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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Angon; the English Heavy Javelin

 Ang on! That's a funny looking spear!

 The well-equipped warrior of the Early Anglo-Saxon Period, in addition to his ancestral sword, might well carry either a spear or that descendant of the Roman Pilum, the Angon.


The angon was about 6-7 feet long, about half of this being wooden shaft and the remainder a long, slender iron shank. This was attached to the shaft by means of a relatively short socket, which was sometimes strengthened by one or more bind-rings. The Angon’s head was barbed and had a quadrilateral, hardened armour-piercing tip. The twin-barbed head is very reminiscent of the later, and typically English, barbed, multi-purpose arrow-head used on the battlefields of France during the Hundred Years War. The actual smithying of the Angon head, as with the barbed arrow-head, required considerable craft and would have meant that this would have been a fairly expensive weapon.

The history of the Angon would appear to start in the 5th Century B.C. when the Pilum was invented in Italy, probably by the Etruscans. This heavy javelin had a long, thin, pointed iron shank fitted to a wooden shaft. Its weight gave it excellent penetrative ability and the long metal shank prevented its being cut away. Its primary function, however, dictated its design, which was to penetrate the shield and kill or injure its bearer. To achieve this, the pilum had a pyramidal bodkin-head (later seen in the true Angon) optimised for penetration. The considerable kinetic energy of the thrown pilum would all be concentrated onto a small point on the shield Thus pierced, the narrow shank would continue unobstructed to pierce the body of the opponent. In order to be most effective, therefore, the shank needed to be long enough to reach the warrior holding the shield. Such a weapon would also make short work of mail armour, bursting the tiny rivet joints asunder and skewering the man beneath. Julius Caesar speaks of pila pinning together Celtic shields, thus implying that they were able to penetrate up to 1 inch of hardwood and hide. 

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Handicapped by a pilum, the shield became unwieldy and useless and had to be discarded, leaving the Celtic warrior unprotected and easy meat for the legionary gladius. Caesar may well have introduced the innovation of leaving the shank of the pilum untempered and soft, so that it buckled under its own weight once stuck into a shield. This made withdrawal from the shield more difficult and stopped its being thrown back! This does not mean that the weapon buckled on impact which would defeat its purpose. Some pilum-heads were barbed (-there are examples from Telamon and Alesia) and may be the ancestors of the Germanic Angon. Although most heavy pila  were tanged, some were socketed like most light pila and it was the socketed design that led,eventually, to the more robust dual-purpose Angon. The pilum evolved during the next few centuries into light and heavy forms eventually coalescing into the classic lead-weighted form This continued in use as the principle missile weapon of the Roman Legionary Infantry until the 3rd Century A.D. when, as Rome’s enemies were more often horsemen, it was largely replaced by the spear - more suitable for fending off cavalry.
The Celtic version of the pilum was termed the Gaesum and was used by Roman Auxiliaries of Celtic origin. Examples of this weapon have been found near Hadrian’s Wall.
(The gaesum has a broad and barbed iron head at the end of a long shank. It is a combination throwing / hand-held weapon whereas the spiculum (q.v.) is a throwing spear only.)

In the 5th Century A.D. the Roman author Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote a military treatise entitled “De Re Militari”, in which he laments the demise of the classical Roman heavy infantry legion. Vegetius lists a series of shafted weapons currently in use by the infantry : the Lancea or dual purpose light spear, the light javelin or Verutum and the Spiculum. He equates this latter weapon with the old legionary pilum, which it had replaced, but states that it had a head no more than 8 inches long on a 5 foot shaft, whereas  elsewhere he states that the pilum had an iron head 8½ - 11½ “ long, and that its equivalent, the ‘Bebra’ was carried in twos or threes by contemporary barbarians, which sounds much more like a light javelin than a heavy one. 
Despite Vegetius’ confusion, it seems clear that pilum-type weapons exhibited a range of dimensions and head types. Several heads from Northern Britain have a long iron shank like the earlier Pilum and are much more substantial than the relatively flimsy Spiculum described by Vegetius. This is the ‘Gaesum (see above). Close parallels to this weapon have been found at Vimose and Illerup (dated to the 3rd Century A.D.) and Essbøl and Nydam (dated to the 4th Century A.D.), i.e. the territory from which the Angles originate. This suggests that this ‘Roman’ weapon had been adopted by the free Germanic Tribes and then re-introduced into the Empire during the 3-4th Centuries as the Roman Army became increasingly manned by Germanics, thus indirectly linking the pilum with the Germanic Angon.

