Researchers go into battle to test Bronze Age weapons

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Photo Gavin Duthie/Newcastle University

Researchers are to go into battle using replica Bronze Age weapons to help them understand how people at the time fought.

Using imitation swords, axes, spears and shields, researchers at Newcastle University are to recreate Bronze Age combat.

The weapons will then be studied using sophisticated use-wear analysis techniques to see how the marks and damage compares with Bronze Age weapons in museum collections.

It is hoped the findings will enable experts to better understand how the weapons were used in the Late Bronze Age (c.1200-800 BC) in Britain and Europe.

Project leader Dr Andrea Dolfini, a lecturer in later prehistory at Newcastle University said: “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to learn more about how these weapons that we see in collections all over the world, were really used.

“The Bronze Age was the first time people used metal specifically to create weapons they could use against other people; in understanding how they used them, we will understand more about Bronze Age society.

“Previous research has looked at marks on weapons in one-to-one fights but we are also trying to replicate small-group combat situations as this would result in different markings on the metal.

“Already during our testing we have observed marks made by certain sword strikes which we have seen on artefacts. By doing these experiments we are hoping to understand exactly how these marks were generated and in what kind of combat encounters.

“The testing is fun and our volunteers have enjoyed trying out the weapons in a variety of ways but the real work will start when we take the weapons back to the lab and put them under the microscope.”

Trained volunteers wearing protective clothing will test a variety of strikes delivered to different body parts.

Bronze smith Neil Burridge made the weapons using 12 percent tin-bronze. The sword handles and pommels are made from oak, while the spear shafts and axe handles are seasoned ash.

Two shields, copies of the prehistoric Clonbrin shield from Ireland, were made using vegetable-tanned leather hide. They were shrunk in hot water and beaten into a wooden former, then dried and coated in bees' wax.

Dr Bob Johnston, a University of Sheffield historian specialising in Bronze Age Britain and Ireland, told historyextra: “This looks like an exciting project.

“We know that some Bronze Age weapons were used during hand-to-hand fighting because of the damage on the blades of swords and on spears.

“The researchers at Newcastle will be able to tell us much more about the ways that people fought and perhaps the numbers of combatants.

“We can use these results to help reconstruct cultures of violence during the period and the place of conflict in society.”

Professor Anthony Harding, a University of Exeter prehistorian specialising in the European Bronze Age, said: "Studying ancient warfare by means of replicas, and experimenting with ways of using them, is a very important means towards understanding how warfare was conducted in the past – especially in the Bronze Age, when a whole range of new fighting equipment came into use.

"The sword, spear and shield were all invented in this period, which indicates that the warrior identity became a standard part of daily life. 

"In today’s world we tend to forget that life in the ancient past was a very much more uncertain thing than we are used to; in the Bronze Age people had to be ready to defend themselves and their possessions as part of fighting groups. 

"This is where experimental archaeology, using replicas, has a major role to play."

 

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