Late Bronze Age

Insights from Experience, Excavation, and Reconstruction

In September and October, I came across several projects in archaeology which help us understand early warfare. This week’s post will take us from China to Germany, Italy, and England and from the Bronze Age to the 18th century CE.

Figure 7 from Hermann et al. 2020 (see below). Left is a replica sword which has delivered a strike to the socket of a bronze spearhead, right is an original bronze sword

I will start with the Bronze Age (best age!) then move on to ages of other metals. A German-UK-Chinese team published the latest project trying to understand how Bronze Age swords were used. They examined damage to the edges of originals and then compared it to damage on replica swords by Neil Burridge after performing Andre Lignitzer’s six sword-and-buckler plays. I’d like to see more studies like this borrowing ideas from other martial arts like Shastar Vidiya to see which seem to work best with Bronze Age weapons from Europe. Fifteenth-century German fencing such as Andre Lignitzer’s plays has a lot of blade-on-blade contact and twisty actions while the blades are crossed, whereas other martial arts rely on the shield to defend or prefer simpler weapon-on-weapon actions. But I think that the evidence that swords from some periods often have marks characteristic of controlled parrying, whereas in other periods the edge damage is more random, is valuable. I am also glad that they experimented with common matchups like sword against spear, and not just the rare occasions when a sword was used against another warrior with a sword who was ready for the attack.

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A Deed Never Yet Done

Line drawing of a relief where pharaoh with a falcon overhead draws his bow as his two-horse chariot tramples he fallen or fleeing enemy
A deed done over and over again: two dynasties after Amenhotep, Ramses III smites the Libyans (from The Epigraphic Survey (eds.), Medinet Habu, Volume 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Plate 18 c/o the generous Oriental Institute https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-publications-oip )

While I do not think that many Bronze Age or Classical bows were as powerful as the longbows from the Mary Rose or the hornbows from the Tokapi Palace, I can think of one or two exceptions. Today I would like to give one which I recently stumbled over while reviewing an article by Pierre Briant. As often happens, reading this passage again revealed something which I had not remembered.

The Great Sphinx Stele tells the following story of Pharaoh Amenhotep II of the New Kingdom:

He also came to do the following … Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next. Then his Majesty appeared on the chariot like Mont in his might. He drew his bow while holding four arrows together in his fist. Then he rode northward shooting at them, like Mont in his panoply, each arrow coming out of the back of its target while he attacked the next post. It was a deed never yet done, never yet heard reported: shooting an arrow at a target of copper, so that it came out of it and dropped to the ground.

Andrea M. Gnirs, “Ancient Egypt,” in Kurt Raaflaub and Nathan Rosenstein eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge MA, 1999) p. 84 citing the Great Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings. Volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) pp. 41, 42.
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Treasure from Dilmun: Some Thoughts on Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago”

Photo of a faded hardcover book with torn paper dust cover
One thoroughly used copy of Geoffrey Bibby’s “Four Thousand Years Ago” (Collins: St James’ Place, London, 1962)

I first encountered Geoffrey Bibby’s Four Thousand Years Ago in a “Best-of” volume of the Robert E. Howard fanzine Amra where the reviewer enthused that the second millennium BCE was a time when Conan could have lived again. For a younger self that was recommendation enough, and I tracked down a copy in the library. On a whim I decided to order a copy and have a look with more scholarly eyes. The volume which arrived in the mail has an old bookseller’s stamp from The Public Bookshop, PO Box 1, Bahrain which is very appropriate, for Bibby excavated there and believed it was the Dilmun of the Sumerians, the place through which all good things came.  Like the statuette of Lakshmi from Pompeii, who can say how it made its long way to its current home?

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The Copper Gutter

A photo of a stone bell tower with a corroded copper roof and rain-gutters shaped like fish
In later millennia, architectural copper could still impress

Last week I mentioned that one Hittite document tells the commander of a frontier post how they are to guard, build, and maintain their post. While the section on the curtain wall is badly damaged, the section on the watchtower is mostly intact:

Let the ?[watc]h? tower be 4 cubits around the top, but around the bottom let it be 6 cubits, and let it be encircled with a copper rain-gutter and a ?gallery?. Let the gallery be 6 cubits in circumference, and let it protrude 5 spans.

The word URUDḫeyawallit is not known elsewhere, but because it is proceeded with the determinative for copper and begins with the word for rain it fairly clearly means “copper rain-gutter”. The measurements of length and the word translated as “gallery” are not as well understood (the later could be more like “battlements” or “palisade”). I am not sure that the scholar who excerpted this text noticed what I did, because he didn’t translate the determinative.

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One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite

The orange cover with white lettering of a softcover book entitled "The Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard"

It occurred to me that recently I have been writing a lot about the last thousand years, but not so much about ancient Southwest Asia. I promised to write about the different ancient traditions of tactical writing. This is a topic known from Greek, Hebrew, Hittite, and Indian literature in the ancient world, and it may have been discussed in Latin texts as well. Of these, the Hittite is by far the oldest, being attested in the middle of the second millennium BCE.
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