It is to be understood that the bulk of serious fighting in the entire Anglo-Saxon Period was done with spears, as indeed had been the case for thousands of years. There were light javelins for use against unarmoured opponents and various spears for hand-to-hand combat. The Angon, however, was a prestige weapon, like the sword. Examples have only been found in the graves of the most well-to-do warriors. These fighters, like the later aristocratic knights, prefer to fight their equals, who would be similarly well-equipped with good defensive armour and such would demand an armour-piercing missile weapon for the initial round of the combat, when missiles were exchanged prior to close combat.  The Angon was used throughout the Germanic world and particular types are associated with particular areas. There is most information concerning the so-called Frankish Angon. Agathius of Myrna (536-582), a Byzantine poet, writing his Historiae in about A.D. 570, describes the Frankish Army and its use of the barbed spear.
“The Angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long; they can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin, and also in hand to hand combat. The greater part of the angon is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. In battle the Frank throws the angon, and if it hits an enemy, the spear is caught in the man and neither the wounded man nor anyone else can draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh, causing great pain, and in this way a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon strikes a shield, it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield, nor can it be cut off with a sword because the shaft is covered with iron. When the Frank sees the situation, he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear, pulling down, and the man holding it falls leaving his head and chest unprotected. The unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust with another spear.”
The Frankish Angon head / shank was usually between 32-36” long, but occasionally much longer and had a relatively short wooden haft. The long metal shank is what Agathius must be referring to when he states that the angon shaft cannot be cut through with a sword. He also states that the Franks used no bows or slings and relied on their angons and throwing axes.

In his “The English Warrior”, Steve Pollington speculates that the English (Anglecynn) derive their name from that of the barbed spear. He records the Old English words ‘ong / ang’ = ‘balista dart’ and ‘angul’ = barbed fish hook. Thus Ang(a) / Angon = spear-head with barbs. The angon’s defining characteristic is thus its barbs and not the length of its metal shank. The Angon could have a relatively short, robust head / shank, like the 4-5th Century Nydam angon or a head / shank well over three feet long, as with the Frankish type. There exist examples from England of elongated spear heads with long shanks which would have functioned in a very similar way but they are not barbed. There exists an O.E. word ‘pil’, which J.R.Clarke-Hall glosses as ‘pointed object, spike, nail, shaft, stake, but also ‘arrow, dart, and javelin’. It might be tempting to use this word to denote barbless long-shanked spears, although ‘stake’ seems the most likely meaning. The resemblance to the Latin ‘pilum’ cannot however be discounted.

The example from Prittlewell, Essex was found with the shank bent over at 90° . This is usually understood as demonstrating that, like the pilum of Caesar’s day, the iron shank was meant to buckle. It could mean, however, that the weapon had been ritually “killed” before deposition. It is doubtful that the capacity of the shank to buckle was a design feature of the angon, however. (see above)
It can thus be seen that the Angon ( O.E. ‘Ang(a) ), a heavy javelin ‘heoro-hocyhtum’ (“wickedly barbed”) was the lineal descendant of the pilum of the Roman Army. Things Roman were held in high esteem by Dark Ages Germanics and, perhaps for this reason, the Angon was a prestige weapon. A member of the public who enquires about the Angon can therefore expect a long, fascinating answer.

Glossary :  
 Ang(a) /Ong(a).    - possible Old English term for the Angon. 
Angon           - heavy Germanic javelin, typically with armour-piercing bodkin head and barbs. 
Bebra            - name given by Vegetius for Barbarian pilum.  
Franca            - O.E. word glossed “lance, javelin” - the typically long-necked ‘Frankish’ Angon. 
Gaesum          - barb-headed heavy javelin used by Roman Auxiliaries of Celtic origin. Essentially, a barbed pilum. 
Lancea            - light dual-purpose spear. Typical weapon of Late Roman Infantry. 
Pïl            - O.E. word, glossed “..arrow, dart, javelin.” 
Pilum            - Roman heavy javelin, with long iron head. 
Spiculum        - heavy (?) javelin used by Late Roman Infantry but with a much shorter head than the earlier pilum. 
 Verutum          - light javelin used by late Roman Infantry.

Books Consulted :   
“ROMAN MILITARY EQUIPTMENT”. M.C.Bishop and J.C.N.Coulston 1993, Published by.B.T. Batsford.
“Warfare in the Classical Age”. J.Warry, 1980. Salamander Books Ltd.
“The English Warrior” Stephen Pollington. Anglo-Saxon Books 1996.
“Anglo-Saxon Weapons & Warfare” Dr.Richard Underwood. Tempus 1999.
“Barbarian Warriors - Saxons, Vikings, Normans” Dan & Susanna Shadrake 1997. Brassey’s (UK) Ltd.
“The Medieval Soldier” A.V.B. Norman 1971. Barnes & Noble, Inc.
“Anglo-Saxon Thegn” Mark Harrison. Osprey Military 1993.
“Late Roman Infantryman  236-565 AD” Simon Macdowall. Osprey Military 1994.
“Rome’s Enemies: Germanics and Dacians. Peter Wilcox. Osprey Military 1982.
“Germanic Warrior  236-568 AD” Simon Macdowall. Osprey Military 1996.
“A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary” J.R.Clarke Hall.1960.Cambridge University Press.

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