Sword Structure in the British Isles in the Bronze and Iron Ages

by Niko Silvester



In many previous studies of swords in the Bronze and Iron Ages, typology and sequences have been the main focus. I wish, instead, to examine the changing physical structure of these weapons, primarily in the British Isles. My main focus will be how the structure of swords changed and developed in relation to fighting style, technology, available materials, and outside influences. I have divided the Bronze and Iron Ages up into convenient and, I hope, logical periods. In each period I will first look at how swords developed in Europe in general, how they were used, and finally, how these things apply to Britain.

Due to the vast number of things I could include [how I would love to synthesize all the previous work into one vast History of the Sword], and due to the small size of this paper, my treatment of many aspects will be superficial. I have tended to focus, in each section, on those things for which I was able to obtain the most information, while attempting to keep the discussion balanced.

I have chosen to dispense with typological names almost entirely. My first reason for this is that there are several different typologies or sequences for each period, and these would quickly become confusing in a short paper. My second, and main, reason for dispensing with typology is that I wanted to look at major trends over fairly long periods of time, and not get caught up in the minor differences on which most typologies are based. That is not to say that we should forever get rid of typology and classification, however, as they have certainly provided a lot of useful information.

Another source of confusion is that the different periods of time I have used begin and end in different years, depending on location, and also on an author's opinion. For broad time periods, I have used the dates given in Adkins & Adkins' Handbook of British Archaeology. As for finer divisions, I have opted not to use dates, but instead refer to 'Early', 'Middle' and 'Late', or 'Earlier' and 'Later' as general categories. I believe this is more useful in this instance, as I am looking at generalizations, and not at specifics.



It can be said that the development of the sword in Europe actually began much earlier than the Bronze Age, if we accept the premise that it arose from earlier dagger and knife forms [in fact, if we really wanted to, we could trace it's heritage right back to the earliest tools of humankind]. However, my purpose here is to look at the swords themselves, so my discussion of how they came to be will be brief.

It seems to be the general concensus, and it is a logical one, that the sword, in the form of the 'rapier' [a confusing term, since the Bronze Age rapier is nothing at all like the much later sword, such as the lovely 'swept hilt rapier' of the sixteenth century, except that they are both thrusting weapons] developed out of the dagger. This occurred when a better material than pure copper, namely bronze, came into use, and the length of such weapons could be increased. Thus, it can be said that the rapier evolved "by lengthening the dagger little by little, keeping step with the ever-growing command of metal and the ability to make longer castings..." [P. Brewis; quoted in Trump 1962: 80]. This is illustrated by the fact that typologies and classifications of rapiers, dirks [basically long daggers], and daggers attempt to distinguish these forms form each other on the basis of length. The development of rapiers can also be connected to a cultural process, as well as a technological one. This was a change in the style of warfare, where longer blades were favoured for their effectiveness [Piggot 1965:145].

The divisions of Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age have generally been replaced by a two-fold division of Earlier and Later Bronze Age, but I have chosen to retain the former division as many of the older sources use it. Also, it is handy because the first rapiers in Britain date to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and the development of true hilted swords there begins around the end of the Middle and beginning of the Late Bronze Age [rather roughly]. To this I have added Ewart Oakeshott's three-fold division of sword development: early, middle, and late bronze swords. These are divisions which do not neatly match either system for dividing up the Bronze Age [especially as different people use somewhat different dates for each division] but they do clearly illustrate the development of Bronze Age swords. As a result, I have am using the following divisions:


Middle Bronze Age [1400-1000 B.C.]
early bronze swords
Late Bronze Age [1000-700 B.C.]
middle bronze swords
late bronze swords


THE MIDDLE BRONZE AGE ca. 1400-1000 B.C.

The earliest swords in Europe, and in Britain also, are what prehistorians refer to as 'rapiers' [I have mentioned the failings of this term, and if I had any authority to do so, I would suggest using the alternate term 'tangless swords', which, while it is clumsier, is much clearer]. These swords were, to give a general description, double edged blades that were thicker in the middle than at the edges, and had a 'hilt plate' or wide, flat area to which a hilt could be attached by rivets. Many of them had a rib or ridge down the middle of the blade to lend strength, and some forms had three or more such ribs [called 'arrises' by some authors]. In general, the earlier forms are shorter, lending some credence to the idea that rapiers evolved directly out of daggers by a process of ever-increasing length.

