The British sword series

After an absence in the late Hallstatt (Ha D) phase, the long sword in Britain makes a delayed reappearance in La Tene 1, but throughout the fifth century and into the fourth the short dagger of late Hallstatt derivation remains a principal weapon type. Jope (1961b) effectively demonstrated that these were insular products, distinguished from their Continental counterparts by the technicalities of their twin-loop suspension and open-ring chape construction. Among early fourth-century examples, the Minster Ditch scabbard (Harding, 1972, Pl. 79A) indicates that its maker was aware of Continental fashions. Its chape proclaims insular manufacture, but the belt-attachment was plainly intended to emulate the Continental suspension-plate system. But instead of using a separate plate, the insular technician simply cut parallel openings in the back-plate, prising up the metal to take the belt, and adding skeuomorphic bosses to simulate rivets above and below. Not surprisingly, the plate snapped under pressure of use. As to ornament, the front-plate is embellished with a series of simple, geometric designs, achieved by the use of compasses; the back-plate is dominated by a compass-aided serpentine design.

For the most part, then, ornament on the insular early La Tene scabbards is simple and geometric. Minster Ditch uses conjoined, compass-drawn arcs; another scabbard from Hammersmith employs a border of intersecting arcs, with stippled infilling, in a

Wetwang Tene
Figure 5.7 Scabbards from eastern England. 1, Sutton Reach, Lincolnshire; 2 and 3, Wetwang Slack, Yorkshire; 4, Kirkburn, Yorkshire; 5, Bugthorpe, Yorkshire. Adapted from Stead (2006).
Swiss National Museumzurich
Figure 5.8 'Chagrinage'. A: Obermenzingen, Munich. Photo: Archäologische Staatssammlung, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Munich. B: Basadingen, Thurgau. Photo: Swiss National Museum, Zurich, A-3262/10370 Neg. no. P-15226.

manner exactly matched on a scabbard from Bussy-le-Chateau in the Marne, or on the Zelkovice bronze disc from western Bohemia. The same motif in pottery is exemplified on the Linsenflasche from Dürrnberg-bei-Hallein, among many other examples of Schwappach's eastern 'arc-and-circle' style (Schwappach, 1973; 1976). The decorative motifs themselves were doubtless the product of simple experimentation with the use of compasses, so that too much significance should not be placed upon the widespread recurrence of such designs.

Among the earliest scabbards in the British series must be the Wisbech fragment (Jope, 2000, Pl. 28a, b; Pl. 29a: Stead, 2006, Fig. 48), ornamented rather crudely with stacked lyres in a manner immediately reminiscent of the transition from Early Style to Premier Style Continu of the Champagne region. Wisbech certainly renders the lyre-palmette motif in a more sinuous and less 'strict' treatment than classic Early Style models, with the S-scrolls becoming swelling leaves, notwithstanding the uncertain freehand execution. The curvilinear design nevertheless overlaps the border of hatched triangles and we may therefore be dealing with a composite piece. Without the benefit of diagnostic features such as its chape, dating of the Wisbech scabbard could span from late fifth to fourth centuries rather than much later.

Rather more complex is the composite sword and scabbard fragments from the Thames at Standlake in Oxfordshire (Figure 4.10, 5). The iron sword, among the earliest long La Tène swords in Britain, survives intact, but its scabbard, presumably of leather, has been lost, with the exception of a small bronze plate that ornamented its mouth, and the iron chape with its iron and bronze attachments. The chape itself is of La Tène 1 open-ring form, its terminal made up of four leaf-shaped elements. Above it, iron side-bindings enclosing a decorated bronze plate are held together at their upper ends by an iron cross-bridge of double hour-glass form with engraved line, arguably modelled on the bird-bridges of Swiss middle La Tène scabbards. This has been taken as the decisive indicator of date, demanding a late third-century dating at earliest. On the other hand, the ornament, as we have seen, is quite close to the Continental Waldalgesheim style, and could have originated rather earlier. The ornament of the base plate is very worn, and in fact runs under, and is partly obscured by the side-binding. We are therefore dealing with a composite piece, in which the binding and cross-bridge of the scabbard could well have been repaired late in the sword's life.

Among notable finds of the past thirty years are a series of weapons from cemeteries of the Arras culture group in eastern Yorkshire, notably the decorated scabbards from Wetwang Slack (1 and 3) and Kirkburn (Figure 5.7). Hardly 'long' in Continental middle or late La Tène terms, they are nevertheless well within the range of earlier La Tène swords. Stead (1991a, 183) recognized that open-ring chapes, and the absence from the burials at Garton Station, Wetwang Slack and Kirkburn of La Tène 2 brooches, suggested a dating no later than the third century bc, and he tentatively looked to the inception of the Yorkshire Scabbard Style not too far removed from the currency of the Besançon flagon in the middle of the fourth. The evidence of insular La Tène art is inherently stacked in favour of late dating. The lack of reliable contexts for an early horizon, uncertainties of radiocarbon calibration for that period, the longevity of some stylistic techniques like background hatching, the fact that prized pieces were treasured and repaired over many generations, and deposited long after their construction and initial currency, all militate against a precocious chronology. Cumulatively, nevertheless, the evidence favours earlier beginnings than Fox, Piggott or Jope imagined, with consequences for our assessment of the relationship between insular, British and Irish, and Continental early La Tène art.

