Archaeology / Events / Reviews / Travel / Weird and Wonderful

Thirteen Swords: Adventures in Bronze Age Metal-working

DSC_0056I’ve always wanted a sword. Ever since I was a knights-and-castles-obsessed little boy, I’ve wanted one. Doing classics, and then moving into East Mediterranean archaeology, did nothing to diminish this need, but it did make me realise one important point: Bronze Age swords are much cooler than their mediaeval counterparts. In the stressful times of my PhD, sometimes I would sit in the library browsing shops selling replica Bronze Age swords on the internet. Some people have cat videos; I had this. And cat videos. Midway through the PhD, I came very close to buying a replica Naue II sword – the kind that swept through the Eastern Mediterranean around the end of the Late Bronze Age and so something that cropped up relatively often in my work. I told myself it would partly be a teaching aid.

In the end that was just a little bit too pricy for my student budget, but now that I have the dubious advantage of a Proper Job, my sword aspirations were finally feasible. And, conveniently just before my thirtieth birthday, I discovered that a very talented sword-maker, artist and bronze-worker called Dave Chapman runs weekend workshops where you can make your own sword. These are smaller, British Bronze Age swords with elegant leaf-shaped blades. The kind I’d always sort of wished had been more common in the Mediterranean because they’re far more beautiful than a Naue II. And the whole thing was cheaper than a Naue II anyway. I didn’t quite get organised in time for a 30th birthday sword-making extravaganza, but last weekend, a year later, my girlfriend and I finally ventured into the heart of rural mid-Wales to join eleven other people for two days of recreational metalworking.

I have my sword. I made it myself and it is gorgeous.

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DSC_0147After arriving on the Friday evening, we began early on Saturday morning. In the workshop in his stunning garden, Dave cast three swords. He makes the bronze himself using copper and tin and pours it into soapstone moulds hand-carved to match an example in the Pitt Rivers Museum. The blanks pulled from the stone are dull and their edges jagged with extraneous metal flash. Over the next several hours our job was to tidy them up and use files, sandpaper and wet-and-dry paper to make the blades smooth and shiny. The time-constraints of the weekend (and beginners’ patience) meant we didn’t use authentic Bronze DSC_0132Age tools – there were angle-grinders and metal files involved rather than rough stones. This is a good thing. It would have taken weeks otherwise.

DSC_0159Partway through the filing process, the sword went back to the forge to have rivet holes drilled in the tang. This was then heated up and sandwiched between two oak blocks, burning its exact shape into the wood so the hilt would fit each blade perfectly. We then resumed filing, with the added imperative of removing the discolouration the heat had caused.

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At the end of a long first day I had a finished blade: from a coarse file I’d moved up successive levels of fineness until I finished with extremely fine-grained wet-and-dry paper and wire wool. The final task was to polish the blade with metal polish so it was ready to have the hilt fitted.

DSC_0174The hilt-fitting happened on Sunday morning. The two rectangular wooden blocks were fastened to the tang using copper rivets, then cut to the shape of the metal. With rasps and more files we shaped, rounded and smoothed the hilt, before sanding it to a smooth finish.

DSC_0185The next task I found tricky. All this filing and sanding had blunted the blade, so it needed to be clamped in a vice (probably the most dangerous stage considering the number of points and cutting edges sticking out from the work benches) and then the edges filed to bring back the bevel, remove some machining marks, and taper them to a sharp edge. To be honest, I did this a little bit more messily than I would have liked (though by this stage we’d been staring at our blades long enough that we were all becoming hyper-critical – obsessiveness about every imperfection vying with exhaustion and eagerness to be done) and added a couple of minor scratches near the edge of my blade. I didn’t quite bring my sword to a razor-sharp edge – it won’t need that for sitting on my shelf – but it is definitely a lethal piece of kit. Working on it, you gain a lot of respect for how dangerous it is. By the end of Sunday, everyone was touching their blades pretty gingerly. Of course, there were a few injuries, but nothing beyond minor cuts. I escaped with a tiny nick to my thumb, sustained pretty early on. Easily worth it so I can at least say I’ve suffered a sword wound, however trivial.

With a coat of linseed oil on the hilt, the sword was finished by midday on Sunday. The thirteen of us took our swords and went our separate ways. I am – as I’ve said – tremendously pleased with mine. It’s a beautiful thing. While part of that’s due to the intrinsic qualities of the bronze (it really is a gorgeous metal when brought to a shine, far more than you’d think from the darkened or verdigrised bronze statues of monuments you might see) and Dave’s excellent moulds, casting and tuition, I know exactly what my own hard work contributed to it, and that makes it all the better.

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From an academic standpoint, I also can’t recommend this experience highly enough. If you’re working on the Bronze Age and are at all interested in technology, weapons, warfare or craft-production then I’d say this course is essential. You should go to the website and book it now. Get the faculty to fund it. Pay for it yourself. Just go. You’ll learn more about bronze, its manufacture and properties in that day and a half than from a lifetime of books. It’s also fantastic fun. Dave is an incredibly knowledgeable and patient teacher and utterly passionate about the ancient world. Even when we weren’t making swords, he’s a great person to talk to. It’s also great for non-specialists. While there were three ex-classicists among our thirteen, I was the only archaeologist. The others came from a diverse range of backgrounds, from blacksmiths to business consultants.

In short, I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. My only regret is that I didn’t do it years ago, during my own PhD.

It’s very likely I’ll be going back for more.

The course website is http://bronzeagefoundry.com/workshops/4571400593 and there’s a Facebook page called Bronze Age Foundry.

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2 thoughts on “Thirteen Swords: Adventures in Bronze Age Metal-working

  1. Anyone who works on ancient military history should definitely consider testing out the kit. There’s a story about a (now-diseased) historian at one of the London unis who used to run around Regent’s Park in replica hoplite armour that he’d made from pots and pans.

  2. Pingback: Previously On… | Ancient Worlds

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