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Spear and axe from Caerwent, Wales

Michael Hendry – Tomáš Vlasatý

Introduction

The following post presents the results of a personal examination of a spear and axe from the site of Caerwent, Wales, by reenactor Michael Hendry at the Newport Museum & Art Gallery on June 22, 2021. We will compare these results with existing literature.

According to the literature, both objects were found during the archaeological survey of the Roman town of Caerwent funded by Lord Tredegar in 1910 (Ashby et al. 1911: 439). The city, divided into 20 insulae (blocks), is continuously inhabited to this day, which has generated variously dated objects at the site, including early medieval objects as well (Knight 1996: 51-61). Survey of insula XII, specifically Roman house no. XIX, on the area that was covered by a temple in the 6th-7th century (Knight 1996: 56), showed several such finds – an axe was found in the northern part of the central room no. 10, a spear, shears and a barbed arrowhead were found in the southeast corner of room no. 12. Three lead discs were also found in room no. 12. All items except the spear and the axe are now considered lost. Other early medieval finds including coins and a remarkable ringed pin have been found in other insulae.

As the house no. XIX is located in close proximity (approx. 50 meters) of The Church of St. Stephen & St. Tathan, which may overlap an older church existing since the 10th century (Knight 1996: 59), as well as close to an extensive post-Roman burial ground, a number of authors talk about the possibility that the finds come from a “Viking grave” (Hinton 2005: 120; Knight 1996: 56-9; Redknap 2000: 95-8). We will discuss this possibility in the next part of this post.

Location of Caerwent on the map of Great Britain.

Layout of the Caerwent site. Source: Knight 1996: Fig. 1.

An overview of the investigated Roman buildings in the Insula XII.
Source: Ashby et al. 1911: Pl. LX.


Spear

The spear, having the inventory number NPTMG: D2/43, is characterized by a long point with a rhombic blade shape and a rhombic cross-section. The overall length, despite earlier literature stating 550 mm (see Knight 1996: 58; Redknap 2000: 53), is 580 mm – 480 mm for the blade, 100 mm for the socket. The maximum blade width is 58 mm. The tip is corroded and dulled to a width of 4 mm. The neck is 15.8 mm wide at the narrowest point, it appears to be slightly faceted. The inner diameter of the socket is 18.4 mm wide. The weight reaches 0.477 kg. No patterns in the structure of the material or non-ferrous decorations are visible to the naked eye. The edges appear to be slightly ground. The specimen belongs to the longest spears from Great Britain.

Knight (1996: 58) and after him Redknap (2000: 53) were of the opinion that the spear belongs to Petersen’s type K. Applying the ratio of the height of the widest point of the spear to the total length proposed by Fuglesang (1980: 30-1) for the classification of spears, it is clear that this spear reaches a ratio of around 1:2.3, which makes it Petersen’s type M (Petersen 1919: 35), specifically the M1 variant according to Creutz (Creutz 2003: 37). In Solberg’s typology it corresponds to type VII.3A (Solberg 1984: 88), for Atgāzis it belongs to type B1 (Atgāzis 2019: 49), for Kirpičnikov, Selirand and Thålin the spear can be evaluated as an example of group III (Kirpičnikov 1966: 7; Selirand 1975: 179; Thålin 1969).

This type is found in a wide belt from Iceland to Russia and is relatively well anchored between the 4th quarter of 10th and 3rd quarter of 11th century (Hjardar – Vike 2016: 175; Petersen 1919: 35; Solberg 1984: 99-101). When revising the dating, Creutz notes that M type spears certainly existed in the 10th century, but they reached their greatest popularity in the 11th century and their extension into the 12th century cannot be proven (Creutz 2003: 253). Redknap’s dating to the end of the 9th-10th century (Redknap 2000: 53) is therefore not entirely accurate, but one can agree with Knight’s suggestion of the 10th – 11th century (Knight 1996: 58).

Spears of this type are not completely unknown in England, with the closest example being a spear from London, kept in the British Museum (inv. no. 1856,0701.1452; Williams 2014: 88, Fig. 21). However, a few more similar pieces have been found and are understood as products of the 11th century (Morris 1983: 29-30).

Spear of Caerwent – compare drawing with photo.
It is noticeable that the spear is actually more pointed and has a more subtle neck.
Source of the drawing: Knight 1996: Fig. 9. Photo by Michael Hendry.


