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a Group IV rapier (658 mm, 565.0 g). b Kemenczei type S Vollgriffschwert (595 mm, 938.2 g). c Wilburton type sword (562 mm, 511.5 g). d Carp’s Tongue type sword (745 mm, 761.5 g). e Ewart Park type sword, the two nearest the bottom were used for the actualistic tests (top 658 mm, 701.4 g; middle 696 mm, 753.0 g; bottom 695 mm, 752.1 g)



The article presents a new picture of sword fighting in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe developed through the Bronze Age Combat Project. The project investigated the uses of Bronze Age swords, shields, and spears by combining integrated experimental archaeology and metalwork wear analysis. The research is grounded in an explicit and replicable methodology providing a blueprint for future experimentation with, and wear analysis of, prehistoric copper-alloy weapons. We present a four-step experimental methodology including both controlled and actualistic experiments. The experimental results informed the wear analysis of 110 Middle and Late Bronze Age swords from Britain and Italy. The research has generated new understandings of prehistoric combat, including diagnostic and undiagnostic combat marks and how to interpret them; how to hold and use a Bronze Age sword; the degree of skill and training required for proficient combat; the realities of Bronze Age swordplay including the frequency of blade-on-blade contact; the body parts and areas targeted by prehistoric sword fencers; and the evolution of fighting styles in Britain and Italy from the late 2nd to the early 1st millennia BC.

All primary data discussed in the article are available as supplementary material (Appendix) so as to allow scrutiny and validation of the research results.


The last two decades have witnessed a substantial change in the study of interpersonal violence in prehistoric and preliterate societies. Spearheaded by Keeley’s seminal monograph War before Civilization (1996), and aided by the new cultural and political milieu that followed the end of the Cold War, archaeologists and anthropologists have increasingly turned their attention to the nature and social significance of sanctioned aggression and warfare (Fry 2013; Otterbein 1997, 2004). In the field of European Bronze Age studies, this novel disciplinary interest has intersected longstanding research strands investigating warrior burials, hoarding practices, fortified settlements, martial imagery on rock art, osteological markers of injury, and weapon studies (Dolfini et al.2018; Horn and Kristiansen 2018; Kristiansen 2018; Kristiansen and Larsson 2005; Kristiansen and Suchowska-Ducke 2015; Molloy 2017; Vandkilde 2013). The latter had long focused on one of the most iconic inventions of the Bronze Age world: the sword.

The new awareness that intergroup violence may have played a major role in the social transformations of Bronze Age Europe has had an invigorating effect on the discipline, spurring an array of specialist studies that investigated early metal weapons and armour by integrated archaeological and scientific analysis. In continuity with previous developments, the sword has enjoyed pride of place within this fast-developing research strand, somewhat overshadowing similar lines of enquiry into Bronze Age halberds, spears, and shields (Anderson 2011; Horn 2013, 2014, 2017; Lull et al.2017; Molloy 2009; O’Flaherty 2007, O’Flaherty et al. 2011; Uckelmann 2011, 2012). Two principal methods have been employed, jointly or otherwise, to research how swords might have been used in prehistory: experimental archaeology and metalwork wear analysis.

Sword experiments are normally carried out with bespoke bronze replicas of the objects to be tested. They fall into two overarching categories: laboratory tests and field tests. Laboratory tests, such as those conducted by Bridgford (1997, 2000), offer the distinctive advantage of being more controllable and easier to record than those carried out in the field. They normally make use of drop testers or other mechanical devices, which allow excellent control of variables and good understanding of wear formation processes (Crellin et al.2018). However, they offer limited scope for reproducing the complexity of human gesture. The problem is especially acute for swordsmanship, which is predicated upon the human body and the weapon working together, powered by fine motor skills and experiential knowledge (Molloy 2008).

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