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.