Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Dents in Our Confidence" (Horn and von Holstein, 2017)

Use-wear analysis bolstered a now erroneous perception that early copper weaponry were little more than male status symbols.  For whatever importance conferred to the owners of metal weapons, the over-interest in the social significance has apparently distracted archaeology from a critical analysis of emerging use-wear studies.

This paper by Horn and von Holstein looks at the study of use-wear and finds a need to honestly acknowledge what can be known with the limited study areas.  In fact, it could be reasonably surmised, base on the state of the current data, that most copper weapons were used regularly, sometimes forcefully, and then continually repaired, re-shaped, re-riveted and edge-hardened throughout the objects' lifetime.

They focus on two areas that obscure what can be known.  One is the maintenance of copper weapons, the other is the disparate corrosion associated with different styles of burial and deposition.  Here they consider attributes of copper to reconstruct the life of the object and they show that the presence of a decomposing body significantly alters the material over other burial methods.
"It has been argued that they were less important in warfare and served a more ceremonial purpose because in Scandinavian rock art they are usually depicted sheathed, i.e. in a passive role, and because researchers perceive real Early Bronze Age weaponry as lacking any usability in combat...However, at least 26% (18) swords from the Early Nordic Bronze Age possess notches..and 48% exhibit very strong (5) or extreme (6) corrosion, obscuring use-wear traces.  Thus, though only 26% can be directly shown to have use-wear damage, [but] up to 74% might have done so."
If looking at re-riveting of Unetice halberds, they raise the prospect that current typologies based on hafts could be totally false. 
"Being unaware of the possibility of repairs may cause researchers to assume that the reduced form was the original design.  This is problematic for the construction of typologies. For example, Wüstemann (1995) defined several variants of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age halberds belonging to the Unetice complex according to the shape of their hafting plates. However, from the pieces with complete rivet holes, we can construct a continuous line of more and more damaged hafting plates with broken rivet holes and repairs such as secondary rivet holes."
Fig 3.  Rework halberd hafts of copper knives.

As a footnote, I've suggested previously that the small "jeweler's" cushion stones and whetstones found in some Bell Beaker burials were not the tools of a smith, but rather maintenance tools of a dagger owner, similar to a butt stock gun cleaning kit or an integrated whetstone on a survival knife.

Free version [here]

"Dents in our confidence: The interaction of damage and material properties in interpreting use-wear on copper-alloy weaponry" Horn and vonHolstein.  Journal of Archaeological Science
Volume 81, May 2017, Pages 90–100

The presence or absence of use-wear marks on copper (Cu)-alloy weaponry has been used since the late 1990s to investigate the balance between functional (combat) and symbolic (value, status, religious) use of these objects, and thus explore their social and economic context. In this paper, we suggest that this work has not taken sufficient account of the material properties of Cu-alloys. We discuss mechanisms of plastic deformation, incremental repairs and corrosion in detail to show how these can obscure use-wear traces. In a survey of Cu-alloy weaponry from the Nordic Bronze Age (1800/1700e550 BCE) from Denmark, Sweden and Germany, we show that corrosion of Cu-alloy objects is strongly linked to depositional context, being greater in burials (both inhumations and cremations) than hoards or as single objects. A relative paucity of use-wear marks on burial weapons should therefore not be used to argue that these were purely symbolic objects, e.g. in contrast to the better preserved hoard material. We
propose that use-wear traces on Cu-alloy weaponry, particularly on blade edges, is significantly more elusive than previously realised, and that undamaged objects have been over-identified.


  1. Ronan O'Flahery in 2002 in http://www.academia.edu/6095439/The_Early_Bronze_Age_Halberd_in_Ireland_-_Function_and_Context came to a similar conclusion in relation to wear pattern and damage on copper halberds in Ireland. According to O'Flahery "The halberds seems to be a product of the earliest periods of metallurgy, dating to around 2200-2000BC" and "insofar as the Irish halberds are concerned, there is strong evidence for adducing a primarily functional role as a weapon.The evidence from extensive examination of the blade, rivets and rivet-holes all suggests
    that many Irish halberds were actually used." Of the 600 halberds found in Europe 30% have been found in Ireland. The beaker pottery found in connection with the arsenical copper mine at Ross Island Co Kerry dating to 2400BC suggests that mining and distribution of the raw materials for these halberds was connected to these people. Did they also produce the weapons? What connection did they have to the three Early Bronze Age men from a cist burial in Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim (2026–1534 cal BC) with associated Food Vessel pottery.The distribution of halberds in Europe and their depiction in Rock Art is fascinating and offers insight into the bell beaker culture.

    1. The paper you linked is awesome. I scanned through it briefly and decided to read the whole thing. A lot of well researched material. I like the sheep head trials at the end. I'll be sure to include that in a future post.

  2. I read a book last year on early Egyptian (pre)history in which the author insisted that the stone carving of an early Pharaoh with one had holding the hair of a kneeling prisoner, and the other raising a stone ball mace really didn't represent an act of violence - it was 'symbolic' of the Pharaoh's theoretical power. The same author also insisted that there was no commercial trading throughout that era - just mutual gift-giving. In other words, no 'instinct to truck and barter' in this species, no sir! The above 'not real weapons' meme seems to fit the same 1960s-era warmed over Marxist academic bias in archaeology that insisted on no migrations (read 'imperialism').

    1. Wow. I guess the many stelae depicting large piles of right hands (or other members) being enumerated after battle are symbolic too. But even the Early Bronze Age, the burial record is probably greatly under-represents violent deaths.

      I'm guessing the guy slayed by Pharaoh did not have a proper burial. Probably the tens of thousands with their right hand cutoff didn't either. Their bodies were piled and burned.

    2. Here's the book: https://www.amazon.com/History-Ancient-Egypt-Farmers-Pyramid/dp/1250030110 Apparently, the guy is a BBC TV presenter. This information contained was fascinating, but the ideological slant that sneaks in - no violence in the Golden Age, and no hint of dirty pre-pre-capitalism allowed - was as obvious as it was tedious. Pre-history as done by a good Guardian reader, it seems.

      I don't like to intrude politics and ideology into this site - I avoid it where I can - but ideology has obviously held back archaeology for decades. Thank Goddess for aDNA.

    3. I'll have to check that out. Thanks

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Considering one of the most renowned journals of archaeology was founded by a man considered 'the world's best connected' neonazi, I don't think a Marxist bias is what we need to be wary of ;)

  3. Hi,
    thank you for posting this. Helps getting the word out. If anyone is interested to read about halberds more in depth my PhD (Studien zu den europäischen Stabdolchen -> Studies on European halberds) is available on my academia page as well. It deals with chronology, typology, use-wear and social significance of halberds. Unfortunately, it is in German, but images, statistics and a full catalogue might be of help.
    Main results in brief:
    - dating much longer than previously anticipated: 3800-180/1700 BC
    - a lot of use-wear including notches, indentations and re-haftings indicates a frequent combat use of most with the exception of the very latest halberds in the Unetice area
    - this effectiveness in combat is the foundation of their social significance, i.e. status symbole, ritual use, etc.

    Cheers and thanks again,
    Christian Horn

    1. Thank you for linking your doctoral study on halberds. It's a fascinating subject because it is a weapon with no conceivable purpose other than lethal combat. How and why the weapon was used is of great interest to me since every weapon is a measure to a counter-measure, but also the weapon's reach in the era before the sword. Very good stuff. Many thanks,