The feel for weapons

I read Scientists Have Recreated Ancient Battles to Solve Debate Over Ancient Bronze Swords and was annoyed.

Not because the study wasn’t worth doing for its own sake – I applaud archeologists with the good sense to use historical reenactors to learn more about how combat in bygone times must have worked. But it seems to have been done to refute a theory that shouldn’t have been entertained seriously for three seconds – namely that Bronze Age swords were mainly ceremonial items with little use in actual combat.

I am, as Charles Babbage might have said, not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a theory.

They could have used me in this study. I have trained pretty extensively with pre-gunpowder contact weapons, especially swords and daggers and polearms. I’m not sure I can claim to be an expert swordsman, but people who are undoubtedly experts take me seriously when I fight.

I’m laying out these credentials because I want to make a point about the premise of the study. When you’ve trained with enough different varieties of swords – and my experience spans everything from very late dueling epees back to Viking-era cut-and-thrust weapons built in ways that go back to very similar prototypes in the early iron age – you learn to read a weapon.

By “read a weapon” I mean look at it, swing it, thrust it, find its balance point, and feel out the motions that are natural for that weight, length, and distribution of metal. If you know how to ask, the sword will tell you what its affordances are.

Here is a rule you can bank on: In a warrior culture, every affordance of a weapon will be used in its technique. Because why wouldn’t they? The more varied your toolkit, the more likely you are to be able to spring a deadly surprise on an enemy. Techniques that the weight and moment arm of the weapon make efficient will be used a lot. Weapon form and technique will coevolve under the selective pressure of combat experience in such a way that the match between technique and physical affordances stays close even as both change.

With this rule in mind, you can feel out the affordances of a weapon and deduce a lot of the technique that went with it. That’s why the medieval recreationists were valuable – it wasn’t just their experience at simulated medieval combat, it was that their feel for weapons could extend to earlier blade forms they hadn’t necessarily fought with extensively themselves yet.

I have in fact handled exact replicas of Bronze-age swords – and possibly one real one, though I suspect my buddy who owned it got conned by a forger. It is not difficult to tell what kind of moves they’re designed for – those front-heavy leaf-shaped blades clearly indicate chopping weapons implying a somewhat shorter engagement range than the longer weapons that would become typical in medieval Europe.

These were not cult objects, not ornamented gewgaws. They were spare and elegant killing weapons, probably carried for close-quarters use by fighters who used spears for combat at longer engagement ranges. Because spears suck in forest country or on rough ground, also indoors. In those circumstances the greater maneuverability and agility of a swordsman gives an advantage.

I speak from experience here, having fought in varied terrain with both swords and polearms. I’m not even a bit surprised that recovered Bronze-Age swords show patterns of hard wear resembling what reenactors did to replicas when they fought with them. The affordances of the weapons haven’t changed since they were forged; there is every reason to expect a priori that a skilled martial artist will feel out the same techniques our distant ancestors used.

“Ceremonial objects”, my ass. That shouldn’t even have been a question. What I think is really interesting about this is that it looks like a posteriori confirmation that re-enactors do in fact naturally rediscover ancient techniques; if they didn’t the wear patterns wouldn’t match.

56 thoughts on “The feel for weapons

  1. Now we just need to do similar experiments with pommels to determine if Finishing Rightly was ever actually performed, and how.

  2. The study is fine; the summary you linked is editorialising when they suggest it was to remove doubt as to ceremonial uses of the weapons. The authors’ conclusions, excluding the “approaches and methods” category, are listed as:
    1. Mapping types of contact to resulting wear patterns on weapons
    2. Determining probable grips, techniques, and degrees of training needed
    3. Finding that blade-on-blade contact was used to control the opponent’s weapon rather than avoided to preserve the integrity of one’s own
    4. Disproving a hypothesis that fighters intentionally bent their sword tips
    5. Showing how styles changed with time alongside weapons

    They do cite some previous work that

    has overturned undemonstrated assumptions about the purely symbolic value of early weapons

    but that’s not what the study in question is about.

    • >The authors’ conclusions, excluding the “approaches and methods” category, are listed as

      Huh. Now there’s a principal investigator who thinks like a fighter.

