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New Bronze Age weaponry research led by Newcastle University

Written by News

Research led by Newcastle University has established a brand new research method that will change the future of studying ancient weaponry and fighting practices.

Newcastle University historians have recently conducted and published research into Bronze Age weaponry using a new research method. Dr Andrea Dolfini, Senior Lecturer in Later Prehistory at Newcastle’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, worked alongside a specialist team as part of a five year project studying the techniques of Bronze Age warriors in combat.

Dr Dolfini’s expert team included academics from within the UK as well as those in Germany and China. The team have worked on the project, named “Bronze Age Combat Project”, since 2013, and together have studied Middle and Late Bronze Age swords, spears, axes and shields. They published their findings in a monograph and paper that have just been released.  

Dr Dolfini himself is an expert in the field after publishing previous works regarding the Bronze Age across the world; more specifically looking at warfare and violence in the Bronze Age.

The project, published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory and as a monograph entitled: Bronze Age Combat: An Experimental Appraoch, gained funding from Newcastle University as well as the British Museum, and adapted a hands-on research approach through experimental combat tests and replica fighting. The creation of a website alongside the project, explained its nature, aims and history, as well as those involved and the research method. The monograph, written by all five academics, was published by BAR Publishing in 2020. BAR publishing claim to be one of the worlds most respected publishers of academic archaeology, and the monograph joins the 3,600 works published by this press house.

The research involved staging experimental fights using replica weapons
Image: Paola Desiderio via Bronze Age Combat Team/Hotspur School of Defence

Dr Dolfini and the team used controlled experiments with replica Bronze Age swords, spears and axes, with the wish to change the perception and understanding of Bronze Age weaponry, combat and society.

The previous understanding is that Bronze Age weaponry was used for ceremonial purposes, rather than in combat, due to the material it was made from (as bronze is softer than steel).

This understanding sparked the research questions of Dr Dolfini and his team; with the projects website listing three clear aims:

  1. How the weapons were used, in what kind of combat situation they were used in, and with what weapon strikes and body motions they were used with.
  2. To investigate the macro and microscopic marks left on the Bronze Age weapons in combat encounter.
  3. The combat techniques needed in order to minimise damage of the bronze weaponry.

In order to successfully meet these research aims and to carry out the experimental research method, the team required replica Bronze Age weapons to be created.

The team used weapons crafted by traditional bronze smith, Neil Burridge. His website and blog, bronzeageswords.com, states he has twelve years of experience working on research projects with academic archaeologists in the history of ancient weapons. The study used seven replica swords, axes and spears and three shields.

The tests successfully replicated marks that were visible on archaeological weapons, through the controlled combat experiments reconstructing the sword and spear strikes. This helped the researchers understand how different weapons may have been used against each other in prehistoric combat encounters. Through an analytical method called “Metalwork Wear Analysis” – which requires the material to be looked at under microscopes – the marks found on the weapons were evaluated; helping to understand that specific techniques were needed to be learnt by Bronze Age warriors, to successfully use this weaponry in combat.

This cutting-edge method of research, in which Newcastle University is a world leader, has attracted the interest of academics and publishing bodies across the country. Exeter University Professor, Anthony Harding, stating in a BBC History Magazine interview that the method is “very important towards understanding how warfare was conducted in the past”, suggesting that this could be used in future study and research.

This research has attracted extensive press coverage in high-profile dailies and magazines, and Dr Dolfini has given interviews for the Times, the Daily Mail and Science Magazine.

He states that the team now “wish to understand why the combat styles, indicated by this study, seem to break away at the end of the Bronze Age” (around 800BC). He further indicates that they would conduct this new research through studying the “Wear Analysis on a number of weapons from towards the end of the Bronze Age”.

“We would be interested in designing combat tests using both Bronze and Iron Age weapons, to see how combat styles and methods have adapted to different materials.” He briefly mentions that his team would also be interested in “experimental fighting on horseback”.

Dr Dolfini, Senior Lecturer in Later Prehistory at Newcastle’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology

He also wishes to thank his team and funders, whose research and commitment made the project possible.

Not only does this research progress the field of Bronze Age weaponry and develop exciting new research methods, it also lays the pathway for Newcastle University students to benefit.

A Stage One student from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology says that “it is really valuable that research like this is conducted, for both the lecturers and the students, as this can now be used in lectures as an example of what cutting-edge research is happening in the field and how it changes our overall understanding”

Dr Dolfini’s research may open up pathways for the next generation of Archaeologists to progress using this experimental research method, allowing them to shed new light on the human past.

Last modified: 11th May 2020

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