Get to the Point: What Questions Should We Ask About a Spear?
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Get to the Point: What Questions Should We Ask About a Spear?

v. 3.0 – 20 June 2022

This talk was first written for the International Ancient Warfare Conference at South Dakota State University in 2022

A rack of iron spearheads with barbed heads and long narrow sockets in a glass case
Spearheads from Nydam Mose in the Baltic. Photo c/o Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nydammose.3.jpg

Spears are everywhere in ancient texts, art, and sites. In the Iron Age from Ireland to Iran, the spear was the main weapon used when combat was too close to use a bow or sling. Warring States China and late medieval Europe produced jungles of staff weapons, but in the West Eurasian Iron Age most warriors were satisfied with spears. But moderns are not as curious about them as they are about other ancient tools.

Part of the problem is the continuing divide between archaeologists and historians in some parts of Ancient World Studies. The great hoplite debate from 1989 to 2013 (see eg. Hanson’s Western Way of War (1989), Krentz’ “Fighting by the Rules” (2002), van Wees’ Myths and Realities (2004), Kagan and Viggiano eds. Men of Bronze 2013, and Brouwers’ Henchmen of Areas (2013)) was certainly dominated by Britons and Americans, but it was also dominated by historians and classicists. Its no surprise that the debate centred texts and art and marginalized artefacts.

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But even archaeologists are not as enthusiastic about spears as about other objects from the ancient world. German archaeologist Thomas Fischer recently summarized knowledge about spears in the Roman empire as follows:

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.

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

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Bishop and Coulston just have a few paragraphs with sentences like these:

The spear is ubiquitous in any period and notoriously difficult to classify. Some factors, such as the length of shaft, are not normally preserved in the archaeological record, so hypotheses tend to be dependent upon analysis of the head form and size, a process that is dubious to say the least. Depictional evidence is also unreliable in this field … In the end, one has to accept that there is no one satisfactors way of categorizing Roman spearheads.

Bishop and Coulston, Roman Military Equipment 2nd edition p. 76

Because spears are mostly wooden objects, and the wooden part rarely survives, archaeologists sometimes feel incompetent to describe them.

I am a military historian and an occasional spear-user. I’m more interested in what a spear can do than in assigning it a cultural and chronological label. So today I will talk about which aspects of a spear seem functionally important. As I ask each question, I draw on evidence from the broad ancient world to answer it.

a table of spears by material from three surveys of archaeological finds

What kinds of wood were spears made from? Spear shafts are put under great strain as they strike hard targets, parry blows, or are pulled with a falling body.

While the wooden parts of spears rarely survive, they often leave traces of wood inside sockets or corroded on to them. Someone with the right training who examines them under a microscope can approximately identify the genus of wood. Archaeologists in the British Isles and the Baltic are very interested in examining these traces, while archaeologists in some other countries are not. Due to the COVID pandemic, I don’t have access to many of the reports I would like to, so most of my examples are drawn from the UK and Ireland. But knowing what wood was used to make 113 spears from the Bronze Age to the Early Anglo-Saxon period lets me see some general trends.

an ash tree silhouetted against a blue sky with white clouds
An ash tree (fraxinus excelsior). Photo by Jeremy Inglis / Alamy Stock Photo c/o https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/ash/

Ash is a famous wood for spears. It is reasonably dense, strong for its weight, springy, and grows tall and straight. About 50 of the 113 spears are of ash. The Homeric poems and Latin epics mention ash spears, and Pliny the Elder says that ash is the best wood for long spears (Pliny Nat. Hist. 16.83 Bostock and Riley = Plin. Nat. Hist. 16.103 Mayhoff). Theophrastus discusses the ash tree just before his famous passage on the cornel tree and the Macedonian sarissa (Theophr. Hist. Plant. 3.2.11). So it is no surprise that in sites before the fall of the Roman empire, its by far the most common wood in spears.

