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Bulgarian type sabre from Stará Břeclav, Czech Rep.

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Introduction

During the research, the remains of a single-edged palash or sabre-like sword from Stará Břeclav in southern Moravia have been found in old literature. This type of weapon is usually referred to in the literature as the Bulgarian or Byzantine type (Yotov et al. 2022); in this work we will refer to the weapon as a sabre for simplicity. The swords from the Břeclav agglomeration have recently been revised (Košta et al. 2019), but the find from Stará Břeclav is not included in the inventory. It does not even appear in the list of medieval swords of the Czech Republic, published by Hošek, Košta and Žákovský (Hošek et al. 2019), which is caused by the focus on classical double-edged swords of the Frankish type. The fragments of the sabre from Břeclav are apparently not even known to Yotov, who does not mention them in his articles (see Yotov 2011b; Yotov et al. 2022).

It is therefore likely that the weapon is not well known to the Czech or foreign academia. Contacted experts Jiří Košta and Naďa Profantová confirmed in a personal discussion that this find remains overlooked to this day, partly because it does not fit into any of the categories of local objects. The following article aims to present the parts of the weapon as they are published in the existing literature. At the same time, we will place them in the context of similar weapons of Central and Eastern Europe. We hope that our text will stimulate physical examination of the subject and publication in press with quality photographs.

The approximate location of the find of the sabre from Stará Břeclav.


Synthesis of findings

In the years 1927-1930, a rural inhumation burial site was discovered in the sandpit of Fr. Čapka (or Čapek) and its immediate surroundings – in the locality that today corresponds to the vicinity of Na Zvolenci Street in Stará Břeclav. The excavations were led by the archaeologist and researcher I. L. Červinka, and J. Noháč and K. Glíž were apparently helpful with the collection. Nine graves were found, some of which were dug in haste and the situations were destroyed. In archival materials, Červinka mentions the systematic destruction of graves, which had to give way to sand mining and the construction of new houses on the outskirts of the town (Hlava 2020: 159, 162). Over the years, the location “Zvolence” has produced a number of graves dating from the Bronze Age to the so-called Late Hillfort Period (12th century AD). The inhumation graves we discuss belong to the Middle and Late Hillfort Periods, and it is assumed that this burial ground was connected to another locality in the immediate vicinity, which is “Přední čvrtky”. Nearby, there was a Middle Hillfort Period settlement (Červinka 1928: 149; 1933: 47; Dostál 1966: 118; Klanicová 2005: 245-6; Podborský 1961).

The oldest drawing of the Břeclav find. Source: Červinka 1928: 146, Obr. 12.

The grave, which we will deal with further, bears the designation No. 1 and was discovered in 1927. Reports on the activities of the Prague section of the State Archaeological Institute in Prague for the first three quarters of 1927 indicate that Červinka excavated in Stará Břeclav on May 2-4, May 24-28 and August 20 (Masaryk’s Institute and Archive of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, fund of the State Archaeological Institute, box 5, inv. no. 48). The exact location and date of the discovery of the grave are not indicated even by Červinka’s handwritten reports from the archives of The Moravian Museum, which state the following:

In 1927, residential construction started at south of the site of ‘Zvolence’, near the municipal scale along the household ‘Na Padělku’. From there, the sand pits were moved to the northern ends of the plots of land, and graves with skeletons were dug up again.” (Červinka undated: 17)

Grave 1/1927 was formed by a pit oriented in the W-E direction, which contained the stretched skeleton of a man, a spear, an axe, two ceramic vessels and fragments of a sabre. The spearhead reaches a length of 39.5 cm, is equipped with a central rib, and pieces of textile are rusted to the blade (Březinová 1997: 152; Dostál 1966: 118). The axe with a length of 16.3 cm corresponds to Dostál’s type IIIB, type IIIA according to Bartošková and Kotowicz’s type IIB.5.30 (Bartošková 1986: 6; Dostál 1966: 118; Kotowicz 2018: 109). Ceramic vessels with wave decoration are 15.1 and 11.6 cm high, one of the vessels corresponds to the so-called “Blučina type” (Dostál 1966: 118-9; Mazuch 2000: 77; Měřínský 1985: 56). Sabre fragments consist of two pieces, namely:

  • Robust iron guard in the shape of the letter T, which in the original works is referred to as “fitting of the scabbard of a dagger” (Červinka 1928: 149), “fitting of the scabbard of a larger cutting knife” (Červinka undated: 17) and “fitting of the mouth of the scabbard” (Dostál 1966: 118 ). The center of the guard rises upwards when viewed from the front and participates in the creation of the grip. Viewed from above, the tubular center is rectangular. The guard consists of short arms, of which only one has been completely preserved. The ends of the arms were flattened and rounded. The length at the time of measurement was 8.5 cm (Dostál 1957: 65; 1966: 118). In case that approximately a fifth of the guard length is missing, the total length could have been approximately 10-10.5 cm. The height is set at 3.2 cm (Dostál 1957: 65). According to Dostál, the object is stored in The Moravian Museum under inventory no. 54 820 (Dostál 1957: 65; 1966: 118).

  • Cylindrical iron pommel, which is named in the original works as “hilt fitting” (Červinka 1928: 149) and “grip fitting” (Dostál 1966: 118). The pommel is a hollow rusted tube with a regular circular cross-section and widens towards the end. Apparently it is not covered by any cap. The height of the pommel at the time of measurement was 3 cm (Dostál 1957: 65; 1966: 118). Dostál gives a diameter of 4.1 cm, which must be the outer diameter of the extended end (Dostál 1957: 65). According to Dostál, the object is stored in The Moravian Museum under inventory no. 54 819 (Dostál 1957: 65; 1966: 118).

There is no indication that any blade accompanies the hilt components. Considering the quality of the excavations, this is not surprising. On the other hand, it is the best-documented grave from this locality, which was first published only a year after the digging. Due to possible confusion, we also checked blade fragments from indeterminate graves of the cemetery, but no fragment can be positively attributed to a long cutting weapon (Dostál 1966: 119).

Dostál’s description is accompanied by realistic-looking drawings made by Stanislav Ševčík (Dostál 1966: Tab. X; 1968: Obr. 4). Both objects have remained in The Moravian Museum in Brno since 1928. Here, in the years 1955-7, Dostál personally examined them for the purposes of his doctoral thesis (Dostál 1957: 64; 1966: 5). This means that the latest information about the objects is almost 70 years old. With the help of David Hons, curator of The Moravian Museum, the items were found in the Rebešovice depository and were personally documented by the author in December 12 2023.

Updated drawing of the contents of grave 1 from Stará Břeclav – Zvolence.
Source: Dostál 1966. Tab. X.

A less detailed variation of the same drawing. Source: Dostál 1968: Obr. 4.

The dating of Grave No. 1 has never been established by exact methods and can only be determined approximately based on the typologies of the objects and the overall regional context. Rural burial grounds with warrior equipment from the hinterland of Břeclav – Pohansko stronghold correspond chronologically to the graves from the southern suburbs of Pohansko, where graves are dated using the radiocarbon method to the second half of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century (Košta et al. 2019: 180-1). The typological determination of the axe, the shape of which commonly appears in graves of the second half of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century, agrees with this conclusion (Kotowicz 2019: 109). The shape of the spear does not contribute to a better dating, but pottery of the “Blučina type” is popular again in the second half of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century (Mazuch 2000: 106). Such dating correlates well with the proposed chronology of the closest analogies, which, according to Yotov, were most popular in the late 9th and 10th centuries (Yotov et al. 2022: 172).

An approximate reconstruction of the sabre from Stará Břeclav.
Author: Luciano Pezzoli, Children of Ash.


Analogies

Despite the number of works created in the last twenty years, the so-called Byzantine swords, palashes and sabres of the 9th-10th century can be considered an unsatisfactorily organized and decentralized topic that contrasts with the state of knowledge of classical European swords. The main works come from the pen of Baranov (2014; 2015; 2016; 2017; 2018; 2019), Yotov (1995; 2004; 2010; 2011a-b; 2012; 2014; Yotov et al. 2022) and Popov (2016; 2023), however, there are many other partial studies (e.g. Athanasoulis – Manolessou 2022; Husár – Oţa 2020; Kotowicz 2019; Pinter 2023; Přichystalová – Kalábek 2014; Rabovyanov 2011).

Weapons show some variability and no two pieces are perfectly identical. Rather, it is a set of morphologically similar weapons that follow a certain production and aesthetic strategy. In addition to a few dozen archaeological finds spread across Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, we can rely on a solid iconographic corpus that is in perfect agreement with the physical pieces.

The blade can take two basic forms:

  • Double-edged, fullerless design with a total length of the weapon around 80-95 cm. The weapon looks like a spatha or gladius, there is no obstacle to terminologically identifying this weapon with a sword. An example of a double-edged sword is the find from grave 55 from the Garabonc site (Szőke 1992: Taf. 20).

Sword from grave 55 from Garabonc. Source: Szőke 1992: Taf. 20.

  • Single-edged, fullerless design with partial edge at the back of the blade to the maximum distance of the front third of its length. The resulting weapon with a length of over 80 cm corresponds to the usual understanding of early medieval sabres. The name paramerion (παραμήριον) was used in the literature for Byzantine and Bulgarian sabres and palashes. A good example is the find from grave H64 from Nemilan (Přichystalová – Kalábek 2014: 101-4).

Sabre from the grave H64 from Nemilany. Source: Přichystalová – Kalábek 2014: 104.

The hilts are defined by the guard, grip and pommel. The grips of these weapons typically have a barrel-shaped or cylindrical shape with a circular or angular cross-section, which determines the shape of the other components. The grips were wooden or metal and were usually fixed to the hilt of the blade with rivets. Archaeologically detectable pommels are made of metal (iron, copper alloy, silver). They are fixed to the tang using rivets, which are also eyelets for fixing the cord, which is used to attach the weapon to the wrist while riding a horse. Some swords also have a tang peend on top of the pommel. The shape of the pommels can be divided into two basic categories:

  • Almost or completely symmetrical pommel with possible superstructure of different height. This variant seems to be dominant, it also appears in the iconography. Corresponds to Baranov type I (Baranov 2017).

Graphic representation of examples of regular pommels. Author: Diego Flores Cartes.

  • Low and irregular non-cylindrical pommel. It corresponds to Baranov’s type II (Baranov 2017).

Graphic representation of examples of irregular pommels. Author: Diego Flores Cartes.

The guard is a massive and therefore the most frequently found piece of hilt. It is usually made of the same material as the pommel. In the observed period, we encounter five shape variants:

  • 1. The guard has the shape of a classic sabre guard, which is not equipped with tubular sockets directed to the grip and the blade. The arms are flattened and rounded, but do not have the spherical ends known from typical Old Hungarian sabres (Kovács 1980-1981: 433). Yotov’s variant 2A belongs to this variant. It is usually combined with single-edged blades. Yotov names at least 8 pieces from Bulgaria (Yotov 2004). In the Czech Republic, a find from Boleradice is known (Hošek et al. 2019: 66-7), from Slovakia this solution is known in a sabre from grave 738 from the Čakajovce locality (Hanuliak – Rejholcová 1999: 49-50). The shape of the guard of an otherwise problematically classifiable double-edged sword from the Romanian site of Sfântu Gheorghe fits into this category (Yotov 2011a: 36-7). Curved guards with flat ends, which are placed on double-edged blades from the Hungarian sites of Szentes – Szentlászló and Szentbékkálla, are apparently unrelated to the group (Bakay 1967).

  • 2. The guard has the shape of a classic sabre guard, which is aligned on the bottom side. The upper edge is equipped with a tubular collar forming a grip (so-called Yotov’s variant 2B). It is usually combined with low symmetrical pommels and single-edged blades. A good example is the so-called Čierný Brod group. If we include all the individual finds from Bulgaria, these guards are known in at least sixteen finds (Baranov 2016; Yotov 2004; Kotowicz 2019; Yotov et al. 2022).

