Getting to the point of ancient spears

In 1893, a man called László Pokorny, a collector of curios, walked into the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest and handed over a clearly ancient spearhead. The artefact boasted a 14-centimetre-long leaf-shaped blade – worn and damaged – ending in a cylindrical socket that had clearly once contained a wooden shaft.

The museum curators saw immediately that the spearhead was similar to many previously unearthed through the Carpathian region of central eastern Europe, dating from the Late Bronze Age – between 1500 and 900 CE.

They must have also asked Pokorny for details of where he found it, because museum records dated 1902 state that it was originally discovered in Kikinda, in modern Serbia, in marshlands. And at this point, one of several problems with the spearhead’s history appears. Kikinda is a city, built on reclaimed marshes, but the name equally applies to the marshy region around it. Establishing the exact location of Pokorny’s find is thus impossible.

Why is this important? In part, because in archaeology, as in history, context is central to meaning.

“Finds with similar wetland context can be interpreted as individual offerings, accidentally lost or part of greater hoards, which have not been recovered completely,” explain Hungarian researchers János Gábor Tarbay, Boglárka Maróti and Zoltán Kis in a recent journal paper.

The Kikinda spear, they note, might have ended up submerged in the marshes as long as 3000 years ago by accident, or as the result of a ritual, or perhaps just because the shaft broke off “during the unsuccessful removal of the weapon from the target” and was then judged to be not worth repairing and tossed aside.

These unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, questions prompted Gábor, who works at the museum, and his colleagues, from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre for Energy Research, to use the weapon as the foundation of what they call the Spear Project – an ambitious attempt to use a range of non-destructive high-tech testing methods to better understand the surprisingly sophisticated metallurgy used in the Late Bronze Age to create a wide range of tips and blades.

In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the scientists report the results of examinations using X-ray fluorescence (XRF), X-ray and neutron imaging, and prompt gamma activation analysis (PGAA) on the spearhead.

The tests revealed that the spearhead was made primarily from a tin and copper alloy, but also contained small amounts of nickel, antimony, lead, arsenic and cobalt. The proportion of tin to copper was relatively high, leading the researchers to suggest that the mix was “carefully calculated for creating a resilient weapon”.

The results also suggested that Late Bronze Age arms manufacture was a process governed by more than one protocol.

“It is a well-known fact that raw cast spearheads went through a series of manufacturing steps, which ultimately resulted not just in an aesthetically pleasing object such as the spearhead from Kikinda, but also a very effective weapon part with forged blade and razor-sharped edges,” Gabor and colleagues write.

Form and function – a sophisticated balance to achieve in any context – were perhaps not the only considerations. The authors note that spears were likely objects that enjoyed long lifespans, and were the result of a technology that did not change significantly for centuries. In Eastern Europe throughout the Bronze Age several different spearhead designs have been found and classified, with each changing little in alloy composition or design throughout the period.

“The appearance of these distinct styles and the fact that their main form followed an almost canonical design can raise the possibility that the manufacture of these weapons, and perhaps the selection of raw material and alloying, was regulated by tradition,” the researchers write.

Evidence that the Kikinda artefact was no mere disposable tool is strong. Although its wooden shaft has long since decayed away, the scientists were able to determine that it was likely made from wood sourced from the heart of an ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) – favoured because it was a “tough and elastic material” that held firm regardless of whether the spear was used as a lance, or thrown, or used to hunt animals or attack other humans.

In addition, the imaging tests revealed an unknown fibrous material at the top of the shaft socket – strong evidence that the shaft had been replaced at least once during the its life.

The Spear Project promises to add considerably to the understanding of Bronze Age life, at least in central eastern Europe, but Tarbaya and his colleagues admit that their non-destructive techniques simply can’t answer some questions.

One of these, in the case of the Kikinda spear, is what exactly happened to the artefact in the long years after Pokorny donated it, during which it remained in the museum’s collection. It seems at least possible that at some point during the twentieth century well-meaning curators had a go at cleaning it up, forever altering its composition.

“The results of this analysis were limited by the fact that the original condition of the objects has not been documented and its surface was probably altered by previous restoration,” the researchers state, with perhaps a note of sadness.

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