(slide: cornel tree)

a slide showing bright red cornel berries and branches of a cornel tree with yellow leaves

After ash, ancient historians are likely to think of cornel. Cornel is a low tree with red berries which is why its sometimes called cornel cherry. Xenophon praised cornel-wood spears and Theophrastus famously says that the longest sarissa is the height of a cornel tree. But none of our 113 spears are made of it. The closest thing is two very early spears of yew wood. Yew is also a low, bushy tree with hard, dense, springy wood. The Roman hunting poet Gettius mentions hunting spears of yew (Cynegeticon ll. 129, 130). I think the lack of cornel-wood spears probably reflects the different flora of the British Isles and the Aegean. Once archaeologists examine more traces of wood in spearheads from the Mediterranean, they will probably find some cornel-wood spears.

A chart summarizing the type of wood in spears from two groups of Anglo-Saxon burials

The practice of burying people with spears returned to Britain as the Roman empire left, and so there are many studies of spears from the fifth and sixth centuries CE. These show a remarkable change. Whereas up to 400 CE 60% of spears are ash, after 400 CE the same proportion are of poplar, willow, and hazel. These are all low leafy trees which like water and send up many straight shoots of flexible wood.

a photo of a common hazel tree in a suburban area
Coryllus avallana, the common hazel, c/o Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Corylus_avellana_0001.JPG

Pliny the Elder says that hazel is a good wood for spears (Pliny Nat. Hist. 16.83 Bostock and Riley = Plin. Nat. 16.103 Mayhoff), and five of the spears from prehistoric Britain are made of these woods. But the proportions changed. This change in materials seems to correspond to a change in warfare in Late Antiquity. Many archaeologists believe that in post-Roman Europe, violence was mostly small-scale and involved more throwing weapons than clashing shield-walls. If you want a light spear without a long or thick shaft, a straight shoot of willow or hazel would probably be a good choice.

It looks to me as if the ancients broadly agreed which woods made good spears. But particular woods came in and out of fashion, or were easily available in different parts of the ancient world, and there were many woods which were not ideal but would serve. Pliny and the hunting poet Gettius were right to imply that many different woods were used. The choice of wood tells us about differences in environment, social organization, and intended use for spears.

(slide: split wood)

a linedrawing of two spearheads with the grain of the wood in the sockets indicated

How was the wood processed? Today we expect that trees are cut end to end to turn them into square-sectioned lumber. This is the cheapest way of turning a tree into lumber with our technology, but ancient technology was very different. One common way of turning trees into lumber was to split them with wedges and mauls. This preserves the tree’s natural grain structure, making the wood stronger, but increases the amount of waste. These Roman spears from Carlisle in England were made from sawed or split timber.

(slide: knobby javelins)

A wall painting of a black boar being bitten by a dog on its back and wounded with two spears with knobby shafts which are stuck into its chest and hindquarters

Another common way was to use the wood in the round as it grew in the tree. The hunting poet Gettius describes removing the side branches, harvesting the pole, and stripping it of bark. The javelins in this painting are presumably made of round wood. Since the growth rings are not broken, round wood is strong and flexible. Not having to cut or split the tree lengthwise also saves time and sweat.

(slide: long lances)

a slide showing a stone carving of a horsemen stabbing overhand with a long lance at a man on the ground

Different cultures preferred to process trees in different ways. Greek woodworking in Theophrastus’ day involved a lot of sawing, while the peoples of Britain after the empire left focused on splitting wood. A big tree trunk needed to be split or sawed lengthwise. I suspect that long spears were often made of sawed or split timber from tall trees, whereas shorter spears could easily be made from round wood. One of the arguments that Theophrastus was not saying that the Macedonian sarissa is made from cornel wood is that cornel trees rarely have a straight piece of wood to that twelve-cubit height (Sekunda “Sarissa”). As we have seen, the ancients recommended low shrubby trees for short hunting spears more than long war spears.

(slide: spear shafts were not dowels)

a slide showing the ratio between the diameter of the sockets on spearheads and on spear-butts.  Ratios range from 0.69 to 1.18 and are never close to 1.0

What diameter did the spearshaft have at top and bottom? This is answerable even if the wood is lost as long as the iron and bronze parts of the spear survive relatively intact. We can measure the internal or external diameter of the socket.

According to Christopher Matthew, large Snodgrass type J spearheads from Olympia average only 18 mm internal diameter (Storm of Spears p. 4). In contrast, butt spikes from the same site have inner diameters from 18 to 25 mm. The famous medium-sized spearhead from Vergina has an external socket diameter of only 19 mm (Andronicos pp. 98, 99 that he means external was confirmed with scale photo) Pikes from the city arsenal at Luzern are slightly thicker especially towards the butt.

The equipment of hundreds of La Tène warriors was deposited at Gournay, France. These also have narrow sockets on the head and wider sockets on the butt (Gournay II pp. 97, 104, 105).

Bruce Edward Blackistone measured spears in site reports from post-Roman Britain. Seven spears with both a head and a butt spike had head ED 20-26 mm, ferrule ED 17-22 mm (https://www.ageofdatini.info/essays/anglo-saxon-spears.html)

The five spear-shafts from La Tène in Swizerland are described as two centimetres in diameter (Vouga sp. 54).

a human thumb across a ruler which shows it is about 21 mm wide

In other words, the typical ancient spear had a shaft no wider than the user’s thumb at the head. A spearshaft mainly needs to be strong in compression as it thrusts, so it did not have to be as thick as a halberd or a quarterstaff which delivers powerful strikes.

A spear-shaft which was too thick was harder to drive into a target and tiring to move. A spear-shaft which was too thin might bend or break before it did serious damage to the target. Several of the East Roman military treatises from the 10th century recommends that spearmen who will face a charge of cataphracts use a special spear called a menaulion with a thick shaft (Leo X? T. Dawson inter alios discusses these passages)

A table with the circumference of a 4.5 metre long pike from the head to the butt.  At 70% of the way back if has  max thickness, its a bit thinner at the butt and only 69% as thick at the head

How did the shape of the spear-shaft vary from end to end? For some reason, people today see perfect cylindrical shafts as the default. That is only true if you start with a cylindrical dowel. If you make the shaft with an adze and a draw-knife, or even with a pole-lathe, you can make any shape you like, while if you start with round wood, the shaft will be naturally tapered. This question is harder to answer unless the wooden part of the spear survives.

Because of COVID, I don’t have access to good information about the spears from bogs around the Baltic. The five spear-shafts from La Tène appear barrel-shaped to me, that is, they are thicker in the middle than at either end (for this and further references see Call for Sources: Spears in the Imperium Romanum). A friend has kindly measured some pikes which were resting in the Luzern arsenal from the late 15th century until he bought them. They also have a strong barrel shape, with the thickest part about 70% of the way back from the point. John Waldman found that European cutting polearms such as halberds tend to be slightly tapered at both ends.

Barrel shapes save mass at the ends where the stress from gravity is least, but there are other advantages. People who throw spears tell me that you want the balance pretty far forward. The taper of Anglo-Saxon spears supports the idea that they were often thrown. On the other hand, its easier to control a long thrusting spear if the balance is pretty far back. So tapering the shaft to be thicker near the butt is a good choice for a long spear which will not be thrown.

a socketed steel spearhead, labeled "how heavy was a spearhead". it weighs 290 grams and has a socket diameter of 30 mm

How much did the spearhead weigh? Iron and bronze were expensive in the ancient world, and controlling weight at the end of a long spear is difficult. Unfortunately, archaeologists rarely publish weights, even for well-preserved artefacts. But the weights I have available are similar to one another.

Matthews, Storm of Spears p. 3 citing H. Baitinger, Die Angriffswaffen aus Olympien (De Gruyter: Berlin, 2001) pp. 142-219. Snodgrass type J spearheads at Olympia are abour 25-30 cm long and average 153 grams

The famous medium-sized spearhead from Vergina only weighed 97 grams (Andronicos “Sarissa” p. 98 [persee]).

