieval German duelists as versetzen, or ‘displacement’—locking blades to control and dominate an opponent’s weapon,’’ according to TeCake.

The Emergence of Fighting Techniques

The wear patterns on the replica swords were then compared to Bronze Age swords that came from Italy and the British Isles. Herman and his colleague studied over 100 weapons and they catalogued over 2000 marks and notches. These were then compared to the patterns on the replicas used during the staged combats.

Amazingly, they found similarities in the marks on ancient weapons and the modern replicas. They believed that they found evidence that Bronze Age swordsmen used a technique similar to the displacement technique used in the Middle Ages.

Then the researchers linked the patterns on the swords to the geographical origin of the weapons. This led them to conclude that fighting techniques evolved and emerged in one area before spreading. For example, displacement did not appear in the record until 1300 and evidence for it first appears in Italy and only several centuries later in the British Isles .

Insights Into Bronze Age Warfare and Swordsmen

The patterns from the replicas and archaeological artifacts demonstrates that Bronze Age swordsmen were capable of sophisticated fighting techniques. They could not only stab an opponent but could also most likely inflict deep cuts. Science quotes Herman as saying that “in order to fight the way the marks show, there has to be a lot of training involved.” They were experts in a variety of stabbing, slashing and other techniques as knights were in the Middle Ages. 

The study is providing new insights into the Bronze Age and it is demonstrating a new way of understanding ancient warfare. In particular, it allows us to understand how an individual warrior used the weapons and how they used them in real-life swordfights. This study demonstrates that Bronze Age swords were not ceremonial objects but were combat weapons.

Top image: Sword fight. Credit: Oleksandr / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

Comments

Wonder why they didn't include bone injuries in their studies. Am guessing, as the blades are weighted towards the leading half that hacking an arm or a leg then a torso thrust or blow to the head was pretty usual. Isn't sword displacement a posh word for a parry?

Sure bonze weapon blade edges are relatively sensitive, so in Homer’s Iliad where bronze weapons were predominant and there are many detailed narrations of duels, it is obvious that man to man combats were very brief and the warriors did not strike blade against blade, as opposed to what is the norm in Hollywood scenes (where steel swords are also the norn).

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