Call For Sources: Spears in the Imperium Romanum
Written by
Categories: Ancient

Call For Sources: Spears in the Imperium Romanum

An intact spear and buckler from the famous excavations at La Tène, Switzerland. Planche II of P. Vouga, “La Tène: Quatrième Rapport, Foulles de 1910 et 1911,” Musée Neuchâtelois, XLIXme Année (1912) pp. 7-15

There are many great publications of Germanic, British, and Celtic spears. Are there any published spears from the imperium Romanum, especially the eastern half? Or from pre-imperial Italy? I’m curious about what woods were used, how the diameter varies from point to butt, and the overall length.

Chabal, L. (1990) “Identification botanique et interprétation d’énchantillons de bois appartenant à des armes romaines.” In L. Bonnamour (ed.), Du Silex à La Poudre: 4,000 ans d’armement en val de saône: exposition 1990-1991 (Éditions Monique Mergoil: Montagnac, France) pp. 98-100

The socket of a pilum (object number 117) contained ash-wood (fraxinus sp.). A three-sided ferrule (object 128) contained ash-wood (fraxinus sp.). The socket of a spear with a long socket and small barbed head (framea, object 125) contained an unidentified angiosperm (which they describe as a heavy wood, bois lourde ou assez lourd). The socket of a spear with a long socket and small barbed head (object 126) contained elm wood (ulmus minor).

Christine Howard-Davis (ed.), The Carlisle Millennium Project. Lancaster Imprints, Volume 15 (Oxford Archaeology North, 2010) fig. 367 shows several Roman spearheads and ferrules with fragments of wood. The grain shows that they were made from wedges or squared timbers not coppiced shoots; the scale lets you estimate diameter. I don’t have access to the print volume right now but I remember it had information on types of wood.

Yvonne L. Inall has several publications on spearheads from southern Italy but not so much on the spears which they were once part of.

Numerous spearheads have been recovered with traces of wood preserved in the socket, but I am unaware of any analysis of the organic materials. It would be interesting to see whether specific wood species could be identified and whether there were any observable patterns of association between certain spearhead forms and the species of wood selected for use in the manufacture of spear shafts.

Yvonne L. Inall, “A Typological Assessment of Iron Age Weapons in South Italy” MPh Thesis, University of Sydney, March 2009 p. 76

Artistic representations on Campanian vase paintings suggest that the total length of a spear was generally at least equal to the height of a man, though several Paestan tomb paintings depict shorter spears. The external socket diameter of most spearheads is between 2cm and 3cm indicating an optimum shaft diameter that was consistent across spear types between the ninth and fourth centuries BC. A number of spearheads throughout south Italy are reported to retain traces of wood in their sockets, though the author is not aware of any studies undertaken to determine wood species

Yvonne Inall, “Spoiling for a Fight,: Using spear typologies to identify aspects of warrior identity and fighting style in Iron Age South Italy.” In Cătălin Nicolae Popa and Simon Stoddart (eds.), Fingerprinting the Iron Age (Oxbow, 2014) pp. 253-265 ( p. 264

If you want the bibliography for pre-Roman barbaricum (and a list of publications which do not have detail on the shafts of spears from the Roman empire or pre-Roman Italy) then have a look below:


Klaus Ransborg, Hjortspring: Warfare and Sacrifice in Early Europe (Aarhus University Press: Aarhus, 1995) ISBN 87-7288-545-9

G. Rosenberg; Knud Jessen; Fr. Johannesen, Hjortspringfundet (I kommission hos Gyldendal: Copenhagen, 1937) (focused on the Hjortspring boat)

Jorgen Ilkjaer, Illerup Adal 1-2: Die Lanzen und Speere. 2 volumes (text + illustrations) (Aarhus University Press: 1990) ISBN-13 9788772880570

Conrad Engelhardt, Nydam Mosefund, 1859-1863 (Copenhagen, 1865)

Sandie Holst, Poul Otto Nielsen (eds.), Excavating Nydam. Archaeology, Palaeoecology and Preservation. The National Museum’s Research Project 1989-99 (Det kgl. nordiske Oldskriftselskab: Kopenhagen, 2020)

Klaus Raddatz, Der Thorsberger Moorfund Katalog, Offa-Bücher band 65 (1987)

Michael James Swanton, The Spearheads of the Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Royal Archaeological Institute, 1973) p. 26 n. 65 “Ash-wood (Fraxinus) occurred dominantly at Hjortspring, although pieces of Rowan (Sorbus) and Birch (Betula) were also noticed” (G. Rosenberg, op. cit. 47)”

(Around the Baltic Sea in the Viking Age spear) “shafts were made of ash, elm or oak” Strucke 2003:517-518 (full citation unknown) as cited in Androshchuk, Fedir, and Ragnheiður Traustadottir (2004) “A Viking Age spearhead from Kolkuós.” Hólarannsóknin: Framvinduskýrsla 6 p. 5 Thanks Viking Age Compendium for the citation.

