Basal-looped spearheads: typlogy, chronology, context and use, by Richard Davis
Spearheads are the least studied of the major classes of Bronze Age metalwork and this volume is perhaps the first devoted to one of the major types; those with loops at the base of the blade. It originates from research on finds from the River Trent near Nottingham, another relatively neglected source despite being second only to the Thames as a riverine source of metalwork, and formed part of a Nottingham University PhD. We are not, however, told when the research was done and though the latest catalogue entry (188.1) is dated 2003 the Portable Antiquities Scheme database has not been used systematically; this could be significant on the assumption that the contexts of modern metal-detectorists’ finds are different from the earlier finds like those from rivers such as the Trent.
Previous research is set out with references to the main studies of spearheads from Wilde in 1861 to Ramsey in 1989, though an important discussion of basal-looped spearheads has escaped the author’s attention in Stuart Needham’s 1982 monograph on the Ambleside hoard.
The core of the work is a fully illustrated catalogue of 551 finds from Britain (54%), Ireland (32%) and elsewhere in Europe (14%): moulds and associated finds are also listed. The catalogue appears to include only 549 entries, but 86.1 and 188.1 are late additions – the former published by your reviewer thirty years ago! Most surviving examples are illustrated, by drawings in a common format, and many associated finds are also shown. The high quality of these drawings occasionally leads to a spurious impression of accuracy when old illustrations have been redrawn, as nos. 57 and 264 where the former does not have lines along its socket and the latter has a ridged midrib. One curiosity is the use in the catalogue and on the distribution maps of what are described somewhat inaccurately as ‘the counties in England, Scotland and Wales defined by the 1973 Local Government reorganisation’ - thus including redundant units such as Avon, Tayside and Dyfed - especially when the traditional counties are not also given. Finds must be sought in a list of sites arranged by these units because of the lack of an index of findspots. Although the drawings are set out by type (in descending order of length), there are no corresponding lists so it is impossible to see the provenances by type.
Nine types are proposed, based on the position of the loops and the shape of the blade. The last is atypical, with loops drilled through the blade rather than formed in the mould. The first type is transitional from Early Bronze Age kite-shaped spearheads, in particular from the side-looped Irish type; these transitional spearheads are mainly Irish though one reached Belgium. The leaf type has a convex blade whose maximum width is at least one-third of the way up; this type is slightly more British than Irish with a relatively large proportion from the continent, including one mould. The next, flame, type is like the leaf type only with maximum width less than one-third of the way up the blade; just over half the finds are British. Only seven examples constitute the ogival type, whose blade is slightly concave in outline towards the tip; these are relatively long and high-quality spearheads. The next type is flame-shaped with maximum width is at least 15% up the blade and loops projecting beyond the blade; this is transitional between the leaf and flame types and the triangular and narrow-channel types. The triangular type has projecting loops and maximum width less than 15% from the base of the blade, with blade ribs are aligned on the edges of the blade; midribs are normally rounded in section. These are relatively long spearheads concentrated in the Thames valley. Narrow-channel spearheads resemble the triangular type except that ribs are aligned on the midrib not the blade edges; this type is almost exclusively British with half the finds from the Thames valley. Late Irish/Scottish spearheads are a northern type of high quality, often with prominent loops and always with rivet holes, perhaps of Irish origin.
Almost 60% of basal-looped spearheads belong to three types: leaf, flame and triangular. Two pairs of the types defined by Davis could plausibly be regarded as variants of the same type: flame and flame with projecting loops of one type and triangular and narrow-channel spearheads of a second type.
The layout of chapters 4, 5 and 6 is not entirely logical and could helpfully have been revised from the thesis. The typology is set out early in chapter 4 before its rationale has been discussed, which leads to some repetition in chapter 5. The table of datable finds appears at the end of chapter 4 on typology, not in chapter 6 on chronology. More serious, this table omits finds (nos. 392, 536, 547) that do not fit the proposed chronology but suggest instead that the leaf type could have continued beyond Taunton into the Penard phase and the flame type as late as the Dowris phase. Davis argues that basal-looped spearheads were developed in Ireland during the Killymaddy/Acton Park phase with the transitional type. The leaf and flame types appeared together, perhaps originally in Ireland, though both types also seem to have been produced in Britain and on the continent during the Taunton phase. Ogival spearheads were probably also a Taunton type. Triangular and narrow-channel types appeared at the end of Taunton but are dated mainly to Penard. The Late Irish/Scottish type is dated to Dowris/Ewart Park. Concentrations of basal-looped spearheads in Ireland on the one hand and in the Thames valley and East Anglia on the other appear to reflect the distribution and origins of contemporary rapiers.
After the chapter on chronology other spearheads with blade apertures are considered. These include protected-loop spearheads, with small perforations flanking the midrib, and spearheads with lunate and other openings in their blade, alongside more exotic forms.
The next chapters cover context, condition, manufacture and production. Finally, the use of the loops and the purpose of the spears themselves are discussed. Davis concludes that loops were necessary for attachment of the earliest basal-looped spearheads to their shafts because they were derived from side-looped spearheads with sockets too short to be the only means of attaching the shaft and that loops were retained on larger spearheads as a symbol of tradition, perhaps also used for display. At least two-thirds of 371 spearheads examined are said to have been used in combat. The Royal Armouries were therefore commissioned to undertake experiments with replicas of basal-looped spearheads and rapiers. A rapier was judged to be the subordinate weapon in conjunction with a long spear; its sharp blade would have been effective for both thrusting and slicing, but the haft would not be strong enough for a heavy slashing blow - this led the experimenters to prefer to term ‘dirk’. Combat would have begun with the spear, using its shaft offensively and defensively, while both the tip and the edges of the spearhead would have been effective. The dirk would have been used in concluding the combat at close quarters.
This short section (pp. 95-7), illustrated by murky photographs, comments also on the use of swords and shields. Shields were unsuitable for use with a spearhead and a dirk, but well suited for use with a leaf-shaped sword whose hafting could sustain a heavy slashing blow. This is an important addition to recent work on the use of Bronze Age weapons. We already know that many swords bear marks of clashes with other blades in combat while experimental work on halberds, soon to be published in Antiquity, shows that these apparently cumbersome blades could have been effective weapons and that their use in combat probably involved the shaft in the same way as suggested here for spears. The fine condition and great size of some basal-looped spearheads nevertheless indicates that these were intended for display. His positive conclusions here perhaps lead Davis to be rather negative on use of basal-looped spearheads for hunting. In view of the importance of the wooden shafts in his experiments he might have been less dismissive of the evidence for their survival (no. 86.1), though he does record that than 20% of spearheads retained some wood in their socket, especially ash.
Using Francis Pryor’s estimate to suggest a Middle Bronze Age population of 350,000 for Britain, Davis suggests that the 300 basal-looped spearheads recovered for a period of around 300 years of intensive use seems implausibly small to represent actual production. This is an argument for the scale of Bronze Age metalwork production to have been greater than is sometimes thought.
Students of metalwork will await with interest Davis’s forthcoming Prähistorische Bronzefunde volume on the Early and Middle Bronze Age spearheads of Britain.
Review Submitted: October 2006
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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