Early Weapons: Spears, Swords and Pocket-knives (Part 1)

In previous posts, we established the basic geographical and historical context of our study; it is now time to discuss the actual archaeological evidence. We will begin with the earliest, pre-apoikism periods, and have a closer look at what types of weaponry have been brought to light.

The blades of Kastri

Thasos, and specifically the site of Kastri, has provided us with the most extensive corpus of early knife and dagger blades on the island. More than fifty distinct blades (both bronze and iron) have been identified, primarily from the cemeteries of the settlement. Their typology is varied (Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, in her original study, Protohistoric Thasos, identifies at least five separate bronze types, and several more iron ones). It is difficult to establish a strict typological sequence, given the partial state of preservation of many of the blades and the disturbed stratigraphy of many of the graves: these built chamber tombs had been frequently re-used during antiquity, in some cases several dozen times.

–Bronze dagger and knives from the Kastri cemeteries.

The deceased were buried with their knives, in a tradition that lasted from at least as far back as the 11th century (very probably earlier than that) until the early 7th century, when the settlement was gradually abandoned. These knives were exclusive to neither male nor female burials: if there was a social factor that determined whether someone was ‘worthy’ of such a blade, it does not seem to have been biological sex. On the other hand, knives were not found in all burials; they were not a sine qua non for the Kastri graves.

–Small bronze curved knife from the Vrysoudia cemetery (Kastri).

What was the function of these blades? Were they functional tools, weapons, symbols of authority? Their different shapes might imply different functions, but that is by no means certain. It is certainly difficult to interpret their majority as weapons meant to serve in combat; but they could easily have been utility knives or hunting weapons. Their thin blades, often gracefully recurved and fullered, could have been honed to a razor sharpness (and may even have served as razors, on occasion); but, sadly, most of them are corroded to such an extent that making out nicks and other marks of use is impossible.

Many of those blades have decorative ‘swallow-tail’ handles, and some of these even preserve smooth bone or horn insets. They do not seem to only be tools with a purely utilitarian function, but possessions in which the owner might take pride. Perhaps tellingly, some examples are of particularly small, almost miniature size. Their state of preservation makes it impossible to be certain, but, as Koukouli-Chrysanthaki has tentatively suggested, it is likely that these miniature blades served as symbolic grave goods. The Kastri blades may, consequently, have served partly as indicators of social status.

–Bronze ‘dagger’ from the Vrysoudia cemetery (Kastri).

However, there is one type of blade that may have been used as more than a utility tool and as an actual weapon. I am referring to the blades, of Koukouli-Chryssanthaki’s EIII type: a long, single-edged knife, with a straight (or very gently curved) back and, occasionally, a reinforced, flanged handle. With a blade length of ca. 15 cm, these may have been true daggers, which one could conceivably use in self-defense.

Early spears: hunting and war

Knives and dagger-blades may be the commonest weapons (or tools, depending on our interpretation) in Thasos for the Early Iron Age, but they are by no means the only weapons. Spears have been a primary weapon for warriors in the Aegean sphere since the Early Bronze Age; the Kavala Gulf is no exception.

–Bronze ‘Mycenean’-type spearhead from Kastri. The weapon has been ritually ‘killed’, by being bent into a concertina-like shape.

The cemeteries of Kastri have provided us with a single bronze spearhead, dating to the Late Bronze Age and reminiscent of central Aegean Mycenean parallels. Notably, it is a ‘killed’ weapon: it has been ritually destroyed, by folding it into a concertina-like shape, to deny its use to anyone but the deceased. This ritual ‘killing’ of weapons is a custom encountered in the southern Aegean, characteristic of ‘warrior’ burials: the weapon is ‘sacrificed’, to escort its owner to the afterlife. Is this the weapon of some local champion? How much insight can it provide into the social structure of the local ‘Thracian’ community?

–‘Thracian’ bronze spearhead from Oisyme.

One thing we can say for sure, is that it is not the only spearhead dating to before the arrival of the Parian settlers in the region. In the major sanctuary of Artemis in Thasos (the ‘Artemision’), an early bronze spearhead has been brought to light. It lacks a specific stratigraphical context, and was originally dated to the Archaic period, but a recent typological study by Leshtakov shows that it belongs to a relatively small (less than 10 cm long) socketed, leaf-bladed type, with a conical socket, that is characteristic of Thracian, pre-apoikism culture. Another spearhead of the same type has been discovered beneath the floor level of the Oisyme sanctuary: it is worth reminding the reader that Oisyme has presented us with a confirmed pre-apoikism habitation phase.

–‘Thracian’ iron spearhead from Drama.

And, of course, we have similar weapons from the Thracian hinterland. Our recent research trip in Drama has brought forward a third, partially preserved spearhead of similar shape but considerably larger size, discovered in the pre-apoikism ‘elite’ tumulus burial cemetery. However, whereas the Thasos and Oisyme spearheads are cast in bronze, the Drama spearhead is forged in iron, further documenting the survival of the type well into the Early Iron Age.

The swords in the stone (tumuli)

Once again, our recent research trip to Drama has brought forward further examples of Early Iron Age weaponry; examples that, at the time of writing appear to be completely absent from the coastal sites. Specifically, the tumulus cemetery has yielded two iron longswords, one of which can safely be identified as a ‘Naue II’-type blade (or a Griffzungenschwert, if one goes by the German terminology). The second has a similar blade profile, but does not preserve the characteristic hilt of the ‘Naue II’ swords.

–‘Naue II’ sword from Drama.

Both swords were found in Tumulus C, the most recent of the Drama tumuli, dating to the 8th century. They bring to mind similar finds from other northern sites, such as Kossynthos and Kastas, and document beyond any doubt the presence of warriors in the region: in contrast to knife-blades and spears, which can also serve as tools and/or hunting weapons, swords can only be employed as weapons of war (and by extension, as status symbols). It is worth noting that the Drama burials are relatively ‘rich’, with metal jewellery and high-quality Protogeometric-style pottery.

Why is it that such swords are completely absent from Thasos and the sites of the Thasian peraea? Is it simply because of research gaps, or is it possible to discern cultural differences between the coastal regions and the hinterland? The study of these finds is currently ongoing, and we will reserve judgement for now – but we invite discussion on the matter and we will publish more information here in the upcoming months!


Next time: Weapons part 2; Archaic weapons and the poleis of the Kavala Gulf!

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