Lendbreen Spear (Norway, c. 825-950 CE)


Paul Vouga, “La Tène: Quatrième Rapport, Foulles de 1910 et 1911,” Musée Neuchatelois, XLIXme Année (1912) pp. 7-15 Cited in Joseph Déchelette, Manuel d’archéologie préhistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine IV: seconde age du Fer ou époque de La Tène (Paris: Picard, II. edition, 1927) volume 4 pp. 650-656, 676-677. Vouga seems to be a very important figure in the archaeology of Iron Age Europe.

Paul Vouga, La Tène, Monographie de la station publiée au nom de la commission des fouilles de La Tène (Leipzig 1923) columns 53 and 54 describe five intact spears of “debarked ash” which appeared polished when it returned to the light, heads 20-30 cm long, overall length 243 to 247 cm, diameter of shafts two centimetres.

Jean-Louis Brunaux and André Rapin, Gournay II: Boucliers et Lances, Dépôts et Trophées (Éditions Errance: Paris, 1988) especially pp. 92-95. The larger kind of spearhead has an external socket diameter of 15-25 mm, the ferrules with sockets have an external diameter of 25-35 mm (pp. 97, 104, 105). On page 88 we learn that “Although the traces of wood are rarely identifiable, it is the ash which appears to be the most used on account of its hardness and straightness. – Pour ce qui est de l’essence du bois rarement identifiable, c’est le frêne qui semble le plus utilisé du fait de sa dureté et de sa rectitude.”


S.V.E. Heal in S. McGrail (ed.), Woodworking Techniques before AD 1500, British Archaeological reports, International Series, No. 129 (1982) p. 103

Michael Parker Pearson, N. Field (eds.), Fiskerton: An Iron Age Timber Causeway with Iron Age and Roman Votive Offerings (2003) p. 45

Green, H. Stephen. (1978). “Late Bronze Age wooden hafts from Llyn Fawr and Penwyllt, and a review of the evidence for the selection of wood for tool and weapon handles in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland.” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 136-141 (bibliographic entry, this journal now seems to be called Studia Celtica)

Hooper, Bari / O’Connor, Brendan (1976) “A Bronze Spearhead and its Shaft from the River Thames at Hammersmith.” The Archaeological Journal, Volume 133, 1976 – Issue 1, pp.

Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, Ireland:

Pegged spreadhead with a leaf-shaped, straight-based blade and gold ornament on the socket; Late Bronze Age. Found with a shaft of bog-oak 1,43 m. long, exclusive of the part inserted into the socket; the total length of the spear was 1.84 m. The shaft, now lost, was shaped from a solid block of wood and was thickest in the centre, tapering towards the ends; it was attached to the head by a bronze rivet. “

Stead, Ian M. (1991) Iron Age Cemeteries in East Yorkshire: Excavations at Burton Fleming, Rudston, Garton-on-the-Wolds, and Kirkburn. English Heritage Archaeological Report, 22 (London: English Heritage in association with British Museum Press) ISBN 1-85074-351-7 p. 75

Slightly more than half (of the spearheads from graves in Yorkshire) have traces of the shaft surviving as mineralized preserved wood in the socket: a dozen examples were identified (certainly or possibly) and most were from coppiced willow (or poplar) and hazel; two were ash. Many of the sockets are perforated for a rivet or nail to secure them to the shaft.

Paul R. Sealey, East Anglian Archaeology 118: A Late Iron Age Warrior Burial from Kelvedon, Essex (2007) pp. 8-11

Stuart Needham, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, David Coombs, Caroline Cartwright, and Paul Pettitt (1997) “An Independent Chronology for British Bronze Age Metalwork: The Results of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Programme,” Archaeological Journal, 154:1, pp. 55-107, pp. 61-65, 69, 70

J. M. Coles, S. V. E. Heal and B. J. Orme, “The Use and Character of Wood in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Volume 44, (December 1978), pp 1 – 45 especially 25, 34-41…7X00009968

B.E. Blackistone, “Analysis of Spearheads, Ferrules and Shafts from Migration-Age Anglo-Saxon Burials” (2005) Sword Forum International (link) {focused on spears in graves dating 400-700 CE}


Andronicos, Manolis (1970) “Sarissa,” BCH 94 (1970) pp. 91-106 especially p. 98 {measurements of a medium-sized spearhead and a giant heavy spearhead from Macedonia}

Connolly, Peter (2000) “Experiments with the sarissa – the Macedonian pike and cavalry lance – a functional view.” Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 11 pp. 103–112 {useful close examination of the spears on the Kinch Tomb and the Darius Mosaic}

de Groote, Kevin Rowan (2018) “How hoplites wielded their dory – All your strength is in your spears.” Ancient Warfare XII.1 pp. 34–40

