Bending in the grave

Killing weapons in the Early Iron Age Aegean

Most of the objects recovered in archaeological excavations are broken. Sometimes this breakage is intentional. In Early Iron Age Greece, particularly the tenth and ninth centuries, intentionally destroyed weapons were deposited in burials.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on

In archaeology, most of the objects that we excavate are broken. Even those that we find in the grave are often damaged, but the closed context allows these objects to be reconstructed and repaired so that we have an object that is (nearly) whole. The idea is that these objects have been damaged throughout the millennia in which they have sat in the ground and that, in order to understand the culture that made them, they must be repaired.

Not every object was destroyed accidentally. In certain contexts it is clear that an object – perhaps a pot, or a sculpture, or even a building – was intentionally destroyed for any number of reasons, from politics and religion to acts of violence. In the context of the grave, intentional destruction is usually interpreted as having a ritual or religious function.

In Early Iron Age Greece (ca. 1100 to 700 BC) the rise in the popularity of cremation as a burial ritual means that many objects were destroyed before burial – including the body of the deceased itself.Show Rebay-Sailsbury 2010 argues that cremation is a form of intentional destruction. But within this destruction certain objects are singled out for special treatment: swords.

Killed swords in the Iron Age Aegean

In the case of swords, it has become common to refer to these intentionally destroyed objects as having been “killed”. The term is loaded – it carries with it the presumption that at one point these weapons were considered to be “alive”. The very idea that these weapons were “killed” is based on a parallel with northern European cultures in which weapons were given names and personalities, and were thus “killed” to accompany their owners to the afterlife.Show Desborough 1972, p. 142 n. 11; 312. There is no indication that weapons in the Aegean Iron Age were anthropomorphised in this way, nor that they could accompany their owners to the afterlife.

The typical intentionally destroyed sword is one that has been bent out of shape, either into a circle and placed around the neck of a burial urn, or in half, such as the sword in the grave of the so-called “Warrior Craftsman” in the Athenian Agora (D 16:4). Another Athenian grave includes a sword that has been bent into an S-shape (Metropolitan Church Burial). While other objects may have been burned on the funerary pyre, these swords have been singled out for special treatment, bending that would have required not only additional effort but the skills of a professional ironsmith.

These bent swords are usually found in graves that date between 950 and 850 BC. They are known largely on the western side of the Aegean, from Thessaly, Euboea, and Attica, as well as in Crete. A late occurrence of killing swords are the burials at the West Gate in Eretria, ca. 700 BC. Two of these graves contained killed swords: there were four in Tomb 6, and two in Tomb 9. The former of these also included a damaged bronze spearhead.

An important question with regards to killed swords is whether or not those that are broken are part of the same phenomenon. It is unclear to me that the damage done to these swords is intentional, or simply the result of their decay as they lay in the ground. Swords are found broken into pieces in inhumation burials as well as cremations.

On the other hand, in some burials only fragments of weapons are found. It may be that these weapons were broken, although once more it is unclear whether or not this was the result of intentional destruction for burial. Kate Harrell has argued with regards to the shaft grave swords that these fragments could have been used to create new swords, a process that would carry some symbolism, but such an approach is not possible with iron swords.Show Harrell 2015.

Bending the point

It is noteworthy that in most of the burials in mainland Greece and Euboea it is almost always swords that are intentionally destroyed. However, there are some potential exceptions. Irene Lemos noted that the phalara used as lids in three Athenian burials, if correctly interpreted as shield-bosses, could not have been attached to their shields when they were placed in the grave – the weight would have damaged the burial urn and there is a good chance that the shields would not fit.Show Lemos 2002, p. 124. Nevertheless, leather still adhered to the back of one of these phalara, indicating that it must have been attached to something. Perhaps the shield was partially destroyed.

A killed (?) phalara used as a lid. Kerameikos Museum in Athens. Photo by Matthew Lloyd.

