It seems likely that the first weapons were originally intended as domestic tools, and it is easy to imagine those flint knives and axes transitioning to copper and bronze over 8000 years ago: an axe becoming a battle-axe, a knife attached to a wooden shaft becoming a spear, or the lengthened blade of a hand knife becoming a sword...
The Sword was never a crude object. First developed in the Middle Bronze Age around 3500 years ago (simultaneously in Celtic Britain and Minoan Crete), the sword entered the world’s history as an already beautiful weapon.
Middle Bronze Age Rapier.
C. 1500 BCE
Made as a thrusting weapon, the rapier often failed if used to slash as the rivets joining the hilt to the blade were not designed to withstand tangential force. By the later Middle Bronze Age (around 2800-3000 years ago), this flaw was remedied by casting the sword as a single piece of metal – producing the famous ‘Leaf-Bladed’ Bronze Age Swords, and some of the most beautiful weapons ever made.
As can be seen here, these primarily British swords were double-edged, and often included the first pommels (designed
to prevent the sword from slipping out of the hand, and providing a counter-balance to the heavy blades).
Around the same time, but further east in the lands of Persia and Mesopotamia, the sword developed a much more
triangular shaped blade and very short hilt. In fact, the hilt is often so short that it can be gripped by only three
fingers while the index finger and thumb gripped a blunted, thickened section of the blade (termed the ricasso).
Below is an example of this type of weapon.
Middle Bronze Age Persian Short Sword
Whilst the discovery of alloyed copper was a huge leap in mankind’s development, bronze itself is quite a malleable metal. There are surviving accounts of Bronze Age battles in the Middle East where it was noted that a warrior’s sword would often bend after just one or two strikes – the warrior then having to stop fighting and straighten the blade with his foot.
Iron Swords, on the other hand, were lighter, stronger, and maintained a sharp cutting edge for much longer. Of course, bronze swords continued to be produced well into the Iron Age (just as flint arrowheads were much used in the early Bronze Age), however, the technology to smelt and forge iron was jealously guarded for a very long time, such was the tactical advantage it gave to those tribes that were capable of the technology.
The first iron swords were produced around the ninth or tenth century BCE by the warrior people of the Hallstatt culture in Central Europe. This period (which coincided with the appearance of the first Celts in the region) saw the development of swords with long hilts and double-edged blades designed for slashing from chariots. In fact, slashing (rather than thrusting) was so favoured that many swords were produced without sharpened points – their blades ending in triangular, square-cut or fishtail shapes as seen below...
Iron Sword of the Hallstatt Period, 900 BCE
Around the first century AD, the Roman short sword (or Gladius – one of four weapons carried by the Roman legionary, the others being two spears and a dagger) were a uniform 20” straight-bladed thrusting weapon, often hilted in ivory.
The Romans fought in close-packed ranks, so swords were rarely used to slash – they were employed in a rapid-up
thrusting motion to kill the enemy, though the gladius was double-edged and could be used for slashing if fighting in the open.
Roman Gladius. 2nd - 3rd Century AD
The first Bronze Age Swords were thrusting weapons – slim ‘rapiers’ that are often found bent or snapped (as much-prized objects, swords were often ‘sacrificed’ to the ancient
gods, and destroyed or ‘killed’ as votive offerings). The blade and hilt were cast
separately, with the grip of the rapier (perhaps being made of wood or bone)
attached by bronze rivets. An example of this type of weapon is seen
here on the right.
As the Roman Empire began to draw to a close and the great Germanic Migration Period began (around the middle of the fourth century AD) the farmer-warriors of the Saxon, Angle, Jute and Frankish tribes began to settle in Britannia – only to revolt a hundred or so years later and take control of the land.
They brought with them the long, single-handed, wide-bladed and double-edged swords that are familiar to almost everyone with an interest in history. As with many ‘luxuries’ in the Dark Ages, swords had become very rare, possessed only by kings, warrior leaders and their elite personal guard.
Below is an example of an iron Longsword of the Migration Period. Along with the prestige and status derived from owning a sword in these times, they were also considered to be magical or supernatural, and the Germanic settlers typically ornamented the scabbards of their swords with runes, lines and symbols (quite often, the swastika).
The sword, therefore, to our pagan forefathers, represented military power, social status, and a magical talisman linking them directly to their heathen gods.
