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Weapons sacrifice

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The Greeks and Romans set up trophies after victories in battle. These have left little archaeology (exceptionally there is something from the Battle of Actium). Normally, on dry land wood will rot, iron will rust and bronze would be reused. Our evidence on the sacrifice of war booty is likely to be very untypical of the extent of the practice.

The survival of evidenceEdit

The archaeology of a former lake at the Jutland site of Illerup Ådal is the best evidence for what are taken to be the sacrifice and destruction of the weapons and equipment captured from enemy soldiers (at Illerup, soldiers rather than tribesmen because a certain uniformity of equipment suggests professional organisation[1]). The anoxic conditions of the mud or peat at the bottom of the lakes or bogs preserved many of such sacrificed artifacts in good, or excellent condition. A book accompanying an exhibition of such finds from Danish bogs is the main source of this article.

Bogs are known to preserve bog bodies and bog butter but no human bodies are known to accompany the weapon sacrifices. The main Illerup deposition, besides weapons, includes gold, silver, spear shafts, shield boards, ropes, cords, leather, textiles tools, wooden vessels, spoons, beads, four horses and a cow.[2] Dendrochronology of the shield boards shows that the deposition was soon after 205 AD. Yet the last coin was minted in 187/8 AD. The shield bosses are taken, in the book[3], to represent 3 levels of hierarchy in the small army. The ordinary soldiers were represented by 350 iron bosses. The next level up had 30 bronze bosses and 6 bronze or iron bosses with gilded pressed foil. Above these, there were 5-6 silver shield bosses.[4] Some Illerup objects have runes similar to the Vimose inscriptions.

Among the offerings at Illerup are also items belonging to the personal equipment of members of the defeated army. Combs made from reindeer and moose bones together with the finds of roman coins could indicate that the army originated from northern Scandinavia and was on its way home from plunder or auxiliary service in the Roman Empire when it met its fate at Illerup.

A good number of weapons sacrifices are accompanied by boats, such as the Nydam Boat and the Hjortspring boat. Most Danish weapons sacrifices date from 200 – 500 AD but earlier ones are known back to Hjortspring, c.350 BC, where more than 50 shields, 11 single-edged swords and 169 spearheads accompanied the boat.[5]

The artifacts were often burnt, broken or bent before deposition. The surviving boats were sunk in the lakes though other boats are known simply from clumps of burnt rivets. Sites often had more than one act of sacrifice. Illerup is known to have had at least 3 over the period c 200-500 AD. The bogs and lakes used appear to be surrounded by cultivated fields. Clearly this archaeological evidence has something to say about Germanic paganism.

These finds allow for some changes in the Germanic warfare to be monitored e.g. the change from single edged swords at Hjortspring to double edged swords at Illerup. From grave finds of arrow heads, bows were significant war weapons in the Germanic area from c.200 AD. South of Denmark these are typically leaf shaped. In Denmark they are thiner and designed to penetrate the rings of mail armour. [6]. This change of weaponry is assumed to account for the Illerup shields having a layer of gut stretched over the surface. Besides keeping the shields dry, experiments show the shields much more resistant to splitting and penetration by arrows[7]

The rarest find from these sacrifices is a complete coat of chain mail. Reconstruction shows it to have had 20-23,000 rings and weighed just under 10 kgs[8].

Perhaps even more interesting are the scabbards. A number have been recovered. Two of the more decorative from Nydam, one from the third century [9] and one from the fifth[10] had fur lining on the inside. We can reasonably speculate that this fur was oily and designed to keep the blade absolutely free from rust. The further speculation is that a pristine appearance of the blade would only have been so highly valued for pattern-welded blades.

NotesEdit

  1. Jørgensen p314
  2. ibid p60
  3. The key assumption of how representative losses on the battlefield would be of the make up of an army is not properly discussed.
  4. ibid p50
  5. ibid p216
  6. ibid p319-320
  7. ibid p322
  8. ibid p234
  9. ibid p266
  10. ibid p282

ReferencesEdit

Lars Jørgensen et al. 2003 The spoils of Victory - The north in the shadow of the Roman Empire Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark)

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