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Materials of early medieval spear shafts

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The following text maps the analyzed materials of the European spear shafts in the period 0 to 1200 AD, while it is an evaluation of the data collection carried out in the years 2017-2023. The article is a continuation of our previous work, namely Wood species used for sword grips (Vlasatý 2020), Wood species used for sword scabbards (Vlasatý 2022) and Materials of medieval axe shafts (Vlasatý 2023).

Although it is a partially explored problem (e.g. Creutz 2003: 517-8; Csiky 2015: 144-5; Haneca – Deforce 2020; Holst – Nielsen 2020: 117-8; Husár 2008; Iversen 2010: 64; Stępnik 2018), our work differs from previous works in its geographical and chronological scope. Thanks to this, we were able to collect a enormous 543 finds from the period and region under review. Despite all our efforts, we assume that the collected material represents only a small sample of the total number of ratites that have been discovered and have not yet been systematically examined. Therefore, we will be grateful for any information or findings that we may have missed.

The spear from Lednica. Source: Sankiewicz – Wyrwa 2018: 151, Cat. No. 4.


Catalog

Of the total number of 543 finds, at least 240 pieces can be attributed to monumental bog deposits from the territory of today’s Denmark, which are dated to the first half of the 1st millennium AD. Another at least 160 finds belong to the Migration period and are usually grave finds from the Merovingian period. The smallest share is represented by finds from 8th-12th century with approximately 120 pieces. The list did not include numerous shafts from Illerup Ådal, the quantity of which cannot be quantified (Holst – Nielsen 2020: 135-6), as well as a ferrule from Stará Kouřim with the remains of a hawthorn shaft (Profantová 2011: 75), which can rather be considered the remains of a scepter or banner. For geographical reasons, we have also left out the beech spear shaft from the shipwreck of Serçe Limani, Turkey (Schwarzer 2004: 363, 386, 396). The complete list can be downloaded via the following link:

The statistics are dominated by shafts made of ash, which counts roughly three-quarters of all finds (approx. 78%, 423 ex.). The second material in the order is hazel, which is approximately ten times less numerous in the total volume (ca. 7.6%, 41 ex.). Oak is approximately three times less represented than hazel (ca. 2.4%, 13 ex.). The following trees are: fir (approx. 1.1%, 6 ex.), willow/poplar (approx. 1.1%, 6 ex.), beech (approx. 0.9%, 5 ex.), alder (approx. 0.7%, 4 ex.), spruce (approx. 0.6%, 3 ex.), birch (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), holly (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex. ), dogwood (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), ash/elm (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), morus (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), alder/hazel (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), prunus (approx. 0.4%, 2 ex.), yew (ca. 0.4%, 2 ex.), elm (ca. 0.2%, 1 ex.), maloideae (approx. 0.2%, 1 ex.), maple (approx. 0.2%, 1 ex.), maple/linden (ca. 0.2%, 1 ex.) and willow (ca. 0.2%, 1 ex.).

In total, we find only 15 conifers in the list (2.6%), while the broadest majority (97.4%) are made of broadleaf trees. This fact clearly illustrates that the wood of deciduous trees was generally the more preferred material.


Comment

We managed to collect several hundred analyzed spear shafts from a total of fifteen European countries. These numbers indicate that there is a huge number of analyzed pieces, and it is very likely that the finds we collected represent a mere selection and that there is no pan-European systematization in this field.

The range of materials used shows that the dominant position in the European tradition was occupied by hard woods with high flexibility and impact resistance (Stępnik 2018). Therefore, ash is naturally used, in case of its unavailability, other hardwoods (mainly hazel, oak, beech) were also used, but they do not reach such qualities. It turns out that ash has been a popular material for the production of shafts since ancient times. In the Antiquity, the following woods were considered to be available and conceivable materials for the manufacture of spear and javelin shafts: ash, broom, dogwood, frankincense, pine, myrtle, oak, olive, styrax and yew (Hanson 2003: 23-4).

The spear from Mikulčice. Source: Poláček et al. 2000: Abb. 21.2.

We do not have many written sources from the Early Middle Ages. In the Song of Roland (720, 2537, 2992) ash and apple are mentioned as materials for spear shafts. In Old English and Old Norse spears are commonly referred to as “ashes”, suggesting that ash was the preferred material for making spear shafts (Bosworth–Toller 1882: 19; Cleasby–Vigfússon 1874: 25). Other written references date back to the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era. We know of an order for 950 ash pikes for German landsknechts from 1486, and in 1663 the Royal Society of England decided to undertake a test of materials in an attempt to find the best wood for the production of shafts: ash proved to be the best, followed by the less suitable hazel, fir and crane, oak and elm (Stępnik 2018: 257). Ash is also recommended as a material for the production of lances in the 19th century, together with walnut and beech (Stępnik 2018: 257).

It therefore seems that despite the long-standing preference for ash, it did not have absolute exclusivity and manufacturers used a wider range of wood species that met the mechanical properties and were locally available, as the composition of the vegetation naturally varied in different parts of Europe. Soft and easily broken woods (birch, linden, spruce, poplar, willow) appear randomly in units of pieces and lack long-term continuity. A shaft made of these materials can be understood as an improvisation and a work of necessity, made in places and situations where more suitable woods were not available. However, Csiky (2015: 145) holds the opinion that soft materials were deliberately chosen for the production of light javelins.

As an interesting point, we can mention that the shaft material can help in determining the place of production of spears. For example, the morus shafts from Komárno indicate the Asian origin of the Avar spears (Husár 2008: 460), or the shaft from Serçe Limani, made from eastern beech, indicate production in present-day Bulgaria or Crimea (Sajdl 2018: 154; Schwarzer 2004: 363, 386, 396).

The spear from Lendbreen. Source: Unimus 2020.


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Bibliography

Sources

Song of Roland = Píseň o Rolandovi. Přel. Jiří Pelán, Praha 1987.

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