A Weapon of Choice-Experiments with a Replica Irish Early Bronze Age Halberd

Article excerpt


The halberd, so often presented as mysterious and enigmatic, is in fact a reasonably common artefact of the Early Bronze Age in Europe. Just over 600 examples are known, with significant concentrations in Ireland, Central Europe and Iberia, and with the majority dating to the period between 2300 BC and 1900 BC (O'Flaherty 2002; Schumacher 2002; Brandherm 2003; 2004).

Archaeologists have tended to regard halberds as non-utilitarian, in the case of the Irish examples pointing to a perceived weakness in the hafting technique, as well as a presumed clumsiness in the hand (O Riordain 1937: 241; Macalister 1949: 132-34; Herity & Eogan 1977: 137; O'Kelly 1989: 164-65; Mallory & McNeill 1991: 102; Wadddl 1991: 70; 1998: 129-31). In order to test this assumption, it was decided to design and construct a replica halberd and test its effectiveness in a practical trial.

This paper is divided in two parts. The first part describes the results of the trials, while in the second part the nature of combat in the Early Bronze Age and the role of the halberd are reconsidered.

Making and using a replica halberd

A full account of the design and construction of the replica is published elsewhere (O'Flaherty et al. 2002). However, for the purposes of this paper, suffice it to say that the blade is a Cotton type (Harbison 1969: 41-5), which is the most common Irish type. It is not a direct copy of any particular blade, but instead its dimensions have been created from a careful analysis, in the hand, of some 69 Cotton type halberds, or about 74 per cent of the total known population. It is cast from arsenical copper, the usual metal of the Irish halberds. The shaft is of oak, as was that found with the halberd from Carn, Co. Mayo, the only hafted example to survive intact (Raftery 1942). One other halberd, from Almamacken, Co. Armagh was hafted when found, but the shaft disintegrated on recovery (Flanagan 1966).

The proportions of the haft-head are based on careful measurements of rivets surviving in situ on Irish halberds, while the dimensions of the shaft are based on assumptions drawn from a combination of sources, including the Carn halberd, rock-art depictions and the metal-shafted halberds of Central Europe. Again, for more details see O'Flaherty et al. 2002.

The dimensions of the finished replica (Figure 1) are as follows:

* Shaft length: 1220mm

* Shaft thickness: 24mm

* Shaft width: 33mm

* Shaft head: 14mm top, narrowing to 6mm at back.

* Length of blade: 250mm

* Thickness of blade: 9mm

* Rivet lengths: uppermost--20mm, central--22mm, lowermost--22mm

* Rivet head diameters: 11.5-12mm

* Total weight: 1.5kg


There is evidence that some Bronze Age halberds from Ireland, at least, received post-casting treatment in the form of annealing, cold-hammering and sharpening (Allen et al. 1970: 106-14). However, to avoid argument about the appropriate level of post-casting treatment and its implications for the performance of the blade during trials, no such treatment was applied to the replica blade. Furthermore (though in this case unintentionally) the replica blade has an arsenic content of just 0.2 per cent, resulting in a softer metal than that used in the prehistoric blades. In the circumstances, we can only conclude that however well the replica performed under trial, an actual Bronze Age halberd would have performed better.

Practical trial

For a variety of reasons, which are discussed later, the Irish halberd seems best designed for impact on bone rather than muscle. To be fatal, the target would most likely be the skull, although other areas of the body (notably the rib-cage) would also be likely candidates. Brandherm (2003) suggests that the throat may also have been a target. In the event, it was decided to test the effectiveness of the halberd against the mass of bone in the skull using sheep-heads, which provide the nearest readily available equivalent to a human skull (Figure 2). …