    • > The study is fine; the summary you linked is editorialising when they suggest it was

      Most contemporary journalists are college dis-educated mucking forons who can barely write a declarative sentence without getting a pounding headache. The quality of the *writing* in the news today is horrible, the content is poorly researched and the writers idiot assumptions come through way too clearly.

  3. There is a real tendency among archeologists to extend ignorance into superstition. The tendency was sufficiently well known to be mocked in the comical work “Motel of the Mysteries”

    A net-friend of mine related viewing a museum exhibit of “ceremonial objects” which she recognized as drop spindles. The (she emphasized) male STEM researchers had no familiarity with women’s crafts of pre-industrial peoples and didn’t know thread-making tools from prayer wheels.

    If they don’t know what it is, it’s attributed to religion.

    • Did she tell the museum? They don’t really look so similar that I would expect such a mistake to be made, especially since they’re most commonly used in different parts of the world.

    • You can trace awareness of this issue even farther back to 1956 “Body ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Miner.

    • > If they don’t know what it is, it’s attributed to religion.

      This was gently mocked on the archaeological TV series “Time Team”. One of the team on a dig was explaining that archaeologists (including herself) had a tendency to describe as “ritual” any device to which they couldn’t ascribe some other purpose.
      In a beautiful “ha ha only serious” moment she held up her trowel and said, if future archaeologists found her buried alongside it, they’d probably describe it as a “ritual implement”.

    • > The (she emphasized) male STEM researchers

      In my social circle there are an abnormal number of archeologists–two of whom had actual *archeology* jobs before the Wuhan Virus gave the governments the excuse to blow up the world, and one who whom (though not a credentialed archeologist) had lead a dig.

      They are *NOT* “STEM” types.

  4. The only thing to watch out for with reenactors is that sometimes differing motivations lead to bad assumptions that become handed down as oral truths and lose the rationale that was originally used.

    Best example of this is the whole edge blocking bruhaha. If you spend any time at all with historical manuals it is 100% obvious that edge blocking occurs and is sometimes desired. However reenactors hate it when you take a divvet out of their pretty sword so make edge blocking verboten. Problem is that if you say “no edge blocks” you’re either saying “don’t put your sword in positions that actually happened” or “put your hands in positions that would have been actively dangerous”.

    The other example is face strikes. Face strikes are dangerous (obviously) and since reenactors generally want to a) look accurate and b) not hurt one another they outlaw face strikes. That’s fine (and sensible) but there’s evidence that a high percentage of strikes (particularly lethal strikes) were actually face strikes (because they’re so dangerous and protection is either hard or not without drawbacks).

    Note i’m speaking generally of reenactors when there’s actually many styles of reenactment and not all of them think this way. But it’s something to be wary of whenever you look at a historical reenactor. Also i don’t say this as a disparagement of their art, merely pointing out that the accuracy has scope problems.

    • >Also i don’t say this as a disparagement of their art, merely pointing out that the accuracy has scope problems.

      I’m not actually a reenactor. I’m a student of historical martial forms. The difference is one of emphasis; we don’t costume, for one thing, although we do not infrequently wear emulations of period armor. Historical martial artists are generally very well aware of the “off-limits” techniques they don’t practice for safety reasons – my favorite example is actually shield-bashing, which was historically important but is far too dangerous to try to simulate.

      Admittedly many re-enactors are different in the way you describe. Ironically outfits like the SCA are actually less interested in studying period fechtbooks than we are. What they’re re-enacting is a kind of historical pageantry (“the Middle Ages, not as they were, but as they should have been” is a semi-joking SCA motto) in which proper weapon technique is stage decoration rather than an an end in itself as it is for us.

      But over near my end of things we try pretty hard to avoid telling just-so stories about edge vs. point blocking. And we often wear good stout fencing masks so we can do face strikes.

      Anybody using the tag HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) is likely to be near my end of the spectrum rather than the other, reenactor end.

      • Yeah HEMA was where I ended up so yeah don’t disagree with what you’re saying. Never did much with shields per se…Bucklers I.33 style but no shields.

        Having said that, John Clements’ “Flat of my Strong” was a HEMA thing and either dead wrong or vastly overemphasized depending on your point of view (the plays had value under specific circumstances but it was described as the whole of the art, not a piece of the art) although it’s fair to say that got a lot of push back at the time so it wasn’t like it was a globally accepted thing. (Like it was in the re-enactment circle i was exposed to)

    • As another example of the same thing I remember hearing a Youtube reenactor (I think who’s an archaeologist as well as a reenactor) talking about how an additional inaccuracy he noticed was that reenactors are generally quite careful of “enemy” equipment and won’t smash each other’s shields or spears for example.