In Britain, it does not seem that rapiers developed out of the local dagger forms as "comparison of the Wessex and Food-vessel cultures with the daggers and dirks of the early part of the Middle Bronze Age reveals so great a difference between them that the latter cannot be considered to have evolved from the former" [Trump 1962:80]. Rather, contact between Britain and the continent "resulted in the import of weapons which were responsible for starting the series of British dirks and rapiers" [Ibid.]. There are various detailed typologies and classifications of Bronze Age weapons, but I will not go into them here, as most of the changes are related to the shape of the 'shoulders' and other stylistic differences with little technological advance.


Middle Bronze Age- Early Bronze Swords (Rapiers)

Rapiers were used as thrusting or stabbing weapons, which may seem odd, as thrusting swordplay requires considerable skill, while slashing is an easier and more natural style of warfare [Oakeshott 1960:34]. However, the use of this kind of sword as a thrusting weapon is "a result of its weakness and inadequacy, not a manifestation of skilful swordsmanship" [Ibid.]. The argument for this is that the hilts of rapiers were attached to the flat shoulder of the sword by rivets. This meant that the sword could only effectively be used for stabbing for "if lateral strains were put upon them there was little to prevent the rivets pulling sideways through the thin bronze" [Ibid.:26]. It is apparent that sometimes this is exactly what happened, as numerous [Oakeshott says half] of the rapiers found have rivet holes which have torn or broken.

The next logical step was the development of a more effective way of attaching the hilt. In the Early Bronze Age, this is perhaps illustrated by the changing form of the 'shoulders' of rapiers, and the changes in number and placement of rivet holes. There are even a few rare examples where the sword had a rod-like tang cast in one piece with the blade, a practice which was not widely in use until rapiers were replaced by swords, and which was perfected in the Iron Age [Ibid.].


LATE BRONZE AGE ca. 1000-700 B.C.

On the continent, hilted swords were already well developed by the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Some of these 'flange-hilted' swords have been found in Britain dating from about that time. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, and throughout this period, continental sword forms began to influence British sword making. Continental sword forms "were imported from central and western Europe, from which local swords developed" [Adkins & Adkins 1983:55]. These swords had tangs over which bone or wood plates could be fitted to form a hilt. The blades were leaf-shaped, and flat or lozenge shaped in cross-section. Most changes in these swords were in the forms of the hilts, and the shapes of the 'shoulders', so "as no major technical advance in the construction of flange-hilted bronze swords took place during the life-time of the leaf-shaped blade, changes in type can only be due to changes in fashion" [Cowen 1951:195].


Late Bronze Age- Middle Bronze Swords

The new type of sword was accompanied by "new combat methods implied by the form of the novel leaf-shaped blades" [Brown 1982:4]. These swords could be used either as thrusting weapons, or as slashing weapons as "the point is long and acute enough to be deadly in thrusting while the blade's thickness and the curve of its edge comes in exactly the right place for cutting; the reverse curve, where the edge sweeps towards the hilt, is ideally placed for making a back-handed slash" [Oakeshott: 1960:27]. Thus, this change from rapier to sword reflects a technological adaptation to make sword fighting easier, and the weapon more effective. It is understandable, then, that "the rapid adoption of the sword... does seem to have speedily reduced the role of stabbing weapons to ancillary side arms..." [Needham 1990:251].



Leaf-bladed cut-and-thrust swords were used all over Europe up to about 900 B.C. or later until "the thrust is almost unused and swords are made just for cutting" [Oakeshott 1960:31], an innovation that occurred near the end of the Bronze Age. These swords include Hallstatt swords which I will further discuss in the Iron Age section, as it was in the early part of this culture that iron came into use. Although many Hallstatt swords continued to be made of bronze, these swords really belong to the early Iron Age.

The late bronze swords were generally flatter in cross-section than the earlier ones, and had blunter, rounded points which would be quite unsuitable for thrusting, but would be very effective when used for slashing. Another kind of sword found at this time, while it is very rare [only three complete ones have been found], further illustrates the emphasis on slashing. These swords are single-edged, with the point curving completely around to the back of the blade, making it impossible to use in a stabbing fashion. So far this type of sword has only been found in Denmark, and so does not really effect the British sequence, but it makes an interesting example [see Oakeshott 1960: 36 for an illustration].



In this paper I am only going to look at the Iron Age up to, and including, the Vikings. While the later Medieval period provides a fascinating array of sword types, it would require a far longer paper than this to do it any justice, and I don't want to make this study any more superficial than it already is. Thus, the section of the Iron Age I will be examining shows less variation in the appearance of swords, and seems to focus more on a steady improvement in materials and manufacturing. For convenience, I have divided this period up into the Celtic Iron Age, including Hallstatt and La Tene Swords, the Romano-British Iron Age [a brief transitional section], and the Anglo-Saxon Iron Age, which includes the Vikings, although I have not discussed Viking swords separately, as they were very similar to the Saxon type.



