Tuesday, 14 February 2012


“daroð sceal on handa                                     gar golde fah”                  
A javelin belongs in the hand                  a spear worked with gold
Called gar or spere by the Anglo-Saxons, and geirr or spjot in Norse, spears were the most common ‘Dark Age’ weapon. Spearheads are a common finding in graves, and their various shapes were forged from single pieces of iron.
The socket would be formed by flattening out one end into a fan shape, then hammering it around a former. Many Anglo-Saxon spearheads appear to have been left with a split-socket. This would allow the spearhead to be secured onto the ash-shaft by hammering the socket closed onto the tapered end of the shaft. Sometimes it would be further secured by one or two rivets or by an iron binding ring...

The business-end of the spear showed wide variation in shape. Early examples were leaf-shaped, with a central rib copied, no doubt, from their bronze predecessors. As confidence in iron-work grew, the strengthening mid-rib was found to be unnecessary, as iron is much stronger than bronze, weight for weight. 

6th Century Spearhead showing split socket, and steel edge on a softer iron core (Paul Binns)
Some spear-heads resembled short sword blades. The cutting edges could be up to 50cm long and would have been used two handed for wide, cutting strokes (called a höggspjót - ‘hewing spear’ by the Vikings) Those of another type have a pointed leaf-shape and would be multifunctional.  Others are clearly designed for piercing mail armour by thrusting, resembling scaled-up versions of the familiar bodkin-arrow of the High Middle Ages. Another was designed with its flattened blade folded into a ‘z’ shape. This would have provided strength with less weight and would have saved precious iron. 

The workmanship of some spear-heads show that they were made by specialist weapon-smiths. Metallurgical analysis has show that the blades had a composite structure, with an inner core and socket of low carbon iron and a cutting edge of hardened carbon-steel. Between the two was a chevron of darker phosphoric iron. The result would have been aesthetic as well as functional. Yet other spears show twist-welded boundary between the core and the steel edges. These show that almost as much skilful care went into making one of these as a sword.

A javelin can be thought of as simply a light spear meant to be thrown as a missile weapon. The generic Old English term for such a weapon was daroð, from which the modern term ‘dart’ is derived. Swanton, famous for his classification of spears, also used the Old English term wigar (vigr in Old Norse) for the cheapest form of light javelin, where a crudely formed spearhead was loosely bound to a withy. Archaeologically, it is of course impossible to distinguish between a large arrowhead and a javelin-head. They serve the same missile function and, in fact, linguistically in Old English the word scytel can mean either a dart or an arrow. 
(pronounced “shyttle”. The word has the secondary meaning of ‘excrement’)

The Early Germanic warrior also had available a heavy armour-piercing javelin in the form of the so-called angon, also probably known as the franca (or, in Old Norse frakka). Probably evolved from the Roman pilum, this had a short wooden shaft into which fitted a long socketed iron shank. This terminated in a stout well-hardened tip, which was often barbed and which resembled a large barbed arrowhead. This would have been an expensive weapon in terms of the metal alone. 

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