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Chris Lampe

Location: United States
Joined: 07 Mar 2005

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PostPosted: Tue 31 Oct, 2006 6:32 pm    Post subject: Evolution of the long iron sword: Who influenced who?         Reply with quote

I've been reading Oakeshott's "Archaeology" and trying to get a clear picture of the evolution of the cruciform sword of the middle-ages.

Oakeshott credits the Celts with developing the long iron sword and I know the Romans gradually transitioned from the Gladius to the Spatha.

Did the Romans develop the spatha from experience with Celtic auxiliaries, Germanic auxiliaries or both?

Did the Germanic tribes already have long iron/steel swords when they crossed the Danube or did they aquire them from the Celts? Oakeshott seems to suggest that the Germanic tribes took over the Celtic arms centers but he doesn't specify if this was the first widespread use of the long sword by the Germans. He also makes it quite clear that the Roman cavalry swords found in the bog deposits were quite different from the Germanic swords found there. Does this suggest a closer link to the Celtic swords, more of which seemed to have a flattened-diamond cross-section?

I also seem to remember some references to the Germanic tribes being influenced by the swords of the Sarmations. If true, did the long sword develop independently in Eastern Europe/the middle-east or were the Sarmations somehow influenced by the Celts as well?

The transition from the Migration Era forward is clear to me, the transition from the Celts to the Migration era is not.
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Shane Allee
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Location: South Bend, IN
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PostPosted: Thu 02 Nov, 2006 8:20 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Wow no opinions on this...?

There will always be some speculation on the topic, but every year the general understand of the topic does improve. Research is being done and it slowly trickles out as it gets published and then usually has to be translated.

During the Celtic La Tene period we do see many changes that have major impacts on the development of the sword. While it isn't like we see a sword in the hand of every Celtic warrior, we do see a large increase in the numbers of swords being produced. An ironworking industry if you will does emerge. Often times there is what archaeologist label of "currency bars" found that are nothing more than iron/steel sword blanks/billets. Like we see with salt, copper, tin, etc previously, we now have the ironworking centers blow up.

As far as the swords themselves go, they undergo major changes as well. For the La Tene I period the typical sword would probably have had a blade around 24" long, pretty wide, a strong medial ridge, and a large aggressively tapered tip. By the end of the La Tene I and beginning of La Tene II they start changing. They start getting a bit longer and we have more lenticular blades and some diamond cross sections. For the La Tene II the blades continue to get longer and the new blade cross sections are the norm. The beginning of La Tene III we are seeing major changes in sword development again. Not only do we see another growth spurt, but all kind of new blade designs are being tried. The average blade length probably gets up around 32" long with some being 36", and these are all still single hand swords. Lenticular blades stick around, but the diamond cross sectioned one are now being made hollow ground or fullered. Many blades have a fuller on each side of the medial ridgeline at this point, and it many turn out to have been a way to made the blade more ridged. Others have a slight hollow ground cross section and might not have had any point at all for one extreme and others had a profile taper that looks more like a 15TH century thrusting sword. The Port finds are a great visual example that shows the just how much variety we see in the swords of the La Tene III.

The thing about Roman expansion is that most of the time it is more about absorbing in new people and places into the empire rather than total destruction of areas. As the Roman empire grew the auxiliaries were filled with celtic warriors among other "barbarians." The same thing would have happened with any industries that were swallowed up in the expansion as well, they aren't going to go in and shut it down... It is now just Roman.

If we look at swords found in Britain we can see more distinct lines in sword development. First we see a La Tene I style that spreads into Britain, and native made swords begin to be copies of the non-native continental swords that are found. There is somewhat a period of isolation where the native sword evolves, and then we see a push of Belgic influence in Southern Britain that brings in some continental La Tene III styles. Then with the Roman invasion examples of continental celtic swords that have Roman influences being found from the auxiliaries.

One thing that I will say is that things can get very muddy along any border areas and it is very hard to say if something is distinctly one groups or another. Some of the early helms and spears are very similar around Italy and it can be almost impossible to say it something is Celtic or Etrustcan. We see trade between the celtics and Thracians, and there are a few chain belts that appear to be imitations of celtic styles. By the time you get to some of the bordering areas between the Celtic and Germanic people there can be some much mixing between the two that it is just mud.

Nathan Bell in the last few months has turned a good bit of his attention to the early germanic tribes, so I'll see if I can get him to post a bit when he has some free time. He has been getting me into it some. The early bog deposits are a mix of defeated armies, from what I understand sometimes some you can say certainly if something is one or the other and other times that distinction just can't be made. I know that I'm not even about to stick my neck out and say when we see the first distinctly germanic longsword though. Maybe Nate can mention a few though.

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Chris Lampe

Location: United States
Joined: 07 Mar 2005

Posts: 211

PostPosted: Thu 02 Nov, 2006 2:49 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote


Thanks for the informative reply! That's the most comprehensive overview I've seen of the evolution of the sword through the La Tene periods. Oakeshott's "Archaeology" seems to gloss over a lot of the details about these blades (or I missed the info over several readings).

Hopefully we can get some more input on where the Germanic tribes fit into this picture.
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John Cooksey

Location: NW Ark
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PostPosted: Thu 02 Nov, 2006 3:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The Iranian (Sarmatian) swords were almost certainly an independent invention, though they grew out of a western steppe tradition that was similar to the so-called La Tene cultures. Actually, the first (known) long-bladed iron/steel cavalry swords appear on the steppe around 500 BC, before the appearance of the Sarmatian tribes as a major force. Oddly enough, some of these really ancient swords bear a strong resemblance to swords of the Germanic Migration-era, having slim, short iron upper and lower guards , wire-wrapped grips, and wide-fullered blades.
Like Shane said, it's really hard to tell who was responsible for what, in the border areas, and it is in those very border areas that we see the most innovation and change, as ideas are shared and communicated across the landscape and between cultural core areas (if you believe in such things).
The you come into the problem of creating definitions, not only for artifacts and periods and material complexes, but also of cultures. What is a Celt, exactly, or a German, or a Sarmatian. Some groups that can be positively identified as belonging to one linguistic family can share more cultural attributes with people from other linguistic families. We know that, on the steppe, any given large tribe, horde, or "what have you" could have sub-groups speakering multiple languages, all with the same basic material culture complex---and I am sure that the same case goes for people living in Europe.

I personally believe that the long iron/steel swords of the Migration period can be derived from multiple sources. Celtic long swords, Roman spathae (which do share obvious points of origin with some of the Celtic weapons), and Gotho-Sarmatian weaponry probably all influenced the development of weaponry in Dark Age Europe. There seems to be ever more evidence that Sarmatian military colonies were scattered throughout Western Europe, and the Alano-Sarmatians certainly came along for the ride in the great Gothic migrations that saw the end of the power of the Western Empire, as some of them later did with Attila. It's all a big, beautiful mess, and I don't think there is any type of lineal evolution to be found in it.

I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender.
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Jeroen Zuiderwijk
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PostPosted: Fri 03 Nov, 2006 3:25 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Long iron swords have been made from the first introduction of iron around 800BC. They simply copied the same swords that were in bronze, such as the Gundlingen and Mindelheim types. However, at the end of the Hallstatt period, swords seem to have gone out of fashion, and were replaced by short daggers (very Pugio like, but much older). As I understand, it's these daggers that evolved in the La Tene swords. This gap in sword development explains why sword construction traditions that have been used for some 600 years were suddenly dropped, and swords appeared again with a very different construction. I've no idea though what happened outside this region, nore why swords disappeared at the end of the Hallstatt period, and reappeared in the La Tene period though.
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