The Art Of The Swordsmith

Jacobsthal coined the term 'Sword Style' with particular reference to a series of ornamented scabbards of middle La Tene type from Hungary. In doing so he recognized that this distinctive group was not generated in isolation, either geographically or chronologically; indeed, he memorably declared that 'the style is a development of the Waldalgesheim style and presupposes its existence' (1944, 95). In fact, the Hungarian Sword Style, or more strictly Scabbard Style, has a Waldalgesheim phase, best represented in the Liter scabbard, as well as subsequent Waldalgesheim-derived and later variants. Equally the construction of some of the Hungarian scabbard chapes betrays the influence of earlier La Tene 1 forms of western open-ring chapes. Broadly contemporary with the Hungarian series, Jacobsthal also recognized a Swiss grouping of decorated scabbards, more limited in its ornamental repertory, though displaying distinctive technical traits, so that it would not be unreasonable to speak of 'Scabbard Styles' in the plural as characteristic of the middle La Tene phase of early Celtic art.

Britain and Ireland too have a role in this middle La Tene story, parallel to rather than derivative from the Central European sequence. As in Hungary, the insular sequence of decorated scabbards begins with echoes of the Waldalgesheim Style, notably on the Standlake scabbard, as well as technical features such as open-ring chape-ends which signal their ultimate La Tene 1 origins from the later fourth and early third centuries. The Irish group of scabbards, geographically concentrated around the Bann river in the north and conventionally assigned to a fairly tight if late chronological span, has always been recognized as a distinctive localized tradition, notwithstanding the fact that Piggott (1950) saw them as the product of immigrants from northern England. The decorated British scabbards, on the other hand, seemed too few in number, and too widely separated both geographically and chronologically, to form a coherent group, until more recent discoveries in Yorkshire lent weight to the idea of an insular tradition of decorating scabbards, and raised once again the issue of their relationship with the Irish. One immediate distinction between the British and Irish scabbards and their Continental counterparts is the fact that the insular scabbards bear ornament over their entire surface, in contrast to the restricted panels of ornament that characterize in different ways the Hungarian and Swiss examples. They raise, nevertheless, similar questions regarding their manufacture and decoration, whether by craftsmen working under aristocratic patronage or in local workshops and 'schools'. Regionally distinctive as the ornament may be, there are some pan-European traits, most notably the 'dragon-pair' theme, a motif embellishing the hilt-plate of many swords, widely distributed from Eastern to Western Europe (including Britain, though not Ireland), to which special significance as a cult symbol or warrior emblem has sometimes been attributed.

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