      And also when “fighting” in a group they tend to fight to the last man, unlike real soldiers.

    • The other one I’ve heard reenactors on Youtube discuss is the lack of bludgeoning weapons like maces and axes (yes, axes were closer to sharp bludgeons than to cutting weapons).

      You can make a sword safe for reenacting easily enough, but there’s no plausible way to make a mace safe to bash someone in the head with, unless you massively alter its other characteristics (e.g., by making it out of Nerf) to the point where it’s useless as a serious reenactor’s weapon.

  5. Weapons are meant to be used.

    As a general case though I’m always skeptical of the idea that expensive things without a practical purpose were made on any kind of widespread scale before the modern era. Even religion was a much more practically geared thing before the Renaissance.

      • Pyramids were built for a real practical purpose from the perspective of their builders. We may believe it’s nonsense today, but it wasn’t to them. That’s a key thing I think a lot of people miss about ancient religions: they were really believed, and weren’t intended to provide some kind of vague ‘spiritual fulfillment’ but to solve actual problems and concerns.

        • Small pyramids would have served just as well as the monsters, unless the point (as with some medieval cathedrals) the point was to pour money out of the church/rules coffers and into the workman’s hands so as to keep the economy flowing.

          But more’s the point that almost everything has a “practical purpose” of you find the right angle to look at it from.

  6. > namely that Bronze Age swords were mainly ceremonial items with little use in actual combat

    I’m guessing that this theory was of a piece with the now thoroughly-debunked Arming America by Michael Bellesiles, and the nearly as thoroughly-debunked work of Marija Gimbutas.

    Namely, the fantasy that in some long-ago Golden Age, before the Evil KKKapitalist White Males took over, we all lived in peaceful feminist communist utopias, without any of those nasty weapons hanging about.

    Because why would you need weapons when everyone was living in some sort of communal sandal shop, where some people would like, make the sandals, and some people would, like, wear the sandals, and everything was, like, groovy? Unless, of course, you happened to be the person assigned to make all the sandals without getting paid. That wasn’t so groovy.

    • >the nearly as thoroughly-debunked work of Marija Gimbutas.

      Careful. She did turn into a bit a a flake case later in life, but she also turned out to have been right about something important. Summary here.

      • Hmm… I’m not sure the “invaders from the steppe” idea was original with her, especially since Europe has suffered several such invasions in historical times (Huns, Mongols, Turks…).

        I don’t believe her “peaceful matriarchy” idea for an instant.

        • >I’m not sure the “invaders from the steppe” idea was original with her

          It wasn’t – as I noted, in its modern form it goes back to 1926. What Gimbutas did was revive interest in the steppe-invader hypothesis after it had been discredited by association with Naziism, and tie it to the kurgan-builders – the people now labeled the Yamnaya. Now that we have paleogenetic assays we can say for certain that Gimbutas was right about that identification, and that her critics were wrong.

    • Off topic, but I recently did a deep-ish dive into what exactly the problems were with the Bellesiles book, and HOO BOY what a clusterfuck.

      • Clayton Cramer wrote a book-length response to it – “Armed America” – which is a pretty good read. It would be a better read if weren’t directly responding to Bellesiles, though.

  7. The linked article’s headline is wrong. It should read:

    Archeologists are shocked to discover that objects had practical uses not connected to ritual.

  8. It might be yet another case of the hyper-pacifist “pots, not people” theory of archeology. But there is one point – a bronze sword does sound like a bad idea to me. Why would you even want to chop to begin with? It distributes force on a wider area than a thrusting point, easier to parry than a thrust, the sword breaks easier that way, it is easier stopped by armor and less likely to go deep enough to reach vital organs. I would use a thrusting weapon. And if you want to chop, chop with the end of it and fix the end on something less fragile than bronze, like a hardwood shaft, and then you have invented the battleaxe.

    • >I would use a thrusting weapon

      Interestingly, Bronze-Age swords evolved from thrusting weapons to chopping ones. Something in the battle environment disfavored thrusting. My own guess is that the “something” was leather or waxed-linen armor.

