Combat experiments reveal fighting techniques of Bronze-Age warriors

Bronze Age swords make for impressive museum displays, but how were they used? To find the answer, scientists teamed up with history enthusiasts to combine laboratory studies with staged experimental fights using replica weapons to generate marks on the soft metal to learn more about prehistoric combat techniques.

The European Bronze age, which ran from about 3200 BCE to 600 BCE, gets its name from the invention and widespread use of bronze – an alloy of copper and tin. During this time, a surprisingly large number of bronze swords were made and they are routinely being found in archaeological excavations of ancient burial sites or during river-dredging operations.

Despite this large number of finds, there is still controversy over how Bronze Age swords were used or if they were used at all. Some scholars believe that these weapons were too easily damaged to be practical and were made for ceremonial purposes, such as displays of status, burial offerings, or sacrifices to the gods.

Damage caused by replica bronze weapons
Damage caused by replica bronze weapons

Bronze Age Combat Team/Hotspur School of Defence

While this may be true in some instances, researchers led by Dr. Andrea Dolfini at Newcastle University have found evidence that many of these swords were used in combat and have even begun to learn how they were used. By combining laboratory work by Leicester and Durham universities, the British Museum, and the Great North Museum: Hancock with field experiments conducted by members of the Newcastle-based Hotspur School of Defence, the Bronze Age Combat Project (BACP) learned how soft bronze weapons could be used practically.

The researchers used material analysis to develop an insight into how the bronze alloy in the swords behaved and, with the aid of skilled artisans using bronze tools, were able to produce sets of uniform replica swords, spears, and wooden shields. However, standard engineering-style lab tests couldn’t reproduce the kind of body movements that a human being can execute, so the Hotspur club members were recruited.

Using fighting techniques derived from medieval and renaissance European sword combat manuals, the participants wore protective clothing and carried out a series of weapon blows aimed at various parts of the body, which were parried. The damage caused and the marks left behind were carefully recorded and compared to 2,500 wear marks found on 110 ancient swords collected from Britain and Italy.

Research into Bronze Age swords involved staging experimental fights using replica weapons
Research into Bronze Age swords involved staging experimental fights using replica weapons

Bronze Age Combat Team/Hotspur School of Defence

They found that ancient fighters were very careful about exposing their swords to heavy, direct blows or making such blows that might break or bend the soft metal themselves. Instead, they engaged in close quarters to dominate their opponent’s sword. The marks showing this were consistent, suggesting that the swordsmen were highly trained and practiced before going into battle. In addition, the wear patterns could be grouped by geography and time, showing changes in technique over time.

“The Bronze Age was the first time people used metal specifically to create weapons they could use against other people,” says Dolfini. “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.”

However, the Newcastle team emphasized that these findings are more of a first step than a final answer. The fighting techniques used in the experiment were from an era of steel weapons and employed fighting skills developed for a different society with different needs and goals. This means that the key accomplishment of the research lays in opening up new avenues of inquiry.

“You can’t just give two people replicas of ancient weapons, tell them to fight and then say ‘we know how they were used’,” says Dolfini. “What we did with the Bronze Age Combat Project is creating a meaningful blueprint for carrying out future experimental research into prehistoric combat, building a much greater understanding of how ancient weapons were used and the role of warriors in Bronze Age societies.”

The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

Source: Newcastle University

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