Weapons and armour

The burgeoning technical capacity of late Bronze Age metal-working was in significant measure dedicated to the equipping of the Urnfield warrior (Figure 2.5). No better

Celtic Rapier Bronze Age

Figure 2.5 The Urnfield warrior, equipped with sword, shield, helmet, cuirass and greaves (1);

early Urnfield solid-hilted swords from Erding (2), Erlach (3) and Geiging (4). Swords adapted from Muller-Karpe (1980).

Figure 2.5 The Urnfield warrior, equipped with sword, shield, helmet, cuirass and greaves (1);

early Urnfield solid-hilted swords from Erding (2), Erlach (3) and Geiging (4). Swords adapted from Muller-Karpe (1980).

demonstration of this fact could there be than the proliferation of sword types that characterize the period. Starting in Reinecke's Bronze C2 and D phases around the thirteenth century bc are the earliest of the flange-hilted swords (Griffszungenschwerter or 'tongue-grip' swords) of Sprockhoff's (1931) Type I, from which in the earliest Urnfield phase proper, named Hallstatt A1, developed the Nenzingen sword, with straight-sided blade and more rivets to attach its hilt to the grip. This was then the prototype, Sprockhoff's Type II, for the classic Urnfield swords, conventionally named after examples from Hemigkofen and Erbenheim, the former characterized by its short, leaf-shaped blade and fish-tailed projections at the end of the hilt, the latter also having a leaf-shaped blade but with short tang for the attachment of a pommel. A third variant, the Letten sword, was essentially an Erbenheim sword with shorter blade. Parallel to this series are the solid-hilted swords (or Vollgriffschwerter, 'full-grip' swords: Sprockhoff, 1934), which begin with the Riegsee type in Bronze D and which by the end of the Urnfield period are represented by a series of swords with elaborately-cast 'antenna' hilts. A third variant of sword, the rod-tanged or tapered-hilt swords are represented in Bronze D by the Rixheim and Monza types, and are essentially rapierderivatives from the preceding middle Bronze Age. This almost bewildering variety of sword types spawns an even greater number of regional derivatives and variants in the latest Bronze Age, including those of Atlantic Europe and the British Isles.

The second principal weapon of the late Bronze Age, which remained a key element in the Celtic warrior's armoury in the La Tene Iron Age, was the spear. Spear-heads are certainly present in north-alpine Urnfield contexts, though they are hardly dominant. Arrowheads likewise, tanged and socketed, including a variant with vicious projecting barb, indicate the use of the bow. Though it is generally assumed that the bow was an aristocratic sporting weapon in Urnfield and Hallstatt Iron Age society, there is clear enough documentary evidence for the use of archers in warfare by the Iron Age, and it seems unnecessary to assume a strict distinction between sport and combat. In Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in the later Bronze Age, spear-heads are more common, the flame-shaped variant appearing together with other Urnfield types in late Mycenaean Greece. In Eastern Europe, the battle-axe is a distinctive weapon from hoards and burials, perhaps again fulfilling an aristocratic or ceremonial role as much as a practical function in warfare. Spears, bows and battle-axes all have an older ancestry, and may reflect a degree of specialization in the martial arts before the technological developments of the later Bronze Age led to the predominance of the sword as the principal aristocratic weapon of the Celts.

A question that arises therefore from a review of weaponry is whether already by the later Bronze Age there was developing a differentiation in the warrior class between swordsmen, spearmen and archers. Burgess noted some years ago (1974, 211) that votive hoards of the Broadward complex in Britain included a preponderance of spearheads, suggesting a special role within late Bronze Age society of spearmen, or, at any rate, their particular association with ceremonial deposits and water rituals. The occurrence of both as part of the warrior's panoply need not preclude this possibility, particularly in the light of classical records of specialist archers and spearmen. Polybius's well-known account of the Gaesatae at the battle of Telamon in 225 bc has prompted the suggestion that mercenary warriors akin to the Fenian bands of early Medieval Ireland might have existed outside the normal tribal structure from a rather earlier period.

Body-armour too was developed with the new skill of sheet bronze-working from the Bronze D phase. Though the fragments from the wealthy tumulus burial from Caka, Levice, in western Slovakia may at first sight seem almost risibly small to sustain the full-scale reconstruction of the bronze corselet, later examples like that from Marmesses in the Haute-Marne (Figure 2.6a) leave no doubt as to its identification and purpose. Body armour, including greaves, was evidently being made from the early Urnfield period in sheet bronze, but there is every probability that such items were made much earlier from perishable, organic materials. Helmets (Hencken, 1971) have a still wider distribution. In Northern Europe, beyond the Urnfield zone, horned helmets of the later Bronze Age are matched in miniature on small bronze figurines. Central European types include those with a simple knobbed apex and a more conical form with lateral flanges and projecting studs, and have a significant distribution south as well as north of the Alps. That these helmets with appropriate lining could have served in battle need not be challenged by the probability that they also served as prestigious head-gear for ceremonial occasions. Some of their Iron Age counterparts were probably too richly embellished to hazard in battle, raising the probability that head-gear was as much an indication of status or office as a means of protection.

Bronze shields (Sprockhoff, 1930; Coles, 1962) also were an innovation of the late Bronze Age, possibly from the Bronze D phase of the thirteenth century in Central Europe, though wooden or leather prototypes may have preceded the metal versions from an earlier date. Circular or sub-circular in shape and ranging in diameter from less than 40 centimetres to more than 70, one widespread form is distinguished by having a V-shaped or U-shaped 'notch' in its concentric raised ribs. The U-notched variant is concentrated particularly in Northern Europe and the Danish peninsula; the V-notched form is represented on rock carving in south-western Spain and is found as far east in the Mediterranean as Cyprus. The distributions are virtually exclusive; only in Ireland do they coincide. Principal among Central European shields is the Nipperwiese type, named after a type-site in Pomerania. The distribution is fairly sparse, with some regional variations, including examples from Britain (Needham, 1979). Native British shields, like the Yetholm type and other regional variants, are represented in greater numbers, frequently from wetland contexts that may suggest a ritual role in their deposition (Coles et al., 1999). Though there is evidence that some were damaged by blows from weapons, the bronze shields would hardly have afforded practical protection without wooden or leather backing. The survival of leather and wooden examples from Ireland, and the fact that Hispanic rock-carvings must be representations of an organic type that has not survived, confirm the probability that these represented the utilitarian norm, and that bronze shields were largely for ceremonial purposes.

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  • Amina
    What does Sprockhoff mean?
    8 years ago

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