Elizabeth Foulds and Charlotte Britton
This week’s Finds Friday is a bent Iron Age Sword that was recovered from an inhumation, during our 2016 excavations at Burstwick. The individual discovered in the grave was determined to be a young adult male, aged 26–35. In total, three objects were found in the grave, including an iron spearhead, an iron shield boss, and this bent sword. The sword, also made from iron, had a blade measuring 560mm in length and 35.3mm in width. Both the tip of the blade and the tang were intact, although there was no evidence of a guard, grip, pommel or scabbard. It is therefore assumed that these were originally made from an organic material, such as wood. The practice of inhumation is uncommon in Iron Age Britain, as are grave goods, making this find extremely interesting and illuminating.
The blade was bent to a 25-degree angle prior to deposition and was likely out of the scabbard before being bent. The practice of bending swords (and spears) is well documented at sites in Europe however, evidence of this practice in Britain, is limited. By bending a sword, it obviously becomes useless. Such an act would have been deliberate, as it would have taken considerable effort or a hot fire or forge to heat the metal to bend the blade while hot. It may have been altered after the death of the individual, perhaps to reflect or mimic his own death by ritually ‘killing’ the sword. Bending the sword may, however, have simply been an act of mutilation to prevent any living person claiming the sword, or preventing the deceased individual from using the sword in an afterlife. It is also possible that the sword was distorted while the interred individual was still alive. In this case, the act of bending the sword may have been symbolic of the individual’s defeat, perhaps in battle or single combat. The placement of the sword in the grave, along the back of the individual, is a typical location for swords in burials in this period and region. It is thought that such placement may reflect how swords were worn, as opposed to the common representation of them being worn near the hip.
This inhumation is potentially the earliest known complete warrior burial with shield, spearhead, and bent sword, in Britain. It is therefore a star find from our excavations, informing us of the burial practices of Iron Age Britain.