Slashing and Thrusting with Late Bronze Age Spears: Analysis and Experiment

Article excerpt


In the majority of research into the weapons and warfare of British prehistory, the spear--that most ubiquitous of weapons--has frequently been overlooked in favour of the sword. Most people think of a spear as a fairly simple weapon, used either for throwing or thrusting. However, the damage still visible on the edges of Late Bronze Age spears found in northern Britain is very similar to that found on contemporary swords, raising the question of whether spearheads were used in a similar manner, and whether damage patterns could be related to combat styles.

This paper intends to identify the most probable modes of spear use and discuss the implications for armed conflict in the Late Bronze Age of northern Britain. To that end, a total of 222 extant Late Bronze Age spears found in northern Britain (north of the rivers Dee and Humber) were identified, of which 40 per cent were examined for evidence of use.

Late Bronze Age spears

While Late Bronze Age spearheads from Britain as a whole have been examined and classified (e.g. Greenwell & Brewiss 1909; Coles 1960; Bridgford 2000; Davis 2006), little detailed work has been conducted on their use. Most authors implicitly interpret spearheads as thrusting or throwing weapons, depending on morphology, although Laux (1971) explicitly links use to size ratios. However, he provides little explanation or evidence for this reasoning, and does not consider other measurements and ratios that will affect structural integrity and balance, or the possibility of multi-functionality. Hafting arrangements are also potentially relevant to use. Molloy (2006) notes the possibility of hafting spearheads with a shorter shaft, making if possible to use them one-handed in the manner of a Zulu assegai. All the known complete shafts from Late Bronze Age European spears are over 1.43m in length (Hooper & O'Connor 1976), but since only six are recorded this does not preclude shorter examples being utilised.

Examination of ancient spearheads Wear-analysis can indicate modes of use. Bridgford (2000) identified six distinct forms of edge/combat damage on British Late Bronze Age swords, providing a valuable framework to analyse the damage sustained by spearheads. Bridgford herself noted the presence of similar damage on spearheads in her study, but attributed it to occasional, accidental parrying or pre-depositional ritual damage. However, such an explanation seems unlikely given that 31 per cent of the 89 spearheads from northern Britain examined for this paper show such damage, although none of it severe enough to suggest the sort of ritualistic, pre-depositional 'killing' of the weapon that is seen with contemporary swords. The visible traces of edge hammering conducted during manufacture on 58 per cent of the same population suggest that a proportion of the spearheads were being manufactured with the possibility of sustaining edge damage in mind. While those that were never edge-hardened would have been blunter and more prone to damage, if is possible that such examples were not intended for combat use and were either manufactured for decorative or votive purposes, or were hunting weapons, an activity less likely to require edge resilience.

Of the extant Late Bronze Age spearheads found in northern Britain, only 19 per cent show any form of tip damage, the vast majority of these plainly a result of poor casting, corrosion or post-depositional damage. Only 3 per cent of the total dataset appear to show point damage as a result of use. However, 31 per cent exhibited damage patterns on their edges identical to those identified by Bridgford on contemporary swords. In order to assess the implications of these observations a series of experiments was devised.


The first aim of the trials, conducted at Sagnlandet Lejre in Denmark, was to determine whether a series of throwing and thrusting strikes onto leather and metal shields resulted in tip damage. …