Matthew, Christopher (2012) Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War (Pen & Sword Military: Barnsley) {said to have some measurements of spearheads, but be careful with his claims!}

Petsas, Photios M. (1965) “Ὰρχαιοτητης και Μηημεια Δυτικης Μακεδονιας.” Αρχαιολογικόν Δελτίον 18 pp. 212–232 Page 222 / Tombos LXVIII Taphe E has the famous spearhead and butt-spike with traces of the wood between

Second Millennium CE

Making staves for pikes and halberds: the illustration to book 9, chapter 11 of Johannes Stumpf’s Chronicle published in 1547/1548 (link to facsimile)

§120 The best sticks for practice, as well as for defense in the street, should be of cornel wood. That wood which, in industry, is accustomed to be made into the handles of tools, into ladders, and of other objects of which firmness is the key quality, is very hard, sinewey and grainy like a bullrush, of a very great resistance and consequently unbreakable. … A cane of cornel wood has a double advantage over a light cane: namely, because of its weight, its small volume and its great resistance, it is an excellent instrument of defense and at the same time it constitutes an ideal ‘exercise machine’ for the development of the muscles.

Places I Looked But Did not Find

Simon James, The Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-1937, Final Report VII: The Arms and Armour and other Miltiary Equipment (The British Museum Press: London, 2004/ reprinted Oxbow Books: Oxford, 2010) The finds at Dura do not include any spears, lances, or javelins just heads for them. Page 211 discusses the catapult bolts:

Production of wooden bolt shafts was a more complex affair. Several different woods were identified, namely, ash, birch, and pine (Rep. VI, 455), tamarisk (Cumont 1926, 260) and maple, the later used for vanes (Rep. VI, 455). Both round wood and billets from larger logs appear to have been employed. … The basic shape of the shaft is a very elongated cone, expanding from the tip (c. 12-20 mm in diameter), up to the tall tail edge which sat against the horizontal catapult string at launch. The thicker wood also accommodated the jointing of the wooden vanes.”

Thomas Fischer, Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History (Oxbow Books: Oxford, UK, 2019) pp. 167, 168

Among the Roman armament under the Republic and the Empire, as well as the weaponry of all opponents, there was a wealth of different specialized shafted weapons (spears and lances) … As a rule, only the iron components of these weapons- the spearheads and butts- are found. … These weapon parts can very often not be attributed to either the Romans or their Celtic and Germanic opponents, if the armament cannot be assigned to a clear find context. … An overarching study on Roman polearms is still awaited, and one must for now be content with the more general remarks of Bishop and Coulston.

Bishop and Coulston’s Roman Military Equipment 2nd edition p. 76 does not support its claim that spear shafts from Augustus to Hadrian were “usually of ash or hazel.” Pliny the Elder says that ash and hazel make the best spears, but he does not say whether these are the most common materials (Pliny Nat. Hist. 16.83 Bostock and Riley (English translation based on an old edition) = 16.103 Mayhoff (modern Latin text)).

Bishop, Coulston, and Fischer do cite some references on spears which might have information:

  • Gudea 1994 = N. Gudea, “Römische Waffen aus den Kastellen des westlichen Limes von Dacia Prolissensis.” In C. von Carnap-Bornheim (ed.), Beiträge zu römischer und barbarischer Bewaffnung in den ersten vier nachchristlichen Jahrhunderten. Veroffentlichungen des Vorgeschichteliches Seminars Marburg Sonderband 8 (Lublin and Marburg) pp. 79-89
  • David Marchant “Roman weapons in Great Britain, a case study: spearheads, problems in dating and typology” JRMES 1 (1990) pp. 1–6 {UVic has every volume but 1 and 11}
  • W.H. Manning. (1985) Catalogue of the Romano-British iron tools, fittings and weapons in the British Museum {UVic has it under NK8207.3 M36  Author does not seem interested in the lost wooden objects which these iron objects were paired with}
  • Ian R. Scott, “Spearheads of the British limes,” in W.S. Hanson and J.L.F. Keppie (eds.) Roman Frontier Studies 1979 (BAR: Oxford, 1980) pp. 333-343 {UVic has it under DG59 A2 I57 1979, there does not seem to be any information on the type of wood preserved in the sockets of the spearheads}

In his chapter in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (1991), John Kinloch Anderson found a passage about wood for 5′ long spears in lines 127ff of the Cynegeticon of Gettius, a didactic poem on hunting from the first century CE. Gettius lists cornel (technically a kind of dogwood not related to the cherry fruit tree), myrtle, yew, pine, broom, “lopped bough”, and frankincense as suitable for hunting spears. Xenophon On Hunting 10.3 also recommends cornel wood for boar spears, and says that the shafts should be as thick as a dory (war spear).

(cross-posted from RomanArmyTalk)

(thanks Ivor / Crispianus, Dr. Martijn A. Wijnhoven, and Roland Warzecha for suggesting entries for the bibliography)

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.