Bronze Age Sword Identification Using Typologies & Artifacts
The Bronze Age is defined as the time when civilizations began experimenting with bronze metallurgy. From approximately 3300 to 1200 BC, people groups around the world crafted bronze weapons almost exclusively.
The earliest sword smiths started their craft in the 17th century BC. The first swords originated in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean regions. Archaeologists believe early swords derived from daggers.
Bronze Age swords were short compared to swords of other periods, but were longer than the daggers they originated from. Because of their bronze content, swords of these time period had to be shorter than those of later centuries.
Swords and other weapons of the Bronze Age could contain copper, tin, arsenic, and other metals to create a more durable metal. While swords could measure up to 80 to 100 centimeters in length, most were much shorter.
It is interesting to note that sword length and blade width actually started out longer in the early part of the Bronze Age. Swords dating to the middle Bronze Age were more rapier-like, with long and relatively narrow blades. Swords shortened and widened through the late Bronze Age until they resembled the Greek xiphos of the Iron Age.
The following is an introduction to the complex topic of Bronze Age sword history and archaeology. While Bronze Age swords can be found across Europe, the Near East, India, and China, the focus of this article is on the most recognizable swords from the Aegean, Northern Europe, and China.
A discussion of sword typology for artifacts of this era and other methods of research are included. An in-depth look at the most famous Bronze Age sword typology is also provided. We have made sure to link helpful journal articles and other sources along the way for further study.
Using Typologies to Study Swords
One of the most enduring methods of Bronze Age sword identification is the typology. Typologies are essential tools for archaeologists and related professionals. They are defined as “systems for the classification of objects into groups according to traits held in common.”
While imperfect, typologies allow us to examine sword characteristics in an organized and oftentimes chronological way.
The most common Bronze Age sword typology is the Sandars Typology. It organizes Aegean Bronze Age swords based on their hilt design and blade features. Nancy Sandars was a British archaeologist and independent scholar whose contributions continue to be important today.
The Sandars Typology assigns a letter of the alphabet to each main category of Aegean swords. Subtypes exist for many of the main types.
While the Sandars Typology remains the standard in its original form, a few scholars have modified it over the years. Driessen and Macdonald’s modifications alter Sandars’ organization minimally. Catling studied the Naue ii type sword (which is discussed below) and so completed our understanding of Aegean swords.
The work of Dr. Killian-Dirlmeier is also important, as it includes a catalog of many Aegean swords and their characteristics.
Other Bronze Age Sword Identification Methods
While typologies have been the standard mode of sword identification and organization for over a century, other methods are still important in the study of artifacts as old as those from the Bronze Age.
Because many weapons from the Bronze Age are in poor condition due to their age and the materials used, archeologists and other experts rely on a few other methods when identifying the type of weapon and its possible use.
The study of Bronze Age swords and warfare relies on three main methods: iconography, grave digs, and literary clues. Iconography pertains to images found on ceramics and other artifacts. The artwork of Bronze Age peoples tells scholars a lot about battles, weapons, fighting styles, and the status of swordbearers.
Grave digs are the source of most sword artifacts and provide clues about the people who used swords.
Literary clues are also important to scholars specializing in Bronze Age swords and warfare. Many ancient stories include swords with names and special powers. This suggests that swords were objects of fascination and respect. Greek tablets of military records also show scholars how many weapons existed and how they were used.
The Sandars Aegean Sword Typology
The Sandars Typology remains the standard for studying Aegean swords. Many swords of the Bronze Age originated in the Aegean area of modern day Greece and Crete. Trade existed between the Aegean region and the rest of Europe, so Aegean swords have been found across modern day Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, and as far away as Cornwall, England.
All Bronze Age swords share a short hilt and distinctive shoulders below the hilt that acted like a guard. The shape of the hilt and shoulders was necessary because of the weight of the bronze blade. They provided a more secure grip and overall control of the sword.
The wide distribution of Aegean swords suggests their superiority in craftsmanship and a sophisticated trade network. The following are the main types and subtypes included in the Sandars Typology. Photos of each sword type are included when possible.
More detailed charts describing each type can be found here.
The Sandars Type A sword dates to 1700 BC. It is believed to have derived from the Mesopotamian dagger. Eastern Mediterranean weapons makers may have lengthened the Mesopotamian dagger into a longer sword. This weapon was then carried back to the Aegean by traders from Crete.
An alternative origin story of the Type A sword is that it developed directly from Aegean daggers.
Type A swords feature hilts decorated with gold and ivory. This type lacks rivets for securing the hilt to the blade. A flat, narrow tang and rounded shoulders are also characteristics of this early sword.
The decorative style of the Type A suggests its use as a ceremonial weapon.
Type B swords date to 1600 BC and feature square, flanged shoulders. The short and stout blade of the Type B contrasts with longer forms of the Bronze Age.
This sword was usually around half the length of a Type A and features large rivets as shown above. Most of these blades have been discovered in Mycenae graves.
Type B swords lack ornamentation and are considered transitional weapons between the Type A and the horned types described below.