Ninth Century Saxon Longsword
Neanderthals were constructing stone Spearheads from as early as 300,000 BC, and by circa 200,000 BC onwards, middle Paleolithic humans began to make complex stone blades with flaked edges used as spearheads. These stone heads could be fixed to the spear shaft by gum or resin, or by bindings made of animal sinew, leather strips or vegetable matter.
The use of a spear as a weapon of combat came into prevalence during the Bronze Age (see this blog on Bronze Age spears) and remained as possibly the most important military weapon until the invention of ballistics. The spear was cheap to produce (as it used very little metal in comparison with a sword), and could be used as a close-combat thrusting weapon or thrown as a javelin.
1st Century BCE, Celtic Spearhead
The earliest Iron Age Spearheads were often short and socketed with lanceolate blades and thick, strengthening midribs as seen above. Many of these spears come from pagan burials (as grave goods) or as votive offerings, buried for ritualistic purposes.
The transition from bronze spears to iron in Celtic Britain was almost certainly not due to iron’s superiority over bronze as a metal (in fact, properly cast and work-hardened bronze blades were superior to the early iron blades) — it would require the mastery of quench-hardened and tempered steel manufacture for iron to improve upon bronze.
The transition almost certainly occurred due to the availability of iron ore. Copper (and more importantly, tin) were becoming scarce resources in Britain towards the end of the Bronze Age, and had to be transported long distances. Iron, however, was plentiful in the British Isles, and so the change from Bronze to Iron began.
Following the Roman invasion and occupation of Britain in the first century AD, the British spearhead changed in shape, becoming longer and narrower in profile (often described as ‘willow-leaf’) in order to penetrate Roman plate armour. An example of a willow-leaf Iron Age spearhead can be seen below.
For the Romans, the spear was a weapon of huge importance and constituted one of the three main weapons carried by a Roman legionary. During the Republican period, however, the Romans used a number of different spear types, including a heavy thrusting spear (hasta) and a thin-shanked javelin (pila). The longer of the two, the hasta, was around two and a half meters in length. Roman hasta spearheads were much used in the early days of Rome when the military fought in maniples, and again later (third century AD onwards) with the rise of cavalry and rampaging barbarian horsemen. These spearheads were typically made of iron, but sometimes with a tip of bronze
The second spear, the Pilium, was around two meters long and tipped with a thin, two-foot-long iron shank ending in a pyramidal head. These were throwing spears (javelins)
and were designed to bend on impact — if not hitting flesh, then
sticking in the enemy’s shield and rendering it useless.
1st Century BC Roman Spearhead, possibly from a Hasta spear
The iron spear in the Anglo-Saxon / Viking Period was the weapon of the freeman, and as such provided him with a status symbol, whatever his rank. This, and the pagan practice of burying their dead with weapons, have resulted in a large number of spearheads being discovered and a dizzying array of types and morphology.
However, for simplicity’s sake, spears of this period fall roughly into five types:
Javelins - Light throwing spears with narrow diameter sockets (less than 17mm). They were often carried into battle in pairs or threes, and held in the left hand behind the shield.
Gar or Spere – The most common spear type, which could either be used as a hand-held thrusting weapon, or thrown at close quarters. Socket diameters were around 22mm, and the blades were typically willow-leaf, lanceolate or ‘pinch-bladed’ as in the example shown here.
Long Thrusting Spears – Handheld spears probably developed from the long boar spear, these were also called the ‘aesc’ (pronounced ‘ash’), often associated with a wealthy owner, such as a thegn, eldorman or earl.
Heavy Spears – Similar to the Long Thrusting Spear, but much heavier (weighing over half a kilogram)
Winged Spears – Viking in origin, the wings were welded to the socket ferrule as seen here. The Winged Spears were used in a similar fashion to the Long Thrusting Spear, wielded by noble retainers in the shield wall.
While throwing spears remained in use well into the high medieval period, the spear in general became longer and heavier as military tactics became more defensive following the Norman invasion of 1066. Eventually, spears began to lose fashion among the infantry by the 14th century, being replaced by pole weapons that combined the thrusting properties of the spear with the cutting properties of the axe, such as the halberd.
Where spears were retained, they grew in length, eventually evolving into pikes, which would be a dominant infantry weapon in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Arrow was used as a hunting tool and weapon of war for over 8000 years — in fact, as recently as World War II, bows and arrows were used in Norway to silently dispatch German sentries.
