TEMPL Historic Arms Iron Age Celtic Sword
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly
Barbarian. This is an interesting descriptor that we must put into its proper context if we are to understand the subject of this review. What exactly is a barbarian? The popular image is that of an uncouth and uneducated individual, completely incapable of refined thought and demeanor. Certainly this was the viewpoint taken by the Roman Republic during its years of expansion. Indeed, it was felt that anyone who wasn't Roman was a barbarian regardless of culture or background. Nowhere was this stance taken more strongly than in the Roman's opinion of one of his oldest adversaries: the Celt.
The various tribes and peoples that we have come to place under the name "Celt" were, in fact, no more barbarous than any other culture of the period. The Celtic warrior stood upon the battlefields of antiquity for nearly three thousand years: long before, and after, the fall of the Roman Empire. European Celtic culture was a complex system of organization and hierarchy. While they did not possess a written language, their culture possessed an oral tradition that was envied by the other civilizations of the day. The Celts also possessed great skill in the manufacturing of textiles as well as other goods. Nowhere was this skill more apparent, nor is it more valued today, than in the field of metalworking. Many objects have been found that attest to this skill. Everyday items such as eating utensils and jewelry indicate a high level of craftsmanship and pride. However, nowhere is this skill and pride more evident than in Celtic weapons manufacture.
The Celtic male was first and foremost a warrior. He wasn't a farmer or herdsman who fought only in the off-season. The Celtic warrior has come down to us through the ages as a figure of great passion and ferocity. This was a man who took great satisfaction from his status as a warrior and the quality of his weapons shows this. Many surviving examples show profuse ornamentation in their scabbards. Complex blade shapes were used that later disappeared during the later Viking age and medieval period, only to resurface in later medieval sword manufacture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the swords found in the bog deposits of the La Tène site.
In 1857, at Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, amateur archeologist, Hansli Kopp, found weapons and the remains of timber piles driven into the lake bed on its northern edge. The later draining and dredging of this section of the lake revealed a wealth of weapons and artifacts that are still the subject of intense study today. This area is known as La Tène, or "The Shallows." So significant are the artifacts found at this site that its name has been given to an entire period of Celtic history and development. Celtic civilization as well as its weapons development is considered to have reached its pinnacle during the La Tène period, roughly from 500 B.C. to around 50 B.C.
Today, Celtic Iron Age weapons are a bit neglected in the reproduction market. There isn't nearly the profusion of good quality examples of Celtic weaponry as we see in later periods. There are, however, several individual sword makers who are keeping the Celtic spirit of sword-making alive. One of these, and arguably one of the best, is Patrick Bárta of TEMPL Historic Arms. Mr. Bárta lives and works in the Czech Republic and is widely know in that region for his workmanship and attention to detail. His work has been shown in exhibitions throughout Europe, in such places as the Budapest National Museum, the National Museum in Prague, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.
One point of interest in Mr. Bárta's work concerns his method of manufacture. In many cases he will smelt his own steel from raw iron ore. Many sword makers in the European tradition lay claim to a high level of historical accuracy in their work. Very few of them use a process that results in this level of historical accuracy. In the case of Patrick Bárta, it is possible to own a sword that is as close to its historical ancestors as is humanly possible. I have long wanted to examine an example of Mr. Bárta's work. I was finally given this opportunity in October of 2004. While in New Glarus, Wisconsin for an annual "Swordfest" held by Albion Armorers, I was introduced to Nathan Bell. Mr. Bell is a collector of Celtic arms and something of an authority on the subject. At this time I was able to examine Mr. Bell's Celtic sword manufactured by Patrick Bárta. He was also kind enough to send it to me for an in-depth review at a later date. This sword is the subject of this review.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Patrick Bárta, TEMPL Historic Arms of the Czech Republic.
Fit and Finish
When seeing this sword for the first time one is immediately struck by its pattern-welded blade. Over the last few decades, pattern welding (often erroneously referred to as Damascus steel) has seen a huge renaissance in its popularity. This is a process that involves the twisting and folding of different grades of iron or steel together into useable blade material. The biggest difference in the pattern-welded steel of today is that it is usually employed for aesthetic effect, whereas in ancient times, pattern-welding was a method used to gain the best results of low-grade materials.
The hilt construction uses the two-tone effect that is so common in modern interpretations of swords of this period. The upper and lower guards are fashioned from dark European walnut, while the grip is made from elk antler. The grip is incised with two groups of lines, consisting of three horizontal lines each. This adds a bit of security in the gripping surface as well as a slight bit of visual detail on an otherwise austere hilt. The design of the upper and lower guards takes a slight departure from common convention. Most recreations of this era feature very rounded and globular hilt components. This design element is born out by most surviving artwork of the period. This sword's components feature a much more angular, almost anthropomorphic design. When swords of the era are found, their organic hilt components have invariably perished. Therefore, we must rely upon the aforementioned artistic resources for our inspiration. These resources can at times be seen as rather dubious in nature so this should not be seen as a criticism of the hilt's design. To be fair, Mr. Bárta may have had access to continental Celtic sword designs that remain unpublished. A rivet block that is of a pyramidal shape secures the hilt. Most surviving specimens feature a round rivet block, so this is another minor design element that may be an artistic choice of the maker.
Whether or not the hilt design is based upon firm historic background or artistic convention is a small point of debate. Regardless of this, the hilt is tightly constructed and well finished. Aesthetically the design is very pleasing.
The scabbard is made of sheet iron and is accurate for a continental Celtic sword of the middle La Tène period. The swirling designs found upon the scabbard's throat provide a nice artistic detail, and are executed in the style found in the La Tène area of Switzerland. Upon receiving the sword, Mr. Bell noted that the scabbard lacked the characteristic chape and throat reinforcement found on most Celtic scabbards of the period. Mr. Bell chose to have these elements replicated by John Heinz of Herugrim Custom Ironwork, a company that specializes in reproducing Celtic ironwork.
Since this sword was not my own personal property, my handling exercises were limited to non-contact maneuvers. Consequently, I did not do any cutting exercises. The sword did, however, posses a clean and sharp cutting edge that should serve its purpose well. As with most swords of this type this one cannot be described as subtle or lively. In spite of its light weight it does exhibit a point-forward blade presence. This point-forward balance does result in a sword that follows its point well into a thrust. This is an interesting aspect when one considers the common belief that Celtic swords were not designed with thrusting maneuvers in mind.
This type of dynamic handling is simply an attribute of the sword's design rather than a fault of its construction. Given the organic hilt components there really isn't enough weight or mass in that area of the sword to give it a lively and well-balanced feel. All the same, its handling is well within the parameters for a sword of this type. I did perform some basic drills with this sword while using a shield. I did not find the sword to be tiring or cumbersome in its handling. I believe it would be capable of effective cutting and thrusting when used in the appropriate manner.
This is the first example of the work from TEMPL Historic Arms that I have had the pleasure of seeing in person. As I stated before, I have desired this opportunity for some time and this sword did not disappoint me. I found much to like about Mr. Bárta's interpretation of an Iron Age Celtic sword. In the end I could find nothing to dislike about it. The work exhibits very good attention to construction and aesthetic values. This sword also showed attention to points of historic accuracy that I haven't seen in the work of many other makers, despite being at a lower comparative price. This sword impressed me enough that I placed an order of my own with Mr. Bárta. I can't think of a better recommendation than that.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.
Special thanks go to Nathan Bell for his willingness to provide his sword for review.
Photographer: Nathan Robinson