Type Ci dates to 1450 BC. This sword has a broad, long tang and rivets with flanged and horned shoulders. The shoulders of this blade are the most defining characteristics. “Horned” swords are named for their pointed shoulders.
This feature protected a soldier’s hand. Dramatic horned versions of the Type Ci have been uncovered in Eastern Europe.
This sword type has a longer and narrower blade than other Bronze Age swords.
Type Ci has a very wide distribution. Artifacts have been uncovered from Israel to Northern Europe.
Type Cii dates to 1450 BC and features a broad tang with no rivets. The flanged and horned shoulders are similar to the Type Ci. This type of sword lacks rivets and instead features bent flanges that secure the hilt to the blade.
Type Di also dates to 1450 BC. This sword has a broad tang and flanged, rounded shoulders. Rivets are grouped on different areas of the hilt: two in the shoulders and two to three in the tang.
Di swords range in length from 60 to 70 centimeters and many possess a spiral decoration on the blade.
Type Dii dates to the later Bronze Age (1250 BC). Like other swords of the age, it has a broad, flat tang. This blade has rounded and cross-like shoulders with a T-shaped pommel. The pommel and shoulders give the hilt an “I” shape.
The blade of Type Dii swords measures 52 to 60 centimeters.
Type Ei swords were first made in 1400 BC and are the size of daggers. They have rounded shoulders and a U-shaped blade.
All of the features of Ei swords are rounded and short.
The Eii sword type was popular around 1250 BC and has a T-shaped pommel. Although it possesses rounded shoulders like those of the Type Ei, the features of Eii swords are more angular than Ei.
Eii blades measure an average of 30 to 40 centimeters long.
Type F swords are the largest group of Aegean swords with the widest distribution. They have been found as far away as England. These swords are characterized by their T-shaped pommels, angular shoulders, and two rivet groups.
Type F has three subtypes with blades ranging from broad and flat to pointed and tapered.
This sword was first used in 1150 BC.
Type G (1250-1150) is thought to have derived from horned Type C blades. These swords have flanged grips, distinct pommels, hooked horn shoulders, and narrow blades.
Type H blades lack rivets and have tapered blades. The spur-shaped pommel is the most defining feature of this sword category.
Nordic, Germanic, & Other European Bronze Age Swords
While Aegean swords dominated the landscape of warfare in the Bronze Age, other European groups contributed to metallurgy and sword smithing. Aegean and northern European swords were traded, so many styles exist across the European continent.
Swords were status symbols in Europe due to their exotic material and high cost.
Most swords found in Europe were located in graves. 83% of all European sword artifacts originated in grave sites.
It is estimated that 3-12% or 14-35% of men in Germanic Europe carried a sword. These ranges differ depending on a few factors, but suggest that sword ownership was not as stratified as previously thought. Chiefs, landowners, and patriarchs of kin groups carried and used swords.
Nordic peoples of the Bronze Age adopted swords in the 13th century BC. Their blades were shorter than other styles in Europe and many feature spiral patterns.
Nordic Bronze Age swords are categorized as plate hilted, flange hilted, Nordic full-hilted, and octagonal hilted. Hilts of these blades were mounted with rivets.
Nordic sword bearers lived in a violent world with no centralized power. Therefore, self-defense was absolutely necessary.
It is believed that not all sword bearers were necessarily chiefs or upper class. Men of all social classes required self-defense weapons to protect themselves, their families, and their resources.
Nordic and Germanic swords and sword bearing have similar characteristics as described below.
While many Germanic men carried Aegean swords, they also developed their own sword type called the Naue ii. This sword is named after the Julius Naue, the scholar who discovered and studied it.
Naue ii swords first appeared in the 12th century BC in northern Italy at the end of the Mycenaean civilization (16th to 12 centuries). This sword type originated in Western Europe and was introduced to the Aegean region and Mesopotamia.
Large numbers of Naue ii swords have been discovered in Crete, suggesting that trade was common between the people of Crete and Western and Central Europe.
The Germanic Naue ii sword had no tang and was riveted to a separate bronze hilt. This sword type continued to be popular until the 6th century BC.
3) England & Other Areas
Swords used in England and other areas of Europe included Naue ii type swords and Aegean styles. Those made close to home were crafted from tin bronze containing 10% tin.
Leaf-shaped blades were common in Northwest Europe and the British Isles. This sword type combined a broad blade for cutting with a narrow point for thrusting.
Swords of Bronze Age China
Bronze Age Chinese swords are some of the most fascinating ancient artifacts in world history. Bronze Age jian style swords feature wide blades with a gentle taper. A wide pommel and short grip provide the sword with balance and stability.
Blades like those shown above date to the Shang Dynasty, the Warring States Period, and the Qin Dynasty. They measure 50 to 60 centimeters in average length.
Chinese swords are unique because they were made with high tin edges and low tin cores. This allowed for a sharper blade. The overall tin content of Chinese Bronze Age swords is higher than that of other regions. This made Chinese blades shatter rather than bend upon impact.
Chinese sword makers used bronze longer than other regions. Bronze swords continued to be crafted well into the Iron Age.