The larger kind of spearhead from La Tène in Switzerland was about the same length as the Snodgrass type J, and had almost exactly the same weight: 145 grams.

Vouga sp. 53 Piques: Les fers que nous faisons rentrer dans cette catégorie ont de 20-30 cm.; leur poids, de 145 grammes en moyenne … Javelots: Au premier coup d’oeil jeté sur ces fers qui ont de 13 à 20 cm. de longeuret pésant en moyenne 70 grammes

Of course most ancient cultures had some very large, heavy spears. But most ancient spearheads were relatively light, saving expensive iron and reducing the weight out at the end of a long pole.

a slide with line drawings of ten types of spearhead by Yvone Inall

Archaeologists pay a lot of attention to the shape of spearheads. From an engineering perspective, spearheads balance two competing goods. A narrow spike is strong and stiff so will penetrate deeply. But that narrow spike makes a small hole which is unlikely to damage multiple organs or cause rapid bleeding. A wide thin blade causes maximum damage to the target, but is more fragile and encounters more resistance, particularly from armoured targets. As a rule of thumb, shorter spears are more likely to have large wide heads, while very long spears tend to have small narrow heads.

Moderns are very interested in whether spears had iron or bronze cladding on the butt, variously called a ferrule, sauroter (σαυρωτήρ), or butt-spike. Unfortunately for them, art and archaeology indicate that often only a fraction of spears for close fighting had them. At the sanctuary at Kalapodi in Greece, which was probably destroyed by Xerxes’ troops, there are 300 spearheads but only 30 sauroters (for this and following references see https://www.bookandsword.com/2022/03/05/how-many-hoplites-had-a-butt-spike-on-their-spears/) At the La Tène site of Ribemont in France, there were about 129 spearheads and only 22 ferrules. There are places and times when sauroters were very common, but they don’t seem to have been a standard feature on ancient spears.

Some people today imagine that butt-spikes were designed to adjust the balance of a spear. A butt-spike could certainly do this, but this is now what spear users before the 20th century say butt-spikes were for. They talk about being able to turn the spear and strike with the butt if enemies get too close (Thuc. 2.4.3, Polyb. 6.25.5-6, 8-9, 11.18.4, Fiore, R.F. Burton), or show spears planted in the ground with the iron protecting them from cracking or rot (Iliad 10.153). I would like to see more experiments with long spears with tapered shafts and light heads.

a relief of a man with two spears standing next to a horse, labeled "How Long Were Spears?"

Moderns are often interested in the length of ancient spears. The ancients did not write very much about this, and most of what they did write was about long sarissae or short hunting spears. People today often use the human body in art as a yardstick, but there are all kinds of reason why artists might expand or contract a long object like a spear to fit the available space. Traces of spears in graves can give a clue, but its possible that they were broken to fit inside the grave. Broadly speaking, longer spears give more reach but are harder to control. War spears tend to be longer than hunting spears because animals don’t use weapons which extend their reach but do shelter in overgrown areas.

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So what are my questions?

  • What wood was it made from?
  • How was the wood processed?
  • What was the shaft diameter at the tip and the butt?
  • How does shaft diameter vary along the length?
  • How heavy was the head?
  • How was the head shaped?
  • Was there a ferrule / butt-spike / sauroter?
  • What was the overall length?

Spears were handmade objects bought by their users or by small units. So when we talk about ancient spears, the best we can do is to describe trends and what particular spears were better or worse for. A long, rear-balanced spear was a very different weapon than a short, forward-balanced spear, even if their heads were the same shape. If we ask more questions about spears, and focus on function, they have a great deal to teach us. And the increasing use of archaeological and comparative evidence makes this phase of research into Iron Age warfare even more exciting than the old Hoplite Debate of 1989-2013.

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