Saw-Toothed Sickles and Bone Anvils: A Medieval Technique from Spain

By Nadal, Montserrat Esteban; Roure, Eudald Carbonell | Antiquity, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Saw-Toothed Sickles and Bone Anvils: A Medieval Technique from Spain

Nadal, Montserrat Esteban, Roure, Eudald Carbonell, Antiquity


Rescue excavations in 1994 in the volta llarga (vault) of the Roman Circus in Tarragona (Figure 1) made contact with medieval deposits interpreted as a belonging to a tip outside the Medieval city walls. Beside pottery, the rich assemblage included bones of horse, cattle, pig and sheep or goat, and over 80kg of iron slag. The dump was in use during the second half of the thirteenth century, possibly corresponding to the reign of Jaume I. Among the animal bones, two metapods of a horse and an ox were noted as being curiously marked (Figures 2, 3). The faces had been whittled down and smoothed and featured rows of triangular-shaped dents. Although metapods of Bos taurus and Equus caballus with the same type of marks and dating between the tenth and eighteenth century had previously been identified at several sites in Spain (Table 1), their use was by no means certain. The first examples to be recovered were described as if they were decorated objects (Julia et al. 1992). Zapacer (1995) and Antonanzas et al. (2000) noted further discoveries, without offering an interpretation, while Zozaya (1995) suggested a military purpose--an archer's wristguard--for an example found in a military context at Alarcos (Cuidad Real). Between 1994 and 1996 rescue excavations in Tarragona city and Amposta yielded worked bones with the same characteristics (J Lopez pers. comm.; Lopez 1994; Montanes & Ramon 1995; Gebelli 1996; Pinol & Tobias 1996).


In an early study, Semenov (1981) examined a group of fifty worked bones that had been scraped with metal instruments, making their cylindrical section square, and the diaphysis surfaces were covered in triangular cuts or lines diagonal to the central axis of the bone. After experimentation, Semenov concluded that the bones must have been used as files, with the lines being filled with quartz sand to file and polish architectural features. This research was used to assist in the interpretation of a number of worked metapods recovered from a metal-working urban context at the site of Al-Basra in Morocco (Benco et al. 2002). The al-Basra bones displayed iron particles and grains of silica in the lines, and were seen as being employed in the metalworking process, possibly for smoothing or burnishing metal.

In our study of the two worked bones from the volta llarga site, we made use of local ethnographic information, and have arrived at a new suggestion: the bones were used as anvils to anchor the blade of a sickle while it was being cut to make a serrated edge. Here we describe the bones and the observations which have led to this deduction.


The first of our specimens, UE 223-1, is a medial-distal fragment of Bos taurus metapod, from an adult animal (Figures 2 & 3). The measurements are: 116mm. long, 65mm. wide and 30mm. thick. The anterior and posterior faces are whittled down to form new flat and concave surfaces, thus transforming the original cylindrical or oval cross section of the bone into a quadrangular one. On the anterior face can be seen nine rows made up of small dents, all of them located in the diaphysis. The length of these rows depended on the number of dents and the separation between them. With the microscope it was observed that in most cases these dents had edges in the form of a scalene triangle. The bottom was a V-section cleft which varied in length (Figure 4). Some of the dents were deep, with clearly defined edges, while others had unclear contours and were shallower. It was also noted that practically the whole bone surface had flat-bottomed or slightly rounded scratches of various lengths, widths and depths running across it from side to side. The posterior face was flat in the diaphysis and concave in the metaphysis. Twenty-seven different rows made by dents similar to those on the anterior face described above were counted. These were distributed all along the diaphysis as far as the nutrient foramen, and were not seen in the concave area of the metaphysis.

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Saw-Toothed Sickles and Bone Anvils: A Medieval Technique from Spain


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