Anglo-Saxon spears

By Pasicles (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsThe most common weapon at the turn of the first millennium was the spear (Underwood 2006:23) and indeed throughout Saxon history. The spear has been used throughout history in various forms such as javelins, commonly termed Angon in the post-Roman times, pikes, frequently used form the 16th century onwards and the lance, used by cavalry. The lance was synonymous with the spear throughout some historic periods such as the Byzantine Empire. With such a broad range of specialist types, we must look closer into the forms used by the Anglo-Saxon warrior.

Spears were common partly due to their simple construction. A spear would comprise of a head and a shaft and occasionally a ferrule. The head of the spear could be made from any abundant material (fire hardening of spear tips has been suggested during the pre-historic period). In the Anglo-Saxon period, however, spearheads were commonly made from iron. As with sword blades, we do come across pattern welded blades in the archaeological record (Halpin 2008:137) but this is much rarer. The spear shaft could be made from a variety of woods. Although, evidence for spear shafts is rare the use of readily available wood of varying types could be supported by the variety of woods used for arrow shafts (Halpin 2008:45).

Whilst we know iron was used for the creation of spearheads we also know of some methods of construction. A spearhead would be made from a billet of iron. This would first be hammered out into the rough shape needed. The socket of the spearhead (the area where it attaches to the shaft) would be flattened and folded round to form the socket. This would then be hammered and ground into shape. There are a couple of types of blade which suggest forge welding. The first of these are blades with extra wings on the sides of the centre of the blade. The second group are corrugated blades which are thought to have superseded the types with a central column vein reinforcement. These two types suggest the bladed edges of the spearhead were added to a central spike of metal that formed a tang on some types.

The dimensions of spears may at first seem hard to gauge, however, graves that include ferrules allow us to estimate lengths between the ferrule and the head. There is also evidence from bog deposits in Nydam, Denmark. These two sets of data suggest lengths of 1.6-2.8m and 2.3-3m respectively (Underwood 2006:44). It would also be interesting to note length of spear compared to head type so that further differences between throwing spears and those used in close combat may be detected. Such information is unfortunately not available at this time.

When discussing weaponry we inevitably need to discuss form and type so as to extrapolate use. As with swords, spearheads have also been the subject of typologies. Whilst those available concentrate on Pagan or Viking spearheads they are nonetheless useful (Swanton1973, 1974; Peterson 1919; Solberg 1985a). The initial form gives us three broad categories which are:

  1. Those with an elongated shaft
  2. Those with a more regular leaf or triangular blade
  3. Those with larger sword style blades.

I shall deal with each type in turn.

The first of these groups is those with an elongated shaft. These blades most probably represent throwing spears. The heads have parallels to evidence from Angons and Pilum (Leeds and harden 1936:59). The elongated shaft was supposed to bend when entering a shield, therefore, making both the spear and the shield it struck unusable. The spear being made unusable was an important factor as is noted in the sagas as it would prevent the weapon being reused against the original attacker. This group of spearheads is the one most prone to identification difficulties. The types for these spears are Type K (Halpin 2008:148) Solberg type XII (Halpin 2008: 149) and Swanton type A (Swanton 1973).

These difficulties, as can be seen by looking at the typologies, are important as the line between small spearheads and large arrowheads is difficult to draw due to some of the similarities in style. Notably, Halpin’s Dublin arrowhead typology number 5 (Halpin 2008:76 Fig 21). There is nothing to say the same heads could not have been used for both large arrows and small throwing spears especially if a quick casting method were used. It is doubtful that casting would be used for socketed blades although not impossible.

The second of these groups covers the majority of early and middle Saxon spearheads. Swanton’s typologies (Swanton 1973, 1974) show several types from triangular blades, types E1 and E2 (Swanton 1974) to leaf shaped blades type C and D (Swanton 1973). The leaf shaped blades are supposedly derived from earlier pre-migration pattern spearheads in use before the Saxons arrive in the British Isles (Swanton 1973, 1974). Swanton also points us towards several other groups of spearheads, e.g. Types H and I (Swanton 1973, 1974), which have different properties such as blades which flare outwards, type H (Swanton 1974:19) and type I’s corrugated blades also mentioned above (Swanton 1974:21). There are corresponding types within both of our other typologies. The Swanton type H is the same as the Peterson type F (Halpin 2008:148) and Solberg type I (Halpin 2008:149). This group of spearheads would lend themselves to thrusting as their pointed blades are at such an angle as to make slashing not as effective. It is interesting to note that Peterson’s types B, C and D blades, as well as Solberg’s type IX.1B and VI.3B blades, have shoulders to stop them entering flesh too far whilst Swanton identifies none of these types. From this, e can draw two conclusions. Either this is a peculiarly Viking type or only came into use much later than the 7th century (the date which Swanton’s typologies finish). These wings, if used to stop the spear entering flesh too far, may suggest a role in hunting as it would be a more important factor in that pursuit. This would possibly be supported by the relatively small number with this feature in Solberg’s typology. Another possibility is that they aided in the use of the spear as a defensive weapon which could be used to push opponents blades out of the way when thrust forwards.

The third group of blades are those which are elongated and in some ways resemble the blade of a sword. Some of these blades, Swanton type G2; reach lengths of around 500mm or more (Swanton 1973:101). These blades are characterised by parallel edges and would suggest a slashing blade. It is interesting to note that neither Peterson’s nor Solberg’s typologies contain such blades. Some are similar such as Solberg type VII.2B and Peterson type E; however, these similarities are fairly loose. It may, therefore, be possible to suggest that such blades were in use from the 7th century until before the 9th century in England although it is entirely possible that this is a purely Anglo-Saxon type. As already noted this type suggests a slashing rather than stabbing motion. This would, in turn, suggest a lack of armour for the typical opponent as the ability of such an attack to cause harm would be significantly reduced against mailed opponents.