The recurrent theme of the Yorkshire scabbards, as Stead observed, is the classical wave tendril, exemplified by Wetwang 1. Here the scroll design has balanced, alternating tendril-terminals comprising a pair of spirals, one larger and with more coils, the other scarcely more than a boss. This design is sustained from below the scabbard-mouth to the chape. Kirkburn also comprises a full-length scroll with tendrils alternating to right and left, this time leading to peltate terminals that are filled with three-sided voids, one side convex, one concave and the third S-shaped. Similar voids occupy the curved triangle at the point where the terminal tendrils spring from the main scroll. Their impact is heightened by the use of hatched filling of the background, a technique that is later used widely in insular art to create an interplay between foreground and background. It is seen notably on the Bugthorpe scabbard (Figure 5.7, 5), where the hatching comprises very much denser basketry, and where a later dating is clearly indicated by its developed, insular, 'twin-lipped' chape-end. Bugthorpe must belong to a later second- or first-century bc horizon, and its sharing with Kirkburn of the three-side curving void motif against a hatched background indicates no more in terms of chronology than the duration of this regional tradition. The earlier occurrence of this motif has been confirmed by a more recent find from Mill Hill, Deal (Stead, 1995, 95). Another signature that also appears in the repertory of the Irish scabbard-smiths and the later eastern English shield-makers is the use of wavy-line-and-dotted bordering, which first appeared on the hilt-end of the Wisbech scabbard-plate. In considering its dating, we should note that the Kirkburn scabbard-plate has been repaired in a different hand. Hidden by the chape discs is a break, below which the design is executed in much cruder fashion with a variety of different infilling.

The Wetwang 3 scabbard stands slightly apart from Wetwang 1 and Kirkburn, though it shares with those scabbards the same form of La Tene 1 chape, as well as the distinctive use of discs at the mouth of the scabbard and at the top of the chape. The striking difference is that the design is not continuous, but is divided into three discrete panels. The basic elements are described by Stead as 'well-spaced elaborate reversed-S motifs whose terminals spiral within a field defined by a triangular "cusp" on the stem' (1991a, 181). It too deploys wavy-line bordering, and this, together with the fact that the scabbard's suspension loop is located well down towards the centre of its length, quite unlike the standard British fitting, has prompted further comparison with the Irish scabbard series.

The most obvious parallel for the tripartite composition of Wetwang 3, however, is an older find from Sutton Reach in Lincolnshire (Figure 5.7, 1). The chape does not survive, but the low triangular mouth of the scabbard-plate led de Navarro to regard it as rather earlier in the middle La Tene scabbard sequence than most previous commentators had believed. Immediately below the mouth is a 'key' panel (1) occupying the full width of the plate composed of a geometrically described leaf-rosette design, within which four comma-leaves are deliberately not quite symmetrical overall, the right-hand element showing rotational symmetry, the left-hand showing mirror symmetry. The comma-leaves are filled with circular voids. Below this the ornament is separated into five further panels (2-6) of incised designs alternating across the central mid-rib with five panels of Swiss-style laddering. These panels are variants on the same simple theme, much as a musical composer compounds variations on a theme, using the variables that have been trailered in the 'key'. Panels 3 and 5 use symmetrical designs, 2, 4 and 6 are progressively more asymmetrical. The 'simple theme' is the interlocking S, which in panel 3 is achieved with rotational symmetry of cusps and finials. In panel 4 the same gives a superficial impression of symmetry from its central component, but is in fact deliberately not so in its outward elements. Panel 1 explores a further variant, overlapping the S-elements to form a sinuated wave. Here the outward elements are not symmetrical, but the medial device is borrowed from the left-hand element of panel 1. Panel 5 introduces a rarity in La Tene art, the straight line; the parallel with the Torrs horns, which had been remarked since Fox (1958, 32-3), underscores the rotational movement induced by this device, here acting as the fulcrum for exact rotational symmetry. Finally, in panel 6, the theme is completely deconstructed, with one leaf-motif even transgressing the central mid-rib. The whole composition is not just curvilinear tendrils with repetitive infilling. It is a systematic exploration of a theme, an exercise in rational deconstruction and re-assembly in a manner that typifies the La Tene art tradition. Sutton Reach is not among the earliest British scabbards, neither on the basis of form, in so far as it can be determined, nor decoration, which belongs within the pan-European middle La Tene scabbard tradition. But it is not as late as Fox and Piggott insisted, as de Navarro rightly recognized (1966, 148-50). Stylistic similarities with the Torrs horns would not be incompatible with an early third-century date.

British scabbards of the middle Iron Age are best represented by examples from Little Wittenham, Deal and Hunsbury, though these too were subject to the late dating syndrome favoured by older commentators. The problem is simply that certain techniques, like background hatching, and certain motifs, like trumpet-voids, plainly reach their apogee on metal-work with demonstrably late associations, like some of the mirrors of first-century bc or even first-century ad date. Stead has demonstrated in the case of the trumpet-void that this should not preclude an earlier origin, and this principle almost certainly holds good for other motifs or styles of ornament. Background hatching certainly can be traced back in Britain to the early fourth century at Standlake and Cerrig-y-drudion, and even the 'squared' variant characteristic of mirror ornament may not have been confined exclusively to a late horizon, given that perfectly good examples occur on the handle of the early La Tene Borsch flagon and Panensky Tynec brooch. The low-relief style of the Little Wittenham or Deal scabbards is innovative, but the designs in template form would not have differed so greatly from those exemplified at Hunsbury in the incised style. The relief elements define three-sided curving voids in both, open circles become relief bosses, and comma-leaves, seen in engraved ornament on the Sutton Reach scabbard, have their counterpart in relief on both the Deal and Little Wittenham scabbards. Stead rightly emphasized the essential relationship of the main motif of the upper panel at Deal and the linked-S theme of Sutton Reach and the Yorkshire scabbards, and while the relief style, first seen in the Standlake scabbard, is doubtless thereafter a development of the third and second centuries, there can be no doubt from the Witham-Wandsworth shield series that engraved ornament continued alongside the newer relief style.

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