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Baltic wide combat knives

While wandering the Baltics, I saw in the museums something I thought was unbelievable – the massive machetes of the Baltic warriors. I decided to write a short article about these knives, which I include in a series about early medieval long knives. My goal is not to create a catalog of all the finds, which would be an impossible task due to missing Baltic literature, rather I would like to increase awareness of this interesting type of weapon, describe its basic characteristics, provide photos and basic literature.

rozsireni
The spread of wide knives within today’s Lithuania and Latvia.
Taken from Kazakevičius 1988: 110, Fig. 44.

Wide combat knives are an exclusively Baltic object that cannot be seen beyond the borders of today’s Lithuania and Latvia. They were used in the range of 7th-11th century (alternatively 6th-12th century). They were popular on the territories of Latgalian, Sellonian, Semigallian and Samogitian tribes. The Samogitians used them in 7th-8th century (sites Maudžiorai, Kaštaunaliai, Požerė and others), while the usage is sometimes mentioned as early as the 6th century (Griciuvienė 2005: 119; Tautavičius 1996: 140; Vaškevičiūtė 2004: 49). Sellonians used them at least until the 10th century (sites Visėtiškės and Boķi; Griciuvienė 2007: 176ff.). The same was true of the Latgalians (Tautavičius 1996: 140). Wide knives have been used by the Semigallians for the longest time, at least from the 8th to the 11th century (sites Šukionaia, Ringuvėnai, Jauneikiai, Linksmučiai, Pamiškiai, Papilė, Jakštaičiai–Meškiai; Griciuvienė 2005: 119; Tautavičius 1996: 140; Vaškevičiūtė 2004: 48: ). At present, over fifty sites are known, where a total of over 200 of these knives have been found (Kazakevičius 1988: 109ff.; Tautavičius 1996: 140). It follows that it was a widely used weapon, the origin of which is clear.

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Frequency of wide knives in Lithuania: I – up to 5 pieces at one cemetery, II – up to 10 pieces at one cemetery, III – more than 10 pieces at one cemetery. Taken from Kazakevičius 1988: 111, Map XVII.

The main characteristic of wide combat knives is the expanding blade, which separates them from narrow combat knives. Their blades are up to 65 cm long (Tautavičius 1996: 139), but most often they measure 27–53 cm (Vaškevičiūtė 2004: 49). The tangs of the blades are 2-3 cm wide and have been set in wooden handles (Tautavičius 1996: 139; Vaškevičiūtė 2004: 48). Knives have no guards or front bolsters. The cross section resembles the letter V. The spine of the blade is thick. The width of the blade at the widest point can reach up to 9.5 cm (Tautavičius 1996: 139). Behind the widest point of the blade, the blade slopes obliquely and forms a point. It turns out that the older blades (up to the 9th century) were shorter and thinner, with an average length of 35-40 cm and a width of 4.5-5 cm, while the younger blades (9th-11th centuries) are longer and wider, with an average length of 40–55 cm and a width of 5–6 cm (Kazakevičius 1988: 113). Technological analysis revealed that the blades were forged from carbonized iron packages and that some were made from welded three-piece packages of iron and steel rods to save the amount of steel (Stankus 1970: 121; Tautavičius 1996: 139). The knives were kept in wooden sheaths that were covered with leather and sometimes hammered copper alloy – but the remains of the sheaths are very rare and their absence suggests that the knives were commonly placed sheathless in graves (Kazakevičius 1988: 149; Tautavičius 1996: 139).

Wide knives were found exclusively in men’s graves, in various positions. On the Samogitian territories, they are usually placed together with the belts against the walls of the chamber or along the legs (Kazakevičius 1988: 148). On the territories of Semigallians, the knives are usually located at thighs or pelvis of the deceased, less often on the shoulders or head (Griciuvienė 2005: 119; Kazakevičius 1988: 148-149; Tautavičius 1996: 139). The handle often points to the deceased’s right hand. Along with massive knives, downscaled “miniatures” with a length of 11-24 cm and a width of 2-3 cm occasionally appear in graves (Kazakevičius 1988: 114). These miniatures are considered symbolic weapons of no practical significance (Griciuvienė 2005: 119Kazakevičius 1988: 114; Tautavičius 1996: 139; Vaškevičiūtė 2004: 49).


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Bibliography

GRICIUVIENĖ, Eglė et al. (2005). Žiemgaliai : Baltų archeologijos paroda : katalogas = The Semigallians : Baltic archaeological exhibition : catalogue, Vilnius.

GRICIUVIENĖ, Eglė et al. (2007). Sėliai : Baltų archeologijos paroda : katalogas = The Selonians : Baltic archaeological exhibition : catalogue, Vilnius.

KAZAKEVIČIUS, Vytautas (1988) = Казакявичюс В. (1988). Оружие балтских племен II—VIII вв. на территории Литвы, Вильнюс.

STANKUS, Jonas (1970). Kalavijų ir ietigalių gamybos technologija Lietuvoje IX–XIII amžiais. In: Lietuvos TSR mokslų akademijos darbai. A serija, 113130.

TAUTAVIČIUS, Adolfas (1996). Vidurinis geležies amžius Lietuvoje: V – IX a., Vilnius.

VAŠKEVIČIŪTĖ, Ilona (2004). Žiemgaliai V–XII amžiuje, Vilnius.

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