Similarly, spears may have been put out of use not by bending or breaking the metal point, but by breaking or burning the wooden shaft. Certain graves are too short for the full length of the spear to have been buried with the deceased, suggesting that only the metal part was buried, or the wooden parts were destroyed.

There are two exceptions to this phenomenon. One, in West Gate Tomb 6 at Eretria dated to the late eighth century, is a bronze spearhead that has been twisted and partially destroyed. This spearhead has usually been interpreted as a Mycenaean heirloom, used as a sceptre, but it also may have been an Italian or European object.Show Bettelli 2001.

Bent spearheads from Prinias; currently at the Heraklion Museum. Photo by Matthew Lloyd.

On Crete, long iron spearheads are regularly found bent out of shape in much the same manner as the Athenian and Eubeoan swords mentioned above. It is likely that the spear held more significance to the Iron Age Cretans than to those further to the north.

Conclusions

There are no fully satisfactory explanations for the killing of weapons in the Iron Age Aegean. As mentioned above, there is no evidence that the swords were anthropomorphised as they are in other cultures, and so the term “killed” is unlikely to be how the Iron Age Greeks thought of the process.

A soulless interpretation of the killing of swords suggests that it is simply a means by which these objects can be made to fit in the grave.Show Snodgrass 1999, p. 37; Smithson 1974, p. 341. While this might apply to the bronze phalara, it is an unsatisfactory explanation for the swords considering the effort involved in their destruction. A simpler explanation would have been to dig a slightly larger grave in the first place. One grave in the Athenian Kerameikos also included a killed dagger, 0.27m long, that would have fit in the grave without bending.

I have proposed that the eighth-century examples, particularly those from Eretria were multiple swords appear in a single burial, may have been killed because they were weapons taken from the enemy.Show Lloyd 2015. There is increasing evidence for the significance of the capture of weapons and armour in combat from the eighth century, including dedications in sanctuaries and, in the seventh century, references in the poems of Archilochus and Alcaeus.

However, this explanation is unsatisfactory for the killed swords of the ninth century. In those cases, our best guess is that the prestige of metal weapons and their scarcity made killing them a significant symbol of power.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • M. Bettelli, “A supposed Mycenaean spearhead from Eretria,” Studi Micenei Ed Egeo-Anatolici (2001), pp. 189-193.
  • V.R. d’A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages (1972).
  • A.M. D’Onofrio, “Athenian burials with weapons: The Athenian warrior graves revisited,” in A. Mazarakis Ainian (ed.), The “Dark Ages” Revisited (2011), pp. 645-673.
  • K. Harrell, “Piece out. Comparing the intentional destruction of swords in the Early Iron Age and the Mycenaean Shaft Graves,” in: K. Harrell and J. Driessen (eds), THRAVSMA. Contextualising the Intentional Destruction of Objects in the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus (2015), pp. 143-153.
  • I. Lemos, The Protogeometric Aegean. The Archaeology of the Late Eleventh and Tenth Centuries BC (2002).
  • M. Lloyd, “Death of a swordsman, death of a sword: The killing of swords in the Early Iron Age Aegean (ca. 1050 to ca. 690 BCE),” in: G. Lee, H. Whittaker, and G. Wrightson (eds), Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, Volume I (2015), pp. 14-31.
  • K. Rebay-Salisbury, “Cremations: fragmented bodies in the Bronze and Iron Ages,” in: K. Rebay-Salisbury, M.L. Sørensen, and J. Hughes (eds.), Body Parts and Bodies Whole: Changing Relations and Meanings (2010), pp. 64-71.
  • E.L. Smithson, “A Geometric cemetery on the Areopagus: 1897, 1932, 1947,” Hesperia 43 (1974), pp. 325-390.
  • A.M. Snodgrass, Arms and Armor of the Greeks (1999; first ed. 1967).
  • J. Whitley, “Objects with attitude: biographical facts and fallacies in the study of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age warrior graves,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12.2 (2002), pp. 217-23.

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