Production and diffusion of bronze age solid-hilted swords in western Europe

Production et circulation des épées à poignée métallique de l'âge du Bronze en Europe occidentale
Begin - Einde 
2018 - 2022 (lopend)
Vakgroep Archeologie
Andere instituten 
Université de Bourgogne - UMR 6298 ARTEHIS



The proposed study region, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and France, belongs during the Bronze Age to an area of contact between different cultural complexes. Its western part was integrated in the Atlantic tradition, while the eastern part had intensive contact with the so-called continental cultural complex. In the northern part of the area influences from the Nordic cultural complex was sporadically visible. This implies that within certain areas of France and the Benelux contact between different cultural traditions was visible and with different levels of intensity depending on the period. Both cultural regions had different socio-economic traditions, as for bronze and ceramic production. However not all sub-regions had access to the raw sources for bronze production. Because of this, regional communities imported raw material, half- or complete products through international exchange networks. Technological knowledge could also be exchanged through these contacts.

Especially during the Late Bronze Age the intensity in contact has increased in the region with the temporary economic and cultural expansion of the so-called group ‘Rhin-Suisse-France orientale’. New bronze artefacts were appearing in the Atlantic zone as well as in the eastern part of the study region. Among bronze artefacts circulating in the study area swords have a special meaning. They are associated with a warrior elite, social status and ritual practices. Furthermore, the production of these sophisticated objects demands skilled craftsmanship. Certain theories focus on the mobility among warriors, their weapons and craftsmen.

In this project we will focus on swords and test some of these ideas. Most of Bronze Age swords had an organic hilt, which is almost never preserved. Only certain types of these deadly weapons were equipped with a bronze handle, which in the first place helps archaeologists to study the shape of the hilt in order to establish a typological classification and also to observe the casting techniques used to produce the hilt and the blade as well as to join these parts together.

Full-hilted swords have been studied since the 19th century, mainly focusing on typology (Naue 1903; Sprockhoff 1934…). This topic was also the focus of more recent publications (Holste 1953; Müller-Karpe 1961…) until the beginning of the 21st century (Stockhammer 2004). Many volumes of the Prähistorische Bronzefunde series were published during the same period, each giving an inventory of swords in a defined area organized by types (see especially Quillfeldt 1995 and Wüstemann 2004 concerning typology). In parallel, some other publications focused on technological features, particularly since the 1960s in Germany (Drescher 1958, Driehaus 1961, Hundt 1962, Hundt 1965…), linked to the development of archaeological radiography. By means of X-ray radiography, Hundt was able to identify several technical traditions through time, providing the first “techno-chronology” of solid-hilted swords. He also tried to determine the production centers of certain sword types. These studies concerning the  technology continued at the beginnings of the 1970s (for example Mohen 1971). Recent years brought new technological studies of swords (Brandherm and Sicherl 2001, Wüstemann 2004, Sicherl 2008…), using traditional X-rays, but also new techniques such as CT-scan, which allow very precise three-dimensional observations even of the inner part of the hilt (Mödlinger 2008). These new methods begin to be applied a large corpus of swords, especially in northern Europe (Bunnefeld 2016) and thus recent studies give a new insight on Bronze Age societies.

It thus appears that solid-hilted swords have been largely studied since more than a century. However, most studies have been focusing on central and northern Europe, leaving a large part of Western Europe out of this research topic. Overviews of these types of swords exist for a lot of countries in Europe from the British Isles to southern and central Europe stria, but almost nothing has been done about these weapons in Benelux and in France. Studying them would thus fill the void of research on these artefacts in the chosen area. It would then be possible to get a general overview of these swords all over Europe.

Our main goal is to go a step further than a simple inventory of these specific artefacts using typology as has been done in most volumes of the PBF for example. Although this kind of classification has been used since the beginning of archaeology and has proven its usefulness, it clearly appears that it is not sufficient to get a good understanding of the Bronze Age societies its organization on different levels or to study the interactions between them. Indeed, it is not possible to identify production centres only with a concentration of a certain type of sword in a restricted area. We believe technological analysis to be a solution to this limitation.

Using typology and technology can help us to apprehend several aspects of ancient societies. One research question is the nature of the organization of the work by these artisans: were they itinerant or sedentary? Where were their workshops located and how were they organized? As there are only very few archaeological finds connected to these questions, studying swords’ technological features could be a way to give answers to these questions. Another goal is to understand the interaction and exchanges involving produced goods and technological knowledge between different cultural groups through the example of these swords. These relations may indeed be connected with migrations or punctual economic exchanges. They could also result from indirect contacts, for example through wandering artisans. This project will offer the opportunity to study various themes such as trade and mobility on long or short distances, the diffusion of shapes and ornaments or technological transfers. It will also be possible to examine the technological differences through time in order to create a precise “techno-chronology” with the identification of specific technological trends limited in time. The goal of this new kind of relative chronology is to go in hand with traditional typo-chronology to have a better idea of the chronological position of a sword according to its shapes and the techniques used to produce it. Finally, we aim at questioning the function of these weapons in ancient societies. They can indeed be considered as pure war artefacts, but also as prestige goods used by elites to affirm their social position, or as elements used in rituals, for example the deposition in rivers or swamps of these objects. Once again, the technical analysis could help us identifying their purposes.