Information on the earliest use of flint and Bronze Age arrows can be found elsewhere in this blog. Here, we’ll take a look at arrowheads used from the Iron Age until the High Medieval period of the post-Norman invasion...
When used as a weapon of war, the range of arrows was truly impressive. A cloth-yard arrow (one of a length of 37 inches as used by the English longbowman ) had a range of close to 300 yards, and when tipped with a bodkin point, could penetrate plate mail a quarter of an inch thick. Egyptian bows could send an arrow with a reed shaft through 1/4 inches of brass, and Chinese arrows could penetrate as many as seven thicknesses of boiled leather used as armour during the period.
With these statistics, it’s no surprise that the bowman featured as the principal tool of warfare for thousands of years
In general terms, arrowheads produced from the Iron Age, throughout the Roman Era, and into the Early and High Medieval periods, fall into four main categories: Barbed and Non-Barbed; Tanged and Socketed.
Barbed and Socketed Medieval Arrowhead
Non-Barbed, Tanged Medieval Arrowhead
Both barbed and non-barbed arrowheads may have either sockets or tangs. As a general rule of thumb, tanged arrowheads were securely fixed to the shaft with resin or twine, and were typically used for hunting (as the hunter would want the arrow to remain in the target), whereas socketed arrows were more often used in warfare, and typically loosely fixed to the shaft, as the archer wanted only the arrowhead to remain in the target (so it couldn’t be removed and shot back). Lastly, socketed arrowheads were more common in England, tanged on the continent.
There are many different types of barbed arrowhead, which were used for both hunting and warfare. However, the long cutting edges produced by the barbs made them ideal hunting arrowheads causing maximum damage to the flesh and preventing the arrow from falling out of the prey.
Heads with particularly long barbs, such as the Devizes Swallowtail seen above, or Large Curved Broad Heads, were typically used to hunt large game such as deer or boar, whereas smaller barbed arrowheads were used in both hunting and warfare..
The sleek Bodkin Point was another commonly used arrowhead during the early to late middle ages. There are several different types of medieval bodkin arrowhead, including the Needle Bodkin (used to penetrate chain mail), the Triangular Bodkin, and the War Bodkin
developed from the Viking diamond-shaped arrowheads and used from around
the ninth or tenth centuries AD.
10th Century Viking Arrowhead
There is no easy way to categorise medieval arrowheads, however, Jessop provides a brief typology which is summarised below:
T = Tanged, MP = Multi-Purpose, M = Military, H = Hunting.
T1. A tanged hunting/warfare arrowhead from the 9th/10th Centuries AD.
T2. A small, leaf-bladed tanged arrowhead, probably military, from 11th-12th Centuries AD.
T3. Developed from the T2 type, this arrowhead has a triangular blade and was used for both hunting and warfare in the 12th and 13th Centuries AD
MP1. Multipurpose socketed arrowhead, often large, with a triangular blade. Primarily used for hunting from 1tth – 15th Centuries AD.
MP2. Similar to M1 but smaller – function unknown. Used from 11th – 14th Centuries AD.
MP3. Very common form with a triangular blade and rounded shoulders, used for hunting and in warfare from the 10th – 16th Centuries AD.
MP4. Found only in the mid-13th Century, a thin-bladed socketed arrowhead of unknown function.
MP5. Used in both warfare and domestically, this arrowhead dates from the 11th Century.
MP6. A mid 12th Century socketed arrowhead with a triangular blade and slight barbs. Probably used for both hunting and warfare.
MP7 Multipurpose hunting and military barbed arrowhead from the 13th Century. The socket and barb lengths can vary greatly.
MP8. A 13th Century hunting arrow similar in shape to MP7.
MP9. Probably a military practice arrowhead, dates from the 12th-15th Centuries.
MP10. Occasionally decorated, another military practice arrowhead , this time dating from the 16th Century.
M1. A 14th Century occasionally barbed warhead effective against early forms of armour and
M2. Similar to M1, but dating from the 15th Century
M3. A late medieval warhead with forward curving wings along its length.
M4. Another warhead, this time dating from the 14th Century. Close fitting barbs and a
M5. Long and narrow armour piecing bodkin of the mid 13th Century.
M6. Similar to M5, but dating from the 11th to 14th Centuries
M7. Very long, thin armour piercing bodkin arrowhead of the 11th – 14th Centuries, typically
found only on castle sites.
