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British Iron Age Swords by Stead.I 2006

By Will Llawerch, Aug 11 2018 01:15PM

In Ian Stead's book on British Iron Age Swords and Scabbards (Stead, I. (2006) British Iron Age Swords And Scabbards, British Museum Press) it suggests that there were different lengths and styles of sword in Iron Age Britain during the Iron Age.

At its most basic, the evidence suggest different trends north and south of the Humber River. For the benefit of this blog we will refer to Northern British Swords and Southern British Swords.

Archaeologically, when we inspect the original weapons, it would appear that, in the South at least, the trend during the 1st Century AD was for long swords and scabbards with straight mouths (long being blades between 703mm-870mm). In the North, they seem to be medium length with straight mouthed scabbards (medium being blades between 440mm-620mm).

For example, let us use the Southern scabbard from Isle ham in Cambridgeshire. Its distinctive features include a Long blade (roughly 750mm), rounded tip, flat mouth and hilt guard. It boasts a square Suspension loop. There is no chape evident and the back-plate folds round the front plate all the way down to and including the bottom too. The blade has a lenticular profile with a small narrow groove running down the upper top third of it. It bears the evidence of incised decoration featuring a stippling effect, creating hundreds of tiny dots that darken the whole area within the voids.

If we compare it with one of the Northern swords, for example the artefact from Embleton, Cumbria. This northern weapon offers distinctive features of a short blade (543mm) with sharp tip. Interestingly, the suspension loop lies much farther down the scabbard and is far less square in style than its Southern neighbour. It features a Roman Spatha style hilt and is enamelled and incredibly decorative.

To quote the definitive book on the subject (Stead, I. (2006) British Iron Age Swords & Scabbards, British Museum Press): "In Britain La Tene swords belong to two separate traditions, the one in the south and the other in the north. The geographical distribution of the two, one on either side of the Humber, is virtually exclusive, with only one southern sword in the north and one northern chape in the south. In southern Britain swords of medium length were eventually followed by long swords. But long swords were never part of the northern tradition, where swords of medium length were used until the time of the Roman conquest."

Definitions of blade lengths are given in the book are as follows:

Short daggers: Southern Britain: 130-210mm

Longer daggers: Southern Britain: 245-305mm (Northern Britain has simply 'daggers' between 215-285mm)

Short Swords: Southern Britain: 320-440mm, Northern Britain: 320-400mm

Medium Swords: Southern Britain: 520-665mm, Northern Britain: 440-620mm

Long Swords: Southern Britain: 703-870mm, Northern Britain: N/A

By the 1st Century AD, southern swords were of a type classed as Group D: Long Swords and Scabbards with Straight Mouths. Bear in mind long in this case means over 703mm blade. Northern swords, meanwhile, were of a type classed as Group F: Medium Length Swords and Scabbards with Straight Mouths.

"Group F swords are of medium length and have straight hilt ends: simple versions (Type vii), crown-shaped (Type viii) or with the entire guard cast in one piece (Type ix). Scabbards have straight mouths and are made of bronze or brass (Type Y) or organic materials (Type Zb). Suspension loops are placed towards the centre of the scabbard, and loop plates are extremely long (Type 6). The earlier chapes have frames with bridges and bifurcating ends (Type h), but later forms lack the frames and are reduced to bifurcating ends attached directly to the back plate of the scabbard (Type j). Organic scabbards have no metal fittings. The Melsonby scabbard, with a mixture of Group E and F features, is included in this section."

For those interested in southern swords, here is the introduction for the relevant chapter:

"Group D swords are long, with blades that are lenticular or flat in section, and with straight hilt ends (Type iv). Two blades have shaped sections with broad, shallow, longitudinal grooves (Type v). Scabbards have straight mouths to match the hilt ends, and are made of copper alloy (Type S), iron (Type T) or organic materials (Type V). Suspension loops are broad, almost square, and there are three varieties of loop plates (Types 4a-c). Metal scabbards have rounded tips, some with laddered chapes (Type d2) and others without chapes (Type e)."

To quote further:

"The designs of early Yorkshire scabbards have much in common with Irish scabbards, not only in the overall wave decoration, but also more especially in the infillings. However, there are significant differences. The Irish swords are considerably shorter, the only known back plate is made of copper alloy, and the cast chapes are very different from their Yorkshire counterparts. But the Irish chapes are typologically La Tene 1, and both areas have produced hollow rings of the continental La Tene 1 type (Raftery 1988). The three Irish rings came from the same as the four Lisnacrogher scabbard plates, and the Yorkshire ring was in a grave adjoining, and perhaps contemporary with, the burial that produced the Kirkburn scabbard (Stead 1991a: 92 and 94, from grave 6). The Yorkshire and Irish art styles seem to stem from a common source, and there is no reason why these early pieces should date later than the third century BC (Stead 1991a: 183; Raftery 1994: 486)."

Here’s a description of the different Sword types:

Type vi: Only one example known, from Melsonby, North Yorkshire. It has a campanulas mouth instead of a straight mouth to the scabbard, no metal hilt end surviving. It's been classed in group F instead of earlier because of its chape. 560mm blade tapers gradually, short sharp point.

Type vii: Straight metal hilt ends. One example found in Camelon, Scotland. Other examples found in Rudston, Yorkshire. These are shorter than the Melsonby, those complete enough to give an idea of blade length suggest 444-515mm. One has no marked taper and a rounded tip, the others have pointed tips.

Type viii: Cast crown-shaped hilt ends. Straight scabbard mouth, but at the top they are campanulas in the centre and raised at the ends. Believed to have been designed to adapt a handle of campanula shape to a straight mouthed scabbard. Examples include Scar, and Thorpe Hall in Yorkshire as well as Sadberge in County Durham.

Type ix: Entire guard cast in copper alloy, the Embleton sword, the northern one I posted a picture of) is an example of this style.

Scabbards: If we look at the remaining artefact examples, they offer us the following evidence organic: Alder, Willow/Poplar and Hazel. One has leather covering one side, fleece the other, and one is completely covered in leather.

For further reading I recommend the following publication. Featuring approximately 140 plus examples of British swords.

“British Iron Age Swords & Scabbards” by Oxbow books.

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