A Symbol-But of What? Iron Age Daggers, Alessi Corkscrews and Anthropoid Embellishment Reconsidered

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In 1873, while digging for gravel near his home, a Mr Guyot of Salon, France, discovered a human skeleton and associated burial objects (Morel 1898: 145). Among these artefacts was a dagger with an anthropomorphic hilt (Figures 1 & 2), now in the British Museum's Morel Collection (London, British Museum: Morel Collection ML. 1669; Megaw 1970: no. 228; Stead & Rigby 1999: no. 1669). The dagger is iron, 460mm long including a 345mm- long blade, while the hilt is bronze-coated iron. The hilt, formed from two pieces, is in the shape of a saltire, or X, with each branch of the X terminating in a round knob and forming the limb of a human model. The width across the arms of this anthropoid hilt is 45mm. The human figure's 'head', sunken between the outstretched arms, features eyebrows and oval eyes, a nose, moustache and downturned mouth, a high hairline and a ponytail.

But why was this dagger's hilt shaped like a man and decorated with human features? Current research on this and other anthropoid weapons has not addressed this question, although it is clearly of great consequence to our understanding of La Tene ritual, art, social and military hierarchy and warrior culture. Similar daggers, all dated to the La Tene period--fourth to first centuries BC--have been found as far afield as Hungary and western Ireland: the number of discovered examples is unknown, although estimates have ranged from 40 to 70 (Clarke & Hawkes 1955: 205; Zeller 1980: 119-20; Drilhon & Duval 1985: 308; Pleiner 1993: 49, 69; Fitzpatrick 1996: 376). While scholarship related to these weapons has concentrated almost exclusively on typology, there remains much confusion about their functionality (Clarke & Hawkes 1955; Petres 1979: 176; Drilhon & Duval 1985: 185; Pleiner 1993: 49-51, 166; Megaw 2002: 408-411; Stead 2006: 72).


The idea that such daggers must have been symbols of chiefs or other high ranks and offices is pervasive (Bulard 1980: 49; Pleiner 1993: 49-51; Fitzpatrick 1996: 388; Cunliffe 1997: 233; Megaw 2002: 411) but it fails to consider context and comparanda. Traditionally, false dilemmas have been presented between the functionality of the anthropoid handle--as a religious, symbolic or funerary object--and the functionality of the dagger as a weapon, and between "art for art's sake" (Megaw & Megaw 1995: 345; Cunliffe 1997: 112; see also Aldhouse-Green 2004: xvi, 6) and a meaning related to rank or ritual (cf. Freedberg 1989: xxi-ii).

No ornament is insignificant. Ownership of an object as eye-catching as the Salon dagger, not to mention the ability to create it, surely begets a degree of prestige and respect. At the same time, the social and political functions of the anthropoid decoration are far from explicit. There is nothing to indicate that the weapon was the definite indicator of a certain rank or status (indeed there is evidence to the contrary), just as there is nothing to suggest that the Salon dagger was not a real weapon. In the broader typology of Hallstatt and La Tene weapons, anthropoid examples like the Salon dagger developed from pseudo-anthropoid weapons and antenna-daggers. Context and comparison with other objects--old and new--reveal that it is both a La Tene custom and a human impulse to create such representations on utilitarian objects, especially when those objects already resemble humans or animals. In turn, a reassessment which looks beyond conventional categories (symbol, ornament, talisman, implement) may inform the ways in which anthropoid embellishment more generally is deconstructed and understood.


To argue that anthropomorphic or zoomorphic decoration on functional objects of the La Tene period is more than mere ornament, is to state the obvious (Cunliffe 1997:111-12). The anthropomorphic hilt served some purpose, but to take the Salon dagger as a specific emblem of rank or as a primarily symbolic object is to go a step too far. …