At Large  August 2, 2023  Danielle Vander Horst

Newly Unearthed Ancient Weapons and Armor Remarkably Preserved: Here's Why

Photo: Courtesy Archäologie-Büro Dr. Woidich/Sergiu Tifui

An octagonal Bronze Age sword found near Nördlingen, Germany dating to ca. the 14th century BCE. The blade was preserved in the soil to such an incredible degree that it is fully intact and shows no signs of wear.

For as long as humans have walked this earth, we have carried with us objects of violence. Arms and armor have defined entire cultures and epochs of time, acting as totems of identity and power. One might consider a Viking’s shield, a medieval knight’s suit, or a Greek warriors plumed helm to name just a few iconic examples of how culturally ingrained such items can be. 

Yet, oftentimes, the preservation of such objects and thus our present knowledge of them may seem rather miraculous. Metals, especially those from pre-modern periods, are extremely prone to rust, while wooden handles and other organically based ornamentation can easily break down and decompose within years if not properly stored and cared for. Take, for example, the recent discoveries of the gleaming Bronze Age sword and the full suit of armor made recently in Germany and Spain.

Photo: Courtesy Archäologie-Büro Dr. Woidich/Sergiu Tifui

An octagonal Bronze Age sword found near Nördlingen, Germany dates to ca. the 14th century BCE and was found in a burial containing an adult male, adult female, and adolescent boy along with other objects.

In June, German archeologists found a Bronze Age (14th century BCE) fully intact bronze sword in Nördlingen, Germany, which came from soil so dense and clay-like that it enabled the preservation of the still gleaming blade. The uncovering of the sword is miraculous not only because tomb looting in the area has made precious finds a rarity, but because it is also so wonderfully preserved, showing little to no evidence of tarnish beyond the patina-green hue that bronze naturally acquires after years of neglect. 

Intricate designs upon the hilt are still visible and the integrity of the metal will allow researchers to analyze more closely the manufacturing process of this and other swords like it. This particular discovery is also noteworthy for the possible social interpretations of the burial it was found in, which contained an adult male, adult female, and adolescent male skeleton along with other ceramic and bronze finds. Anthropological studies of the interred individuals in combination with the materials found alongside them will be able to tell us more about who they might have been to each other and how they might have lived.

Another recent find in Spain is also of an exemplary nature. During excavations at the Castillo de Matilla de los Caños del Río near Salamance, Spain, a full suit of armor was uncovered dating to the 16th century. The armor, which consists of about fifty pieces, was also found this past June in what archaeologists believe to have been the castle armory.

Municipality of Matilla de los Caños del Río

A complete set of armor dating to the 16th century found in a castle near Salamanca, Spain. The set is comprised of about 50 pieces, all of which were preserved in the soil. 

 

Given the vulnerability to decay of materials such as wood and metal, how were these discoveries possible? For starters, not all weaponry finds are pulled straight from the earth. Many of the most well-preserved weapons we know of today have been recovered from the burials of the ancient past’s warrior and elite classes. As objects of power and status, weapons often fulfilled highly charged symbolic purposes in graves, representing crucial aspects of the deceased’s identity even in death. Such graves were typically expertly crafted in such a way that they were either intended for immediate closure or allowed their contents to be protected from the elements, thus enabling conditions of good preservation.

The sealed tombs of Egyptian royalty provided anaerobic (oxygen-less) conditions for all that they contained, resulting in the pristine preservation of their contents including metallic weapons with wooden handles and even fully extant bows. Similarly, the tumuli (burial mounds) and rock-lined shaft graves from pre-Classical Greece have also produced stunning examples of intricately decorated metal daggers and sheaths with layers of stone and sealed entrances barring the passages of time from damaging their treasures.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Egyptian battle axe, dating to ca. 1981-1802 BCE. The axe blade, made of copper, is lashed to a wooden handle. Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some instances, antique weaponry and armor may simply benefit from the good graces of consistent ownership and stewardship, passing through familial inheritances or other forms of private ownership. Many other objects, however, are the type of chance finds such as those recently made in Germany and Spain that would make any archaeologist’s day. 

In certain circumstances, metal and even wooden finds deposited straight into the earth manage to survive across centuries and even millennia. Most commonly, such preservation is due to the nature of the soil itself, usually being densely packed and oxygen-free thus allowing for the slowed or altogether halted processes of decay of inorganic and even some organic materials. 

Thankfully for the halting of these processes, we’re able to gain helpful cultural knowledge. In the case of the recent find of the suit of armor at the Castillo de Matilla de los Caños del Río in Spain, the armor found was a complete set with a helmet, breastplate, trellis, elbow pads, greaves, and other arm and leg protective pieces. It was also located next to a crossbow and a knife. The castle’s history remains elusive in some regards but is said to have been destroyed around 1505 CE. This find can not only help archaeologists and historians fill in the gaps of the castle’s story but also repopulate its past with details on who might have been in the castle and why.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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