Scientists Stage Sword Fights to Study Bronze Age Warfare

Research suggests bronze blades, thought by some to be too fragile for combat, were deadly weapons across ancient Europe

Scientists stage a sword fight
Researchers staged fights using recreated Bronze Age weapons to better understand how they might have been used in ancient fighting. Hermann et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

To date, archaeologists have unearthed thousands of ancient bronze swords, many of which were laid to rest alongside human remains in burial plots across Europe. But bronze is so soft and malleable that historians have long wondered whether such swords saw real combat or if they were just status symbols.

Now, researchers have tested these ancient weapons’ mettle by staging experimental fights with bronze swords and observing the types of wear and tear they might expect to see on battle-tested blades, reports Andrew Curry for Science magazine. The researchers’ findings, published last week in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, suggest that swordplay was indeed a common and sophisticated facet of Bronze Age warfare.

Unlike spears, arrows and axes, all of which have uses beyond combat, swords were “invented purely to kill someone,” Raphael Hermann, study lead author and an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, tells Science.

Bronze swords—forged by mixing copper and tin—first appeared around 1600 B.C. and remained in use until 600 A.D. Compared with later iron weapons, their metal is soft, easily damaged and hard to repair.

The physical properties of these bronze blades would have dictated how they were used on the battlefield.

“Use them in a clumsy way, and you’ll destroy them,” Barry Molloy, an archaeologist at University College Dublin who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science.

Snippet: Bronze age weapons markings suggest expert combat in ancient times

As a result, some historians speculated that warriors of the era avoided clanging sword against sword to minimize damage, or even that the weapons were more ceremonial than deadly.

“The Bronze Age was the first time people used metal specifically to create weapons they could use against other people; in understanding how they used them, we will understand more about Bronze Age society,” said Andrea Dolfini, a historian at Newcastle University and a co-author of the new paper, in a 2013 statement detailing similar replica weapon testing.

To better interpret the archaeological record of Bronze Age weapons, Hermann and his team commissioned seven bronze swords from a traditional bronzesmith. They then recorded the types of damage inflicted by various sword, shield and spear blows.

Armed with improved knowledge of the marks left by such impacts, the researchers sought to better understand the Bronze Age fighting style that would have produced them.

Recruiting members of a local club dedicated to medieval European combat, the team choreographed realistic sword fighting sequences. This second part of the study revealed the moves that produced particular types of damage on the weapons, as well as where that damage was likely to be reflected on the swords.

Marks left by a medieval German technique called versetzen, or “displacement,” were identical to those found on swords from Bronze Age Europe, according to Science. In this mode of fighting, swordsmen locked blades in an attempt to “control and dominate an opponent’s weapon.”

Bronze Age swords
A sampling of the various types of Bronze Age swords tested Hermann et al. / Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

The researchers used the wear patterns left on the weapons after these experimental fights to interpret more than 2,500 dents and divots found on 110 ancient swords from Italy and Great Britain. The analysis revealed recognizable patterns of wear on swords from the same era and location; these patterns shifted in artifacts that came from other parts of Europe or from a different period within the Bronze Age.

The dings were so consistent among swords from roughly the same time and place that it seems impossible the fighters were just swinging wildly, Hermann tells Science.

“In order to fight the way the marks show,” he adds, “there has to be a lot of training involved.”

These signature patterns of battle damage suggest trained warriors used codified regional fighting styles that were refined over centuries, according to the new research.

The study and its experiments offer an empirical mode of inquiry into a topic once dominated by speculation, Christian Horn, an archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg who was not involved in the research, tells Science.

Molloy echoes Horn’s enthusiasm for the new work: “This is a turning point—it lets us study what kind of actions were avoided and what risks you could take with a bronze sword,” he tells Science. “This shows that yes, they were used, and they were used skillfully.”

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