Two Bronze Age swords from England, Europe. Part of the Pitt Rivers Museum Founding Collection. Given to the Museum in 1884.
These Bronze Age swords represent the earliest swords of Europe and some of the oldest objects in the Museum. The example at the bottom, a rapier or 'thrusting sword' (1884.119.315), is the older of the two, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (1400-1250 BC). The hilt has been lost or was made from organic material such as wood that has not survived in the archaeological record. The flange-hilted, leaf-shaped sword on top (1884.119.309) is up to 500 years younger and shows how the swordsmith has incorporated new European styles to improve the design, creating a blade capable of both slashing and thrusting.
Both these examples were pulled from the mud of the River Thames in London. Tests have revealed that they contain lead as well as bronze. Adding lead was a British innovation that eased the moulding process and gave soft lines to the finished piece. Bronze itself is quite a soft, weak metal so swords could not be very long since they would be likely to bend and droop. Finally, the fact that they were found in a river is not unusual. The deposition of metal objects into rivers and wetlands, probably as ritual offerings, was a cultural phenomenon that defined and outlasted the Bronze Age. Indeed, the practice of throwing bronze and silver coins into a 'wishing' pool or fountain continues today.
The sword seems to have been invented in the Central Alps during the Middle Bronze Age, and spread around the world from there. In Britain, local styles were usually derivations of these original forms although the rapier type, at the top, may also owe stem from weapons developed as shortened stabbing spears. The example here is of the Rosnoën type. Based on the early Rixheim swords of Central Europe, it was mainly made in France and Britain and matching stone moulds have been found at a number of locations in Ireland, England and Brittany.
The Bronze Age did not occur simultaneously across the world, nor indeed across Europe. In Britain, it did not start until at least 1000 years later than in the Near East. In Britain, there is little archaeological evidence that the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1300 BC) was significantly different, in social, economic or military terms, to the preceding Late Neolithic period. Although the chariot was imported in around 2000 BC, individual horsemanship appeared alongside these new weapons in the Middle (ca. 1400-1000 BC), and particularly Late (ca. 1000-500 BC) Bronze Ages of Britain. Across this long time-span, bronze swords, spears and armour became increasingly common, as the number of hilltop fortifications also vastly increased. This seems to show the British Bronze Age as a period when the scale and frequency of conflicts, and the number of chiefdoms, steadily grew. This paralleled the trend across much of Northwest Europe.
The widespread burial of high-status Early Bronze Age men with spears in southern Britain has caused some archaeologists to suggest that a spear-bearing, chariot-mounted military elite dominated southern Britain at that time. They gradually became an elite of sword-bearing, individually-mounted warriors who, in one form or another, were to dominate European warfare for another three millennia. Experimental archaeologists have tested reproduction bronze swords against the sheet bronze defensive weapons also found in elite burials (breastplates, shields and helmets), and found that they offered almost no protection. The bronze armours actually mimic the leather and wooden armours, which were in widespread use at the time and provided much better, practical defence. It seems, therefore, that these warrior-chiefs participated in a culture of high-status parading and display, within which their bronze weapons were key items of regalia.