The part of the Hallstatt Culture we are concerned with in the development of swords in the British Isles is Hallstatt C [Ha. C]. The Hallstatt Culture was characterized by two sword types. The longer type was made of both bronze and iron, while the shorter sword was usually iron [Cowen 1967:380]. The one which concerns us in this paper is the shorter type, which had a tang with a "pommel- piece" for the attachment of a pommel. The blade was leaf-shaped, narrow, and actually relatively long, despite being referred to as a short sword. The edges are outlined by a rib or ribs which fade into a ledge near the point. The only real variation in these swords was in the "pommel-piece", variation which seems to be related more to geography than to chronological or technological development [Ibid.:401].

Swords of this type have been found in the British Isles, where they influenced the development of local swords. These swords had their own regional variation in the shape of the pommel-piece, consisting of a notch in the upper edge, and sometimes hooked sides [Ibid.: 401]. The typical edge-beading of Hallstatt swords was adopted in local forms, especially those in Ireland, where "the blades are defined by grooves or ridges..." [Raftery 1994:29].

These swords carried on the emphasis on slashing which had begun to develop at the end of the Late Bronze Age. They were designed for "the power to deliver the slashing blow (heavy blades, thick necks), with no attempt to preserve the power of thrusting (blunt, triangular points)" [Cowen 1967: 416]. Native British swords tended to follow the same pattern, although some types kept the indigenous blade form, which might conceivably have also been used for thrusting, though even these would have been more effective for slashing. It is suggested by several authors that the longer Hallstatt swords were used for fighting from chariots, or from horseback, where the greater length would have enabled the warriors to reach their foes. At any rate, it is obvious that these swords were not used for thrusting, and this is "emphasized in many cases by the point not being a point at all, for it is either of a rounded spatulate form, or cut off practically square, or drawn out into a sort of fish-tail" [Oakeshott 1960:40].


Late Bronze Age- Late Bronze Swords
Celtic Iron Age- Hallstatt Swords

Hallstatt-derived swords are also found in Ireland, where they tend to be quite a bit shorter than the Continental types. These were produced at the same time as locally-derived types, and seem to show little blending with them. One explanation for this is that they might have had different functions, and that "the distinction might simply be that the Hallstatt weapons were for cavalry warfare whereas the Class 4 swords were used by infantry" [Oakeshott 1960:30].



Iron swords of the Early Iron Age had one of two structural types. One type consisted of swords with edges hardened by cold hammering, and the other type was swords with a 'piled' structure, "consisting of laminations of slightly varying carbon content" [Tylecote 1962:211]. The second type is the direct precursor of the beautiful 'pattern welded' swords which will be discussed further on. Swords of the La Tene period were often made by this 'piled' method. The use of this complex method of forging arose from the difficulty of getting carbon into the iron in order to make steel [that steel was used is known from the analysis of contemporary chariot tyres]. This method, and the later one of pattern-welding, results in "a mixture of high and low carbon steel to give good flexibility and reasonable strength" [Ibid.:250].

The La Tene period actually lasted between ca. 500 and 0 B.C., and is divided into three phases, but its influence doesn't really show up in the British Isles [at least as it relates to swords] until somewhat later [around 150 B.C.]. In Britain similar swords developed from the Continental La Tene II style into a "recognisably insular product" [Piggot 1950:24]. The La Tene sword was long with straight, nearly parallel edges that tapered to a rounded point. They are considered to be "the true ancestor of the knightly weapon of the Middle Ages" [Oakeshott 1960:53]. The shape of these swords is quite different form those that preceded it. In fact, they "seem to have little connection with the bronze ones, for their outline was quite different" [Ibid.]. One reason for this may be that the earlier Hallstatt swords, though many were iron, were still being made in bronze, and thus followed the constraints of that material. With iron, however, it is possible to make a long, thin, flat blade without the same need for thickening to strengthen it [Ibid.:54], although a midrib was "often present on swords of Early La Tene character" [de Navarro 1977:131], perhaps as a carry-over from the preceeding type.


Celtic Iron Age- La Tene Swords

The La Tene swords of Britain were generally thinner than the Continental ones, and those of Ireland are quite short. "This is in sharp contrast with the long swords used by Celtic peoples abroad, and clearly indicates the local character of the Irish weapons" [Raftery 1994:141-2]. The Irish swords more clearly illustrate the development from Hallstatt types, as the earlier ones are leaf-shaped. They then became triangular, and then parallel sided [Ibid.:142].