Several methods can be selected to answer to these scientific issues. In a first phase, a database will be constructed to make an inventory and to collect and present technological and typological information about each sword. If simple observations can give interesting information, other techniques must be used to clearly understand how swords were produced. Different archaeometric options exist to document the technological questions on this subject. Non-destructive techniques are preferred to study the swords taking into account the wishes from museums and conservators to respect the integrity of these artefacts.

Radiography aims at having a glimpse at the inside of a sword’s hilt. It is thus possible to determine the way the different parts are fixed together, to see the internal shape of the hilt and the casting defaults. All these elements may help identifying specific casting techniques. However, the possibilities are limited in terms of precision, especially when the bronze thickness is important (see for example Mohen 1971). It is now possible to have a better insight of how swords and swords’ hilts were made thanks to new techniques like CT-scan.

CT-scan is another X-ray based method, which allow us to “travel” inside the metal. The principle is the same as radiography, except that the result consists in multiple cross-section views of the object. Dedicated algorithms can then compute a three-dimensional model of the piece, including the inside. It is then possible to “travel” inside the metal and understand how the blade and the hilt were casted and fixed together or even to control the quality of the bronze casting. The precision of the result is much better than with a classical radiography (see for example Mödlinger 2011 for comparison of the two methods). The superiority of this non-invasive method resides in its high precision, enabling to consider the possibility to identify very specific technical features.

Elemental analysis consists in identifying the elements composing the alloys of the different parts of an object. It can inform us about the artisans’ choices concerning the composition of the different components of a sword. On a large corpus of artefacts, this kind of analysis could reveal a certain standardization of the alloys or on the contrary specific regional “recipes”. This would be an important information about the circulation of ideas and/or products in Western Europe during the Bronze Age. It also offers the opportunity to see how Atlantic and Continental bronze working traditions relate to each other during this period.

Isotopic analysis will be used to identify the proportion of specific isotopes among elements composing the metal. The isotopic signature of certain elements such as lead (Pb) or Strontium (Sr) can tell us about the origin of the metal composing copper-based artefacts. Despite some limitations (Cattin at al. 2009, 138), the possibilities are real, especially on a large analyzed corpus, for example to distinguish imported or on site made swords.

Metallographic analysis consists in studying the crystalline structure of the metal at a microscopic scale. This structure can give information about the post-casting treatments of the metal (Kienlin 2008, fig. 12 p. 46). It is potential option to identify the purpose of a sword. We assume that the blade treatment of a deadly weapon would not be the same as for a pure social or ritual sword.

Morphometric analysis can be performed using three-dimensional models created with CT-scan of photogrammetry. This method is useful to study and classify large corpuses of artefacts according to morphologic features. It is then possible to highlight differences among objects of a same typological group or similarities among objects from different groups (see for example Gabillot et al. 2017) according to mathematical features. Applied to the solid-hilted sword, it would offer the possibility to study the copy process and diffusion of certain shapes or identify the blades or hilts coming from the same mould.

After the process information gathering about typology and technology, statistical tools will have to be used in order to process data and to associate several features related in one way or another. The use of a geographical information system (GIS) will also be essential to visualize this information in space. These processing tools are necessary to study a large corpus of artefacts and to determine connections between different technological features or relations between specific forms and techniques. This is an important step in the conception of a technical classification (“techno-typology” and “techno-chronology”) of full-hilted swords, which, in connection with the typological categorization, will be used to project the data on a map with the help of a GIS. This geographical visualization is essential to identify production and consumption centres, to study the artisans’ nature or to understand the exchanges and the spread of techniques or patterns.

This research program on full-hilted swords of the Bronze Age will take place over a period of four years. The first year will be dedicated to the gathering of the corpus of swords in the Benelux and in France and the construction of a database based on the available literature on this topic. During this process, it will be important to visit regional archaeological museums and collections, which can contain unpublished information about certain swords. Also contacting museums to see as many objects as possible in order to perform a first macroscopic examination is also essential. Once this first step achieved, we must determine which pieces of the corpus are the most interesting to analyse regarding the problems to be answered. This smaller corpus will have to be analysed using the methods mentioned above in cooperation with the institutions and laboratories susceptible to perform these analyses. The final step consists in processing the collected data using statistical tools and GIS to produce a new classification of these swords taking into account the way they are made and not only their shapes. During these phases, temporary results will be communicated on conferences and preliminary results will be published in the proper international journals. Finally, the fourth and last year will be spend on the redaction of the PhD thesis.


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Externe medewerkers

Sylvie Boulud-Gazo

Université de Nantes - UMR 6566 CReAAH

Stefan Wirth

Université de Bourgogne - UMR 6298 ARTEHIS