Sword-wielding scientists show how ancient fighting techniques spread across Bronze Age Europe

Bronze swords have been found by the thousands in graves, rivers, and bogs all across Europe. But because the alloy is so soft—and easy to mangle compared with later iron weapons—historians have long wondered whether these swords were battlefield tools or mere status symbols. Now, a team of archaeologists has staged modern fights with bronze swords to measure the resulting microscopic dings and dents. Sword-on-sword contact was a “big part” of Bronze Age fighting, they found, done with specific, artful moves that spread from region to region over time.

Unlike axes, spears, or arrows, “swords are the first objects invented purely to kill someone,” says University of Göttingen archaeologist Raphael Hermann, who led the new study. Bronze swords—used across Europe from 1600 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.—were made of a mixture of copper and tin, which was softer and harder to repair than later iron weapons. That meant Bronze Age weapons and fighting techniques had to be adapted to the metal’s properties. “Use them in a clumsy way, and you’ll destroy them,” says Barry Molloy, an archaeologist at University College Dublin who was not involved in the study.

As a result, some archaeologists suggested bronze blades served a largely ceremonial purpose. At most, they argued, fighters adapted their technique to the metal’s limitations: Perhaps Bronze Age warriors actively avoided crossing swords to spare their weapons. “Stab somebody in the guts, and you won’t have a mark on your sword at all,” Hermann says.

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