      • >And if you want to chop, chop with the end of it and fix the end on something less fragile than bronze, like a hardwood shaft, and then you have invented the battleaxe.

        I missed this first time around. Fun fact revealed by archaeology: the Yamnaya – the Indo-European invaders – loved battleaxes. They made and used a lot of them in both stone and bronze.

        • Wait. Wasn’t the main reason of their success the chariot? And using bows while riding them, combining range with mobility which has always been a winner tactic, as mobility means you are not where they can hurt you but range means you can still hurt them.

          • >Wasn’t the main reason of their success the chariot?

            No. The chariot was invented by an eastern offshoot of the Yamnaya – the Sintashta culture – centuries after the invasion of Europe. The Sintashta became the Aryans who overran northern India.

            It did diffuse back to Europe fairly rapidly, however – within about 500 years. The western Indo-European invaders had only horse-drawn carts, but their Mycenean Greek descendants were chariot warriors.

      • I don’t really understand that… Take any old leather jacket that got hardened by the passage of time, and a kitchen knife. What is easier, to thrust/pierce through it or to cut – real deep – through it?

        • >Take any old leather jacket that got hardened by the passage of time, and a kitchen knife.

          See, there’s your problem. Bronze won’t take the kind of fine edge or point that steel will; it’s tough but not as hard. That changes the tradeoff between thrust and cut.

      • I went down the rabbit hole of some of the linked articles – thanks for an interesting & educational morning Eric – one of which involved testing replica Mycenean “rapiers” against armour. Apparently thrusts easily defeated linen gambesons and treated leather, but had no chance against the thin (0.9mm) copper sheet they were using as a surrogate for Derna-style bronze cuirasses.

        • >Apparently thrusts easily defeated linen gambesons and treated leather.

          Well, that’s interesting. Alexander the Great’s men counted on a linothorax to stop blade thrusts over a millennium later; if this result replicated in period one would have expected the linothorax to have been replaced by bronze armor much sooner than it was.

          In fact, battlefield evolution went in the other direction – linothorax-wearing light hoplites replaced bronze-armored heavy hoplites in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE and use of the linothorax persisted until at least early Roman times. It was finally obsolesced by steel chainmail and scale mail.

          • I think the optimal solution for a whole army might not be the same as the optimal solution for someone engaging in a duel-like one on one fight. Maybe one on one, the heavy hoplite could defeat the light hoplite, but the light hoplite can marcher faster and longer and thus the army could get strategic advantages that way and so on.

            Like how Ned Kelly demonstrated that it is possible to smith armor that can withstand 19th century firearms (he jus forgot his legs), still it was not feasible to outfit armies like that.

    • Another big advantage of axes is that they use less metal, since the shaft can be wooden. In the early Bronze Age, bronze was extremely rare, so economy of metal was an important concern.

      • >In the early Bronze Age, bronze was extremely rare

        Actually this may not be true.

        Copper was not especially scarce, back then it could be found in lots of placer deposits (often in association with gold) that – while not adequate for modern needs – were probably enough for the consumption of the time. Additionally, ancient metallurgists had already learned that they could recover copper by roasting ores such as malachite.

        The actual bottleneck seems to have been tin for alloying. While it was already scarce enough in early Classical times to motivate trade with Cornish tin miners at the edge of the known world, it may not have been before the Bronze Age collapse c.1280BCE.

        I’ve seen a paper, a thesis by Clayton Cramer (the guy who took down Bellesiles) arguing that the collapse was cause in part by the exhaustion of a common tin source that was later forgotten. Apparently there’s evidence that it used to be possible to wander around the Middle East picking up tin-rich mineral nodules off the ground. So our ancestors smelted them all and were then left without a clue how to get more tin. Ooops…

        Cramer thinks this motivated the shift to working iron, which was known but considered inferior. Well, it’s prone to rust, after all.

        • The discussions I’ve seen on the topic point out that most metallic items from the era are very small, and most civilian uses are lacking, which points towards scarcity – it’s expensive enough you can only really afford it for warfare.

          Also, the bottleneck with iron wasn’t inferiority as I understand it, it was smelting. Getting iron out of the ore takes far higher temperatures than you can easily get with basic methods like blowpipes, so you need advanced fire-making (as weird as that sounds) before you can smelt iron.

          I’m not an expert on this, and it’s possible that I’ve heard incorrect things. But it struck me as very reasonable.

          • Alright, I think the comment system choked on too long a post, so here’s the short version.

            It’s not that hard to smelt iron ore, the early smelters were wind-driven (which is hard for throughput, since its weather dependent), but not complicated. It wastes a lot of ore (turns it into pig steel, too brittle to do anything).

            The hard part is actually working the refined iron, which requires careful quenching to harden, and requires a tightly controlled amount of carbon.

            As for the issue of rust, it isn’t a major problem. Wrought iron (what you get with the primitive foundry process) contains a lot of silicon, which prevents oxygen from penetrating more than a few micrometers. It rusts, but the rust doesn’t compromise the structure (unless you repeatedly polish away the rust, or submerge it for extended periods).

    • > a bronze sword does sound like a bad idea to.

      Compared to what?

      Compared to an Iron sword, yes. But that wasn’t one of their options.

      Bronze weapons are (mostly) better than wood or stone, which were their other two options.

  9. “I am, as Charles Babbage might have said, not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a theory.”
    How about; “I find it difficult to express with appropriate moderation my disagreement with the proposition”
    Lord Justice Hoffman, of the UK House of Lords

  10. ESR wrote:
    ‘ “Ceremonial objects”, my ass. That shouldn’t even have been a question. ‘
    It reflects the state of archaeology, which basically hasn’t changed since someone made it up as an excuse for digging around for old stuff. There’s far, far too much making sh*t up about what and how on far, far too little evidence. It’s even worse for paleontology.

  11. Swords, with a few exceptions (Roman legions) were sidearms – self-defence and backup weapon. The main weapon was spear or spear and shield.

    Bronze replica sword with work hardened edge can cut through thin gauge mild steel cut edgewise, and can cut deeply into wooden shield edge.

  12. You do not need complicated theories. A society that can afford ceremonial weapons also can afford real weapons. (The reverse is not necessarily true) So if the best weapons you find used by a society are bronze you can safely assume that their real weapons were indeed bronze. And that they were useful.
    Generally the older a civilisation the less surplus they had for frivolities.

  13. A hypothesis about these hypotheses:
    Contrarianism for novelty’s sake drowning the signal in endless noise is what you get when a) You have to propose something novel to graduate, and b) There’s nothing new that it’s reasonable to say. That leaves the nigh-infinite space of unreasonable things to say.

    I predict in the future, we’ll see papers that look like random strings of phonemes, and the future robot archaeologists will have a hell of a time figuring out that it’s not encrypted, it’s just nonsense. :-P (Alan Sokal: more postmodernist than he knew…)

    Infinite grad students banging on infinite keyboards….

    • > I predict in the future, we’ll see papers that look like random strings of phonemes,

      I suspect that Gender Studies papers already approach this.

  14. Many years ago I owned a book on experimental archaeology, which discussed attempts to recreate ancient technologies and see how they worked. When I read it carefully, I found a passage that discussed bronze shields, and concluded that they were not actually useful, based on recreations that didn’t provide much defense. But the researchers weren’t able to obtain bronze (which seems rather surprising in itself), so they used copper instead, and applied their conclusions from it to bronze! That’s why I no longer own that book; it reported that “finding” quite uncritically . . .

    • I think experimental archaeology today is around where experimental chemistry was in 1850. They’re really just doing the most basic imaginable things to get a baseline.

  15. Hey you haven’t updated us on your wing chun progress since 2018. As a BJJ nerd into tech, I feel like I’ve been left on a 2 year cliff hanger. You better still be training!

    • >You better still be training!

      I am, but it was badly interrupted by my ankle injury last year and COVID this year. So there’s not much to report.

  16. I think archaeologists have mostly admitted weapons weren’t just ceremonial, partly due to mockery from, say, Eric. But when Mike Pitts, a smart archaeologist describing Henges, circular artifacts all over England, he can still say – ‘Technically, they are are earthwork enclosures in which a ditch was dug to make a bank, which was thrown up on the outside edge of the ditch. To the military-minded, this immediately excludes any practical, defensive function for the ditches and banks.’

    The Berlin Wall, Alcatraz, Angola Prison and any cattle pen have, by this standard, no practical, defensive function.

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