The style of fighting in which these swords were used is not entirely agreed upon. On the Continent, chariot fighting was very important, so it makes sense to suggest that the very long style of sword in use there enabled a warrior to reach his foe. As in a chariot it "is difficult to do anything with a sword except to slash at your opponent" [Oakeshott 1960:53], it is probably safe to assume that this was how these swords were used. The fact that La Tene blades have a rounded point supports this view. However, regarding the earlier blades, many have midribs and "normally tapered to a sharp point" [de Navarro 1977:131], and may have been used "primarily as thrusting weapons" [Ibid.]. The swords of the British Isles, with their thinner blades and decreased length, may have been primarily infantry weapons, as the smaller size would be of some advantage in close combat.



Although a great deal could be said about Roman metallurgy and the development of Roman weapons, my description here will be brief. The Romans were only in the British Isles for a relatively short period of time, so the influence of their weapons was not great. However, there are some important factors to look at, and some Roman weapons have been found in Britain, left behind by the foreign occupants.

The two main sword weapons of Imperial Rome were the 'spatha' and the 'glaudius'. The glaudius is perhaps the most well known of the two. It was a short sword, with "a double edge and a sharp, strong point" [Weland 1991:34]. It was wide-bladed, and primarily used as a stabbing weapon. This was "the standard infantry weapon of the Roman legions" [Ibid.]. The spatha, on the other hand was a "single-edged weapon... which was longer and was used in the right hand, complemented by the short sword carried in the left hand" [Wilkinson-Latham 1972:8]. This longer swords were usually carried by auxiliary troops [Adkins &Adkins 1983:123], and are a likely ancestor, or at least an influence, on the Anglo-Saxon single-edged long sword [sax], which was sometimes referred to by the same name.


Roman Gladius

One important effect that Roman occupation had on local armourers was the removal of their patrons when indigenous Celtic tribal aristocracy was depressed and placed under Roman rule. The weapon-smiths would not have been totally out of work, however, as "the absorption of sword-smiths into Imperial workshops for the manufacture of auxiliaries' weapons is to be expected" [Piggot 1950:20].

Roman swords were usually made by the process known as pattern welding, a method which was continued into later Saxon times. This was a process of adding layers of soft iron to a medium carbon steel core, welding on twisted carburised strips of iron onto either side, and then welding medium carbon steel cutting edges to the narrow sides [Tylecote 1962:250]. The result was not only a stronger blade, but a very attractive one, and twisting the strips in different ways resulted in different patterns [Ibid.]. Despite its attractive result, pattern welding is primarily a "by-product of the method of manufacture and not an intended effect, although the effect would be of some use in giving the visual proof of the quality of the weapon" [Ibid.].



In Anglo-Saxon England swords are found only in the graves of chieftains [or in rivers]. Almost all swords dating between 400 and 700 have gold covered hilts, and many have gems set into them, showing their importance in status and prestige. However, "rich jewellers' work though these hilts were, the swords' real value lay in their blades, which were by their nature beautiful and, by all accounts, most efficient too" [Oakeshott 1960:92]. The beauty of the blades came from the pattern-welding technique by which they had been made, which had "got well into its stride and has been widely adopted" [Tylecote 1962:274].

The form of the Saxon swords was of two-edged, flat blades, with a flat tang. Early swords "have no cross-guards and merely consist of pommel, grip, and blade" [Wilkinson-Latham 1972:11]. The cutting edges of these early swords was "usually made of more than one strip" of metal welded on [Tylecote & Gilmour 1986:245]. Most early swords were pattern welded, although some were still made by the piled or layered method. Beginning in the Middle Saxon period, most swords had a fuller [channel] down the length of each face of the blade, and many had two, three, or even four. Almost all swords of this time were pattern-welded, but there was "a much higher standard of manufacture for (what seem now) outwardly similar blades" [Ibid.:247] than was seen in the earlier swords. The blade "tapered very slightly to a more or less spatulate point" [Oakeshott 1960:97]. Hilts, and particularly pommels, varied greatly, and have been used to seriate and classify Saxon swords, but this is of little concern to us here, as they were more a matter of style than of function or technology. For the first time, blades often had a maker's name or mark.