  • 3. The guard has the shape of a classic straight or slightly curved long guard, which is equipped with a short sleeve on the lower side, and a collar forming a grip on the upper side. It is usually combined with symmetrical pommels and double-edged blades. This is well presented by the so-called groups of Galovo and Pliska 1948. At least seven European pieces correspond to our definition (Baranov – Kubik 2023; Popov 2023; Rabovyanov 2011; Yotov 2011a: 38-9).

  • 4. The guard does not have the shape of a classic bar with straight arms, but is rounded and embraces part of the blade. This socket is relatively short, about the same length across the width of the blade, and is not openworked. The upper side of the guard is equipped with a collar forming a grip. It comes with double-edged blades. It can be identified with the so-called types of Kunágota and Pliska 2005, and there are at least four pieces in Europe and Turkey, and others are known from Middle Eastern countries (Yotov et al. 2022: 176-8).

  • 5. The guard has the shape of a classic, slightly curved guard, which is equipped with a collar forming the grip and is extended by a sleeve pointing towards the blade. Long extensions emerge from this sleeve, which are located on the edges of the blade, while the center is left free or openwork. It comes with double-edged blades. In the literature, this group of guards is referred to as the so-called Garabonc type and currently there are at least seven representatives in Europe (Athanasoulis – Manolessou 2022; Husár – Oţa 2020; Pinter 2023; Yotov et al. 2022).

Graphic representation of the guard morphology. Author: Diego Flores Cartes.

Mapping of guard finds of “Byzantine” and “Bulgarian” type swords and sabres.
Non-European finds and pieces from auctions were not included.

The interrelationships of these variants are the subject of academic debate, as is the establishment of a precise chronology. The first two variants, which can rather be assigned to sabres and palashes, are dated by Yotov to the beginning of the 10th century at the latest, while the second variant has its center in the second half of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century (Yotov 2004; 2010). For swords with guard of the fifth variant, there is a consensus dating to the 9th century, which is also confirmed by Byzantine iconography (Baranov 2017; Husár – Oţa 2020; Yotov et al. 2022). The sword from Zekio, belonging to this group, shows the archeologization of this variant in the 1st half of the 10th century (Athanasoulis – Manolessou 2022). Sword guards of the fourth variant dominate during the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century (Baranov 2017; Husár – Oţa 2020; Yotov et al. 2022), while swords with guards of the third variant are usually placed at the turn of the 10th-11th century and to the 11th century (Baranov 2017; Husár – Oţa 2020; Yotov et al. 2022).

Current typology and chronology of Byzantine guards.
Source: Husár – Oţa 2020: 239; Yotov et al. 2022: 197.

If we end the general excursion and focus on the hilt components from Břeclav, it is evident that it was originally a sabre with numerous analogies in Bulgaria and Central Eastern Europe. Geographically, structurally and contextually, the closest parallel is the sabre from grave H64 from Nemilany, which was placed together with a spear in the grave pit of a 20-30-year-old adult, oriented W-E (Přichystalová – Kalábek 2014: 102, 233). The hilt components are visually almost identical and are mounted on a single-edged blade with a total weapon length of 81.7 cm; the blade was housed in a maple scabbard with an iron chape that was decorated with an alloy of copper and silver. The scabbard was attached to the belt using a pair of fittings. It is believed that the wooden grip was covered with iron sheet. The two finds are separated by roughly 90 km as the crow flies.

Nemilany sabre hilt details. The photo comes from the archive of Marek Kalábek.

Another close parallel is an 83 cm long single-edged sword or palash found in grave 2 in Čierný Brod, Slovakia (Bíró 2013: 269-276; Yotov et al. 2022: 163-167). The man’s grave, oriented NW-SE, contained, in addition to a sword, a spear, an axe and a bucket, which date the grave to the 9th century. The sword has a slightly curved blade and bronze hilt components, with a barrel-shaped wooden grip between them, covered with a rough texture similar to fish or beaver skin. Both finds are again separated by 90 km as the crow flies. Other guard analogies can be found in southeastern Poland, western Ukraine, and Bulgaria, as noted above.

Single-edged sword or palash from Čierný Brod. Source: Yotov et al. 2022: 165.

Similar low pommels are common for sabres or palashes. In addition to the analogy from Nemilany, let us mention visually close specimens from the Lviv Oblast (Baranov 2016: Рис. 3) and Cherven Bryag from Bulgaria (Yotov 2010: Рис. 7). A pommel of a similar shape was also found in the Krasnodar Krai of Russia (Baranov 2014: Рис. 7). A Galovo type sword from Bulgaria is an evidence that similar pommels were not only reserved for sabres and palashes (Popov 2023).

Examples of symmetrical tubular pommels with a low flared superstructure.
Sources, from left: Baranov 2016: Рис. 3; Baranov 2014: Рис. 7; Yotov 2010: Рис. 7.

An important aspect of sabres and palashes with guard variant 2 is their absence outside the European continent, or rather their concentration in a more narrowly defined region than in case of swords with guard variants 4-5. Basically, all finds come from the area from the Romanian Lowlands through the Carpathians proper and the Pannonian Basin to the Subcarpathian depressions. This region coincides strikingly with the presumed extent of the First Bulgarian Empire in the 2nd half of the 9th century under ruler Boris I, leading to the general acceptance of these sabres as Bulgarian (Yotov et al. 2022: 167-172). Although the Břeclav find may seem geographically distant from modern Bulgaria, it should be remembered that the boundaries of the First Bulgarian Empire extended to the Carpathian Basin (Barford 2001: 399). This is the reason why we read about Frankish interventions against the Bulgarians in the sources of the 9th century (e.g. Annales Bertiniani 853, 864). Bulgaria and Great Moravia were essentially neighbours (Dujčev 1963; Rychlík 2011), so Bulgarian finds in the territory of Great Moravia can so easily be evidence of political ties, trade relations or mutual conflicts.

If we come up with the idea that the Břeclav sabre is a weapon of the Bulgarian cavalry, which travelled long distances on horseback, we have to ask ourselves whether there are other finds of Bulgarian provenance in the core region of Great Moravia. It seems so. The best comparative piece is the overlooked double-sided warhammer discovered in Mikulčice in 1966 (Klanica 1967: 42, Tab. 15.2), which has two direct analogies in Bulgaria, datable to the 9th-10th century (Yotov 2004: 105-6, Tab. LIII). Warhammers were already used in the Carpathian basin in the Avar period, but they are of different shapes (Kiss 2001: 239). Other relatively convincing finds are sabres from Boleradice (Hošek et al. 2019: 66-7) and grave 738 from Čakajovce (Hanuliak – Rejholcová 1999: 49-50), which have guards corresponding to variant 1. For other objects and military equipment, stating of the Bulgarian origin is impossible, or the provenance is considered as one of the possibilities (e.g. Kordiovský 1983; Kouřil 2006). Ultimately, Great Moravia can be perceived as a periphery of the Bulgarian world of the 9th century, and Bulgarian high-end products were rarely incorporated into its own material culture.

Comparison of double-sided warhammers.
Left: Mikulčice (Klanica 1967: Tab. 15.2). Right: Bulgaria (Yotov 2004: Tab. LIII).


Acknowledgment

We would like to thank the following researchers for their help, without whom the article would not have been possible: Luděk Galuška (Centre of Slavic Archeology The Moravian Museum, Brno), Miloš Hlava (Department of History Palacký University, Olomouc), David Hons (The Moravian Museum, Brno), Marek Kalábek (Archaeological Center Olomouc), Libor Kalčík (Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Brno), Jiří Košta (National Museum, Prague), Petr Kostrhun (Centre of Cultural Anthropology The Moravian Museum, Brno), Piotr Kotowicz (Historical Museum, Santok), Naďa Profantová (Archaeological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague) and Evan Schultheis. Special mention goes to Diego Flores Cartes and Luciano Pezzoli (Children of Ash) who created the vivid illustrations.

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