Whilst we have talked of the spearheads and their shafts there are other attachments which can be considered. These included the reinforcing of the socket and also the ferrule. Ferrules are an interesting addition to a spear and are useful to use for several reasons. The first of these is they us to the length of spears although this was clearly not an intended effect. A ferrule tells us that the butt of the spear needs protecting. This would suggest two things. First, that the weapon is not a throwing weapon as they were designed to break on impact thus making the practical use of a ferrule pointless. They also suggest that the spear would be resting on the ground or used for walking. This means a spear is then important militarily, enough so that reinforcing it for a longer life was worthwhile.

Ferrules are generally a simple socket, conical in nature capping the end of a spear. Being hardened metal they could be used to prod prisoners forward or to disable a warrior without having to turn the spear point downwards or kill the victim. As such Ferrules must be taken into account when assessing the potential trauma marks that they may leave in the archaeological record.

The reinforcing of the spearhead is important as it helps to keep a heavy head attached. The head could either be riveted or have a ring pushed down over the socket to hold it in place. A combination of these two could also be used. It was noted that the heads of throwing spears may be loosened as a form of disabling the weapon so that they enemy could not reuse it.

So far we have covered. The use of the spear, its form, and its construction. We now need to look to its commonality of use and also the evidence of its use as a status symbol. As we have already seen above the spear was the most common weapon used by the Anglo-Saxon warrior. It has a high frequency in graves with it appearing in 86.1% of weapons burials (Härke 1989:54). This quantity is not recorded for other Germanic tribes where it falls behind the Seax as 45%-56% of graves furnished with a spear (Härke 1989:54). This shows us that the spear was particularly important within Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed it is the only other weapon listed as a demand for the Heriot (Loyn 1988:226) and is demanded at double the rate of swords.

In historical sources it can be seen that it is the spear that is the symbol of a freeman. As such being buried with your spear, which may have been granted to you as a sign of freedom, would show your status. Those lacking spears in this context may be either graves containing weapons showing them to be higher status or those who were not free. Whilst Härke notes we should be cautious of inferring use from burial custom we may be able to use the evidence of the Heriot to show the frequency of its use, Other literary sources can also corroborate such a postulation (Halpin 2008:16).

As a cheaper option than the sword yet with nearly equal ability to cause harm whether thrown, used for thrusting or for slashing the spear may thus be seen to be a common weapon. The evidence of the Heriot and that from graves supports this conclusion and as such wounds from this weapon may be found with some frequency within the archaeological record.

Did the Anglo-Saxons invade Britain or was it a more peaceful take over?

Did the Anglo-Saxons invade Britain?

This is a question that has been debated for a long time. There is a lot of research on this subject and it depends on the time period and the school of thought that the author was using to what their answer is. There is good evidence used on both sides of the debate and there is no clear answer. Or is there?

I had always believed that the concept of a Saxon invasion was outdated and something that came from the tale of Hengist and Horsa. An origin story like any other which showed more about the people who wrote it than an account of the actual events. While at University I was taught about the spread of the Anglo-Saxons and swiftly fell into the no invasion camp. Recently I have been reading around the subject and wondered if there was indeed merit to both ideas. Could we perhaps suggest that both ideas had merit and there was an amount of invasion and an amount of peaceful settlement?

Campbell in his overview book The Anglo-Saxons seems to err on the side of an invasion at first reading. This book was published in the 90’s so when I was at university it was not especially old for an overview text. He cites some good evidence from the writings that are left from the period. I was left thinking that the agendas in the writing may well lead to an argument for invasion no matter which side the writer fell on (Briton or Saxon).

The Norman invasion is a well-documented occurrence, so is the creation of Danelaw. Both of these saw large swathes of the British countryside turned over to one ruler in a relatively short space of time. The Anglo-Saxons did not form a single unified kingdom. There were many and varied kingdoms that were much more tribal in nature. Early Anglo-Saxon archaeology shows a technology level similar to that of the Romano-British populations from the Iron age. There is Also the Issue of the disparate groups that are still identified. There are the Angles, The Jutes and the Saxons. Doubtless there would have been smaller tribal groups in these larger groupings.

Campbell also mentions some sources from the later Roman empire that talk of British groups fighting Saxon invaders. Indeed, the whole of the western Roman empire was fighting a variety of groups of Germanic origin until its eventual collapse in the 5th century. if the British were organised in such fashion surely we would see a lot more evidence for an invasion. perhaps even some records similar to those of the Viking invasions in later years.

If we look at the evidence of place names we can see that there are many that are Saxon in origin and many that are British at least in part. While we could compare this to the Scandinavian influence in the Danelaw areas of Britain does it not seem odd that an invasion would leave so much intact. Indeed, the names of some places are developed from the Saxon word for foreigner. If it were the case that these societies didn’t integrate then surely such names would be redundant as the indigenous population would have pushed to keep a native name.

I have looked through some of the genetic studies and they also suggest that there was an intermingling of the cultures.

I do wonder whether the views of an invasion come from a concept of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon culture that arrived rather than the disparate tribal groups with loose similarities. Could we, therefore, compare the migration of the angles, Saxons and Jutes to the migrations of people within the Bronze age? Essentially tribal groups that were moving to another place. Also aligned with this is the thought of Britannia as a province and a single entity rather than separate tribal groups especially as there are separate British kingdoms throughout the Saxon documentation.

It is an interesting concept to ponder and there will be follow-up posts about these subjects. In the mean time please do comment, answer the short questionnaire and sign up to the website for further updates.