Anglo-Saxon and Viking Swords
typical sword- left; langsax- middle; ring-sword hilt- right

The fuller has often been called a "blood groove" or "blood channel", and was believed to allow the blood of somebody stabbed with it to flow out more readily and thus kill the victim more quickly. I have also seen it quite certainly stated that the actual function of the fuller was to break the suction on your sword after you have stabbed someone without you having to twist the blade [this was in a Chinese martial arts book which I was, unfortunately, unable to find again when I decided to write this paper]. Never having stabbed someone, I have no idea if either of these claims are true. However, many of the blades which have fullers are primarily slashing weapons, so neither of the above ideas seems to make much sense. The best suggestion I have thus far read, and the one which I heartily support, is that the fuller was a means to lighten the blade without losing any of its structural strength, following the same principle of the modern I-beam. In other words: "Its purpose is to strengthen and lighten the blade and has nothing at all to do with blood" [Oakeshott 1960:98], and it functions "to give deeper backing to the edges without extra weight or decrease in flexibility" [Davidson 1962:39].

One type of sword, called a 'ring-sword', which dated to the sixth century, had a ring-shaped attachment in the pommel. In England this usually consisted of a loose ring set into a loop on the pommel, immediately above the upper guard, while Continental types were more elaborate [Ibid.:115]. One possible explanation for this is that two items used for swearing oaths on, the ring and the sword, were combined, and the ring attached to the pommel was for oath-taking [Oakeshott 1960:115 and Davidson 1962:77]. Another possibility is the 'fridbond' or 'peace-strings' mentioned in the sagas. It is speculated that the ring was used for tying the sword into the scabbard so that it could not be hastily or rashly drawn [Ibid.]. Another possibility is that the ring was put on the hilt to commemorate it as a gift, but there is no confirmation of this idea in the literature of the period [Davidson 1962:75]. At any rate "allusions to ringed swords in the literature are few and rather vague, but they confirm the suggestion that such swords were of special value" [Ibid.].

Another kind of sword, perhaps better described as a long knife, was the scramasax [also called sax, or seax]. The term 'scramasax' has generally been used to refer to the whole class of single-edged swords, but these can actually be divided up into "sax (short sword), langsax (one-edged long sword), and scramasax (dagger)" [Davidson 1962:40]. This was a single-edged weapon which "seems to have descended directly from the Greek Kopis", a similarly shaped weapon [Ibid.:117]. They had broad, often curved blades with acute points, and varied considerably in length. The hilt was basically a horn or wood covered extension of the blade. It was originally believed that these swords were not pattern welded [see Tylecote 1962:276], but recent work has shown that to be false [Tylecote & Gilmour 1986]. Scramasaxes were "usually decorated by pattern welding..." [Ibid.:123] which was generally in a lengthwise strip near the back of the blade. Unlike in sword manufacture, pattern welding seems to have been done more for decoration, as most of the blade consisted of an iron core with a steel "jacket" around the entire surface, or with only a steel edge [Ibid.:243]. This type of sword "remained almost unchanged until the end of the Viking period, and survived throughout the Middle Ages as the falchion, and on into modern times under the guise of the sabre" [Oakeshott 1960:59].

Later in the Saxon period, by around the ninth century, pattern-welding was used less and less for swords "probably because better ores were obtainable" [Davidson 1962:32]. However, pattern-welding "continued to be used in scramasaxes or knives for longer" [Tylecote & Gilmour 1986:247]. Because of the availability of better ores, late Saxon blades are often 'plain' [as opposed to pattern-welded; they were often inscribed or inlaid]. These swords were made by a variety of methods, including a 'piled' technique, and one with welded-on edges [Ibid.:247-8]. This change in forging methods was accompanied by a change in shape. Many swords had blades that tapered from hilt to point instead of being parallel for most of their length. They were also better balanced, with the weight closer to the hilt [Davidson 1962:39]. These swords, as those before them, were primarily used as cutting weapons, although they could also have been used for thrusting [Ibid.:39 & 196].



I think that this brief survey of the development of the sword during the Bronze Age and Iron Age in Britain has illustrated several points. One is that there was a continual striving to make a better, more efficient weapon, whether this was a sword that was easier to use, or one that was made out of better material or by better manufacturing methods. There was a trend away from purely thrusting weapons, to cut-and-thrust swords, and to swords used mainly for slashing. It seems that at most times the sword was a prestige weapon, and this is most clearly illustrated during Anglo-Saxon times.

Reading back over this paper, I realize how much I have had to leave out. Even in the periods I have covered here, there is a wealth more information about casting and forging, social contexts, and all sorts of other interesting topics. I wish I had had time and room enough to discuss all of the fascinating things I found during my research. I'd like to believe I have at least made a good start.


Copyright © 1995 by Niko Silvester. Feel free to make a copy for personal use.