M8. Another armour-piercing bodkin arrowhead. The blade may have shoulders, or join the
socket smoothly without shoulders. Dating from 13th – 15th Centuries AD.
M9. A thick, diamond-shaped tapering blade and wide socket produces an archetypal style of arrowhead from the 13th – 15th Centuries.
M10. A short, thin-bladed armour piecing arrowhead of the mid 12th – 15th Centuries.
H1. A hunting arrow known as a ‘Forker’. The forward facing barbs of this arrowhead may have prevented it from
skipping off the plumage of game birds, although their exact function is unknown. Late 13th Century.
H2.Similar to H1, but later, dating from the 14th Century AD.
H3. A mid-13th Century broad Head arrowhead with extended barbs used to produce the
maximum amount of damage to flesh. There is a huge range of broad head arrowheads, however,
they fall roughly into two categories: Arrowheads such as this with a flat, diamond cross-section, and
the arrowhead pictured in H4 with a central socketed spine.
H4. As H3, but later, dating from the 14th Century.
H5. These hunting arrowheads are only known from manuscript illustrations;
none have ever been found. However, it is surmised that they were used to
stun fowl which would be picked up by waiting hounds. 12th – 13th Centuries.
The WAR Axe
It is likely that the domestic axe was employed as a weapon from the time of its first appearance in the Stone Age and throughout the following Bronze and Iron Ages. However, the axe truly came into its own as a weapon of war during the medieval period.
Some of the earliest combat axes were developed by the Franks (and other Teutonic tribes) around the 4th and 5th centuries AD. These early Frankish axes were termed francisca, and were used to devastating effect as throwing weapons, much like the Roman Pila spear. The Byzantine historian Procopius (c. 500–565) described the Franks and their use of throwing axes:
“...each man carried a sword and shield and an axe. Now
the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly
sharp on both sides while the wooden handle was very
short. And they are accustomed always to throw these
axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the
shields of the enemy and kill the men.”
Procopius makes it clear that the Franks threw their axes immediately before hand-to-hand combat with the purpose of breaking shields and disrupting the enemy line while possibly wounding or killing an enemy warrior. The weight of the head and length of the haft would allow the axe to be thrown with considerable momentum to an effective range of about 12 m (40 ft). Even if the edge of the blade were not to strike the target, the weight of the iron head could cause injury. The francisca also had a psychological effect, in that, on the throwing of the francisca, the enemy might turn and run in the fear that another volley was coming.
4th Century Francisca Throwing Axe
By the 8th and 9th centuries, the axe as a weapon became a favourite of the Scandinavian tribes. There are many types of Viking war axe, ranging from the single-handed bearded axe (probably derived from the earlier Frankish throwing axe), to the massive two-handed battle axes which would have been mounted on five feet long hafts –sometimes called the ‘Dane Axe’.
Ninth Century Bearded Axe. The similarity to the Francisca is striking.
The Bearded Axe (or ‘Skeggöx’) had an extended blade, which produced a much longer cutting edge while keeping the weight of the axe to a minimum. They were typically formed from wrought iron with a sharpened edge made from steel, and worn at the belt. Carrying an axe was as common to a Norseman as it was for anyone else in the world carrying a knife at the time. It was part of their culture and a quality axe was often a symbol of status.
And lastly - described as ‘the terror weapon of the eleventh century’, the Viking ‘Dane Axe’ was capable of cleaving through plate armour and chain mail alike. Surprisingly thin-bladed, the heads combined strength, balance, pronounced cutting edges and unexpected lightness.
A two handed Viking Battle Axe. This type of axe was used to slay Earl Tostig at the battle of Stamford Bridge ‘splitting his helmet and skull to the shoulder-blade’.
Timeless Galleries are indebted to the following authors for much of the information on this blog:
Logan Thompson (Ancient Weapons in Britain), R. Ewart Oakshott (The Archaeology of Weapons), Dan Howard (Bronze Age Military Equipment), P. R. S Moorey (Ancient Bronzes from Luristan)
Francois Bordes (The Old Stone Age), Charles Ede (Collecting Antiquities), Richard Hattatt (Brooches from Antiquity; Iron Age and Roman Brooches), Miranda J. Green (Celtic World)
Oliver Jessop (A New Artefact Typology for the Study of Medieval Arrowheads), Hazel Martingell (The Illustration of Lithic Artefacts)