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Citizen Scientists Recreate Bronze Age Sword-Fighting Techniques to Uncover Ancient Combat Secrets

Study participants using replica weapons.
Study participants using replica weapons.
Image: Bronze Age Combat Team/Hotspur School of Defence

By recreating prehistoric one-on-one sword fighting and analyzing the ensuing damage inflicted onto replica weapons, experimental archaeologists are shedding new light onto ancient combat techniques and the advanced skills required to be a Bronze Age warrior.

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Previous investigations into the use of Bronze Age weapons either applied experimental techniques, such as recreations of combat, or metalwork wear analysis, in which scientists use microscopes to study signs of damage on ancient weapons. Trouble is, these approaches don’t really speak to each other, often resulting in armchair guessing and flawed interpretations.

To avoid these problems, the authors of the new study sought to combine and cross-reference these two approaches, using both experimental archaeology and metalwork wear analysis. This was done to “understand how prehistoric bronze weapons were used, in what kinds of combat situations, and with what weapon strikes and bodily engagements” and to “gain a firm foothold into Bronze Age fighting practices including issues of weapon training, [and] skill,” as they wrote in the new paper, which appears in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

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A spear penetrating a shield.
A spear penetrating a shield.
Image: Bronze Age Combat Team/Hotspur School of Defence

Indeed, we still have lots to learn about Bronze Age weaponry and combat. Bronze, a chemical mixture of copper and tin, is actually quite soft and susceptible to damage. Some archaeologists have speculated that these weapons were fragile and that fighters were reluctant to engage in blade-on-blade combat. Some archaeologists have even gone so far as to suggest these bronze items weren’t even used as weapons.

“When looking at early metals around the world, often we see that they are skillfully made, beautiful objects,” explained Michelle Bebber, an assistant professor at Kent State’s Department of Anthropology who wasn’t involved in the new study, in an email to Gizmodo. “This has led many to assume that early metal weapons were purely ceremonial in nature, or that they were designed to function as prestige markers in a changing cultural system.”

The new paper, she said, provides a wealth of new experimental data that goes against this idea—that early metal weapons were too fragile for combat.

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“Indeed, the authors show that not only were they used in combat, these weapons were used in a careful, highly skilled manner which would have required significant training for the warriors,” said Bebber.

Replica swords used in the new study.
Replica swords used in the new study.
Image: R. Hermann et al., 2020
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For the new study, the authors collaborated with Hotspur School of Defence, an English club devoted to recreating medieval European combat (you can watch them in action here). Using replica weapons and protective gear, members participated in realistic sword fighting sessions. Specific moves and stances were inferred from medieval and post-medieval fencing manuals.

All replica swords and spears, as well as shields made from bronze and leather, were manufactured by a traditional bronzesmith, while a wooden shield was built by a skilled amateur woodcarver, which he did with purpose-made bronze tools.

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Following the one-on-one fight sessions, the scientists brought the replicas back to the lab, where they documented the types of damage caused by different blows, such as strikes, parries, stabs, and throws. This damage was then compared to wear-and-tear seen on 110 artifacts dating back to the British and Italian Middle and Late Bronze Age, roughly 1500 BCE to 700 BCE.

The various types of documented damage include notches, bulges, grazes, flattenings, and striations, which were associated with specific tactical moves and even combinations of moves. The entire exercise presented new insights into prehistoric combat, from Bronze Age sword grips through to likely attacks, defenses, and blade-on-blade engagements.

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How to hold a Bronze Age sword: (a) hammer grip, (b) sabre grip, (c) thumb grip.
How to hold a Bronze Age sword: (a) hammer grip, (b) sabre grip, (c) thumb grip.
Image: Hermann et al., 2020

As the new research points out, Bronze Age fighting tactics involved more than just toggling between offensive and defensive stances, as the combatants also had to protect their weaponry.

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“The Bronze Age was the first time people used metal specifically to create weapons they could use against other people,” explained Andrea Dolfini, a co-author of the new study and an archaeologist at Newcastle University, in a press release. “People understood that these weapons could be very easily marked so sought to use them in ways that would limit the amount of damage received. It is likely that these specialized techniques would have to be learned from someone with more experience, and would have required a certain amount of training to be mastered.”

Study participants engaging in realistic sword fighting.
Study participants engaging in realistic sword fighting.
Image: Hermann et al., 2020
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The new evidence also upturns some conventional thinking on Bronze Age tactics, as the authors explained in their paper:

In popular culture, it is an enduring trope that sword fighting can be divided into attacking strikes and defending blocks, which would be exchanged with flamboyant swinging blows from some distance. This view, however, is far removed from the reality of historic sword fencing, which is often predicated upon simultaneous, interchangeable attacking, and defensive stances.... Instead of offensive and defensive stances exchanged by the fighters in turn, the historic sources agree in suggesting that swordplay consists of offensive actions that simultaneously defend and prime the weapon for the next attack.

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This would’ve required the combatants to fight in close quarters, with each of them trying to dominate the blade of their adversary.

In this recreated engagement, the defender binds the swords to control the opponent’s blade. This “caused a distinctive bulge in the cutting edge of the attacking sword,” according to the research.
In this recreated engagement, the defender binds the swords to control the opponent’s blade. This “caused a distinctive bulge in the cutting edge of the attacking sword,” according to the research.
Image: Hermann et al., 2020
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The new paper also upsets the pre-existing claim that early warriors tried to avoid blade-on-blade contact in order to preserve their swords:

On the contrary, the research has demonstrated that Bronze Age fighters would deliberately seek contact with their foes’ swords in order to stifle and control them. Not only is this a significant advance in its own right, but it also provides a convincing explanation for the plethora of wear marks found on archaeological swords, as well as much-needed analytical diagnostics for discriminating between combat and deliberate destruction marks.

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To down an enemy, a combatant targeted soft body parts that were difficult to protect with armor and that allowed for easy access to major blood vessels and critical organs, according to the research. This meant frequent attacks to the neck and abdomen.

As for sword fencers intentionally bending the tips of their swords to strike at the heart, that was dispelled in the new research, as “targeting the chest in a thrusting attack carries the risk of trapping the weapon in the ribcage or sternum,” and this area “is frequently protected by armour,” the authors noted.

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“The results of this comprehensive study show that experimental archaeology has truly come of age,” Bebber told Gizmodo. “Most archaeological experiments over the past few decades have been focused on Stone Age technology, but this exciting new project has brought experimental archaeology into the Bronze Age. This research shows how vital experimental approaches are becoming for developing a clear picture of how ancient people not only made their metal tools, but also for understanding how they would have used these weapons in combat.”

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In addition to the new insights, the researchers say their approach could be used in similar experiments, including tests of prehistoric copper-alloy weapons.

Clarification: This article has been updated to remove references to LARPing (live action role-playing). The members of the Hotspur School of Defence, while reenacting ancient combat techniques, do not consider their activities to be role-playing.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

czargarble
czargarble

At first I read that as “Christian Scientist Larpers...” which is an entirely different story.

Still, I love the fact that “experimental archaeology” is a thing.