Scabbards and their construction

The advantages of iron over bronze for swords at the developed level of La Tene technology is self-evident. More surprising, however, is the near-total predominance in the Hungarian and Swiss series of iron for the construction of scabbards. Commentators regularly point to the poor state of preservation as a hindrance to interpreting scabbard ornament, without remarking that iron scabbards must also have been prone to corrosion from the outset. The British scabbards alone are almost invariably of bronze, and even iron components, like chapes, commonly have cast or flashed bronze coating. The blade itself could be ground and polished, but such treatment of the scabbard would soon rub away the decoration. Whether some surface treatment was practised to protect the scabbard can only be guessed. Armourers in La Tene Europe may well have been a distinct caste among metal-smiths, following their own skills and conventions in isolation from other craftsmen.

Scabbards display a high degree of technical accomplishment, and the detail of their construction has long been the basis of archaeological classification. The scabbard case itself is made up of a front plate and a back plate, which can be of beaten bronze or iron, or of leather with bronze and iron attachments to bind the parts together. At its mouth the case may be straight or extended into a campanulate curve to match the shape of the hilt-end of the blade itself, a feature that de Navarro (1972) regarded as indicative of the scabbard's place within a typological development, but which seems in practice rather less definitive than the form of the chape. Generally, though, the campanulate variants may be assigned to the early and middle La Tene phases. A suspension-loop provides the means for attaching a belt, and ornamental chains sometimes embellish the attachments. At the bottom of the scabbard are further reinforcements to prevent the tip of the blade piercing the case. A chape binds the front and back plates of the case together, which itself requires a 'bridge' across the front of the scabbard with flanges or clamps around the back to prevent the chape from prizing apart. All of these elements can be subject to simple ornamentation, like the stylized birds' heads of the Swiss middle La Tene chape-bridges. The chape terminals are one clear indicator of where a sword lies within the sequence. La Tene 1 chapes tend to be of open construction, either annular or cordate, whereas the middle La Tene forms are closed and either V-shaped or U-shaped in outline, but within this simplified rule of thumb there are, not surprisingly, a wide range of variants.

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