Axe

The axe with inventory number NPTMG: D2/904 can be defined as a broad axe. Redknap’s statement that the maximum length is 126 mm can be supported (Redknap 2000: 53). The width of the blade across is now 117 mm, with the lower tip of the blade broken off. The axe has a neck up to 29 mm wide. When viewed from above, the blade tapers significantly to the line of the inserted edge, which is approximately 18.4 mm wide. The blade is currently thinning to a dull and corroded edge with a thickness of up to 2.7 mm. The eye is ovoid in shape, measuring approximately 23 × 23 mm, and still contains wood fragments inside that have never been analyzed. A visible weld runs from the eye towards the blade when viewed from above. On the sides, the eye was fitted with two pairs of thorns, with the lower thorns being more prominent and the upper ones – missing today – being less visible. The butt is flat, about 35 mm high. Axe weight: 0.269 kg. The state in 1911 was significantly more complete, as shown by the surviving photograph (Ashby et al. 1911: Fig. 2).

The axe can easily be assigned to medium-sized broad axes (Westphalen 2002: 54, 59) and is undoubtedly a weapon. Specifically, it belongs to Petersen’s type M (Petersen 1919: 46), which is spread over a large part of Europe from Iceland to Russia. In Wheeler’s categorization, the axe corresponds to type VI (Wheeler 1927: 25), Kirpičnikov places broad axes under his type VII (Kirpičnikov 1966: 20). The width of the neck and the butt of the examined piece clearly show that it is an advanced specimen, close to variants M2 and M3 (Atgāzis 1997: 55-9; Hjardar – Vike 2016: 175), on the basis of which we can exclude a dating before the 11th century. Based on Baltic (Atgāzis 1997: 57-9; Kazakevičius 1996), Irish (Halpin 2005: 365; 2010: 126) and Scandinavian (Engberg 2009: 81; Solberg 2021) material, the closest examples in shape could be dated to the period from the 2nd half of 11th to 13th century. In theory, one can agree with Knight’s remark that an axe of a similar shape can also be found on the Bayeux Tapestry (Knight 1996: 58).

More than twenty M type axes are known from Great Britain, of which a dozen come from the River Thames near present-day London (Wheeler 1927: 23-6). The closest pieces are the axes from the River Witham (Roesdahl et al. 1981: 161), the River Thames (Wheeler 1927: 26, Fig. 10.5) and the Scottish lake Loch Doon (Grieg 1940: 153, Fig. 69). It should be noted that Wheeler himself describes this form as younger when he suggests a pot-Conquest date (Wheeler 1927: 26).

The axe of Caerwent.


Appendix

Appendix 1: All photographs taken during the inspection.


Discussion

The main problem we face when considering a possible Caerwent grave is the almost complete absence of grave inventories in the territory of Wales during the Viking Age. The only comparable grave from the site of Talacre was lined with stones and contained a spear and a knife (Redknap 2000: 94-6). From this follows the basic assumption that a grave equipped with high-end militaria would have an unusual impression in Wales. Early medieval graves in Wales are commonly found without grave goods (eg Redknap 2004: 154-5).

The chronology of the objects itself points to another inconsistency. As we have shown, we can date the spear with a high degree of certainty between ca. 975-1075, while the axe may be a product of 11th-12th century. In this period, however, graves throughout the territory of today’s Great Britain and Ireland are plain and contain minimal, if any, grave goods, as extensive inventories culminate in the 9th and 1st half of the 10th centuries (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 214-221; Paterson et al. 2014: 161-170; Redmond 2007: 69-120). It is necessary to mention the types of swords, spears and axes found in the graves correspond to the this chronology, younger weapons as the Petersen’s type M spears and Petersen’s type M axes are therefore non-grave in this region of Europe and always come from hoards or are stray finds.

A certain reassessment is required also because the axe and the spear were found roughly 6-8 meters apart, judging by the initial documentation (Ashby et al. 1911: 439). It also shows that no bones were found on the site of House no. XIX, as Knight’s description might indicate (Knight 1996: 56, 58). Generally speaking, the situation of the site is unclear due to poor and old documentation, but based on our review, it is difficult to link the examined weapons to the grave context. It seems that the objects were sometime in the 11th-12th century intentionally or unintentionally deposited on the spot of the temple, which stood on the site in the 6th-7th century and which was built on the foundations of a Roman house. At that time, there was a settlement approximately 50 meters from the deposit site (Knight 1996: 60). It cannot be ruled out that it was a single deposit created in the late 11th or 12th century, but it is equally likely that the objects were deposited in the ground at different times. As the result, judgments that “an axe and a spear in a grave could have accompanied a viking who sought either integration or an expression of domination by being buried in the native cemetery, or the burial could be that of a native who had observed viking customs” (Hinton 2005: 120) are considerable beyond the limits of the reporting capacity of the mentioned finds.

Spear and axe from Caerwent.
Courