European archeologists have uncovered hoards of Bronze Age weaponry dating from more than 4,000 years ago. Some of the larger and more elaborate weapons—like the 28-inch dagger known as the Oxborough Dirk—may have been ceremonial or prestige pieces, but others show clear markings of combat, hints of violent clashes between ancient communities.
“Throughout the Bronze Age, you see some real evolutions in weaponry,” says Andrea Dolfini, a senior lecturer in later prehistory at Newcastle University, U.K., and author of Bronze Age Combat: An Experimental Approach. “Making bronze was a major technological innovation over copper. It’s a stronger alloy and easier to cast into complex shapes and longer weapons.”
The following eight Bronze Age weapons began to appear in the archeological record around 2,200 B.C.
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Long before there were swords, there were spears. The first ancient spearheads were chiseled from flint, obsidian and other flaking stones, then strapped to the end of a wooden shaft. Invented for hunting, stone-tipped spears were later adapted for warfare, but they paled in comparison to the first bronze spear tips cast in Europe around 1800 B.C.
Bronze Age spearheads came in a variety of shapes and lengths, some nearly as small as an arrowhead and others more than a foot long. The oldest bronze spearheads were attached to the shaft with an elongated, tail-like “tang,” but few wooden shafts survive. As metalworkers improved their casting techniques, they produced longer, sharper spearheads with conical sockets into which the wooden shaft was inserted and bolted into place.
Since bronze is still a relatively soft metal compared to iron and steel, Dolfini believes that Bronze Age warriors may have used spears in a “hybrid” fashion, as both stabbing and slashing weapons. Dolfini and his team have staged experimental fights using replica Bronze Age spears to test the theory.
“If you use a shorter, lighter-weight shaft, the spear becomes a fantastic weapon,” says Dolfini. “You can use it like a sword or throw it like a javelin. The question is whether people in the Bronze Age did it that way. The damage patterns found on ancient weapons seem to back that up.”
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Swords were a later invention and either evolved from shorter daggers or large spearheads. The first true Bronze Age swords appeared between 1700 and 1600 B.C and were tapered and lightweight like an elongated dagger. But Dolfini says that the damage patterns on those early swords, known as rapiers, shows that they were too soft to sustain repeated blade-to-blade contact.
Closer to 1300 B.C., a new type of sword with a game-changing design spread across Europe. Both types of sword could be used for either stabbing or slashing at the enemy, but the later swords were generally better at sustaining heavier blows and more protracted combat engagements.
“These later swords have a bulge two-thirds of the way along the blade that changes the point of balance and adds weight,” says Dolfini. “If you strike armor or an enemy’s blade, it’s more capable of sustaining that kind of heavy contact.”
Dolfini notes that even the longest Bronze Age swords weighed under one kilogram (2.2 pounds), so they were far smaller and lighter than a medieval long sword, for example.
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3. Shields & Armor
Shields were essential Bronze Age weapons and 99 percent of them would have been made from leather or wood. Only a few of those wooden or hide-covered shields survived the millennia, mainly in Irish peat bogs.
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Bronze shield-making required beating bronze into flat sheets, a technique that wasn’t discovered until the later Bronze Age. What’s amazing, says Dolfini, is the strength of hand-beaten bronze when compared with a modern, machine-rolled sheet of bronze.
“It’s not about thickness,” says Dolfini. “The average thickness of many Bronze Age shields is 1 mm, but the difference is inside the bronze. When you beat the bronze into shape, you stretch the micrograins making up the metal matrix in such a way that it creates a highly effective barrier against penetration.”
In their combat experiments with replica beaten-bronze shields, Dolfini’s lab bent a replica sword and broke a spearhead trying to penetrate the shield. The same technique for beaten bronze was used to create armor designed for an elite warrior.
“The most common object in the Bronze Age is the ax, but they were mostly made of stone and used as tools, not weapons,” says Dolfini. “You could go into battle, bash someone’s head with an ax and do some damage, though.”
There are a lot of examples of Bronze Age axes with metal heads, too. Metalworkers honed their casting techniques over centuries to produce different types of ax head designs: flanged, socketed and a third style called a palstave.
The palstave is a particularly wicked-looking ax with flat side flanges that fit squarely into a piece of shaped wood. To function as an ax, Bronze Age toolmakers would have chosen a shaft with a natural 90-degree crook like these replicas. Whether a tool or a weapon, the palstave is an imposing object.
A halberd is a scythe-shaped bronze blade that is attached to a wooden or metal shaft at a right angle. Archeologists have unearthed them across Europe dating from 2,200 to 1,700 B.C., with the highest concentration in Ireland. When wielded as a weapon, it would function like a hand-held sickle, transforming the momentum of the heavy swinging handle to the sharp blade.
There is some question whether halberds recovered in Ireland were ceremonial or used in combat. According to recent research, though, damage marks on museum-piece halberds exhibit telltale battle scars, and experimentation with replica bronze halberds have shown that a properly hafted halberd blade can easily pierce through a sheep’s skull, making it a formidable weapon.
6. Daggers and Dirks
Short, tapered daggers were some of the earliest Bronze Age weapons, because they required relatively small amounts of the prized metal to cast. A nearly 6-inch bronze dagger from Cyprus (shown above) may date as far back as 2,500 B.C.
Later daggers, like this one in the Museum of London, were thicker in the middle with tapered edges and rivet holes for bolting them into a handle. The same design is found on dirks, a Scottish term for massive Bronze Age dagger blades likely used as ceremonial objects. This dirk auctioned by Christie’s is one of only five in existence. Since it lacks rivet holes at the base, the dirk was never meant to be used in battle, but was a potent symbol of power.
7. Bows and Arrows
The bow and arrow is an ancient weapon used for both hunting game and killing enemies. Bronze Age bows came in two types: the simple curved bow and the composite bow. The simple bow was constructed from one piece of wood, sometimes strengthened with sinew and a natural glue. Composite bows, more common in Egypt and the Aegean during the Bronze Age, delivered far greater power and distance by gluing together layers of wood, animal horn, tendons and sinew.
Throughout the Bronze Age, arrowheads were just as likely to be made of flint or obsidian as bronze. In Germany, archeologists recovered dozens of weapons from what appears to be a Bronze Age battlefield dating between 1300 and 1200 B.C. Among the finds were human remains with a flint arrowhead still lodged in a shoulder joint.
8. Wooden Clubs & Mallets
“Blunt force weaponry remained common throughout the Bronze Age and even later,” says Dolfini, although wooden objects like clubs rarely survive in the archeological record.
That’s why it was so remarkable when researchers identified two well-preserved wooden weapons in that same Bronze Age battlefield in Germany. One was a heavy wooden club more than two feet long with a thickened end similar to a baseball bat. The other was more menacing—it looked like a croquet mallet with a slightly bent handle and a fist-like head.
“There is no doubt that such hammer-like, wooden weapons could cause heavy lesions,” wrote the researchers, citing that one of the recovered human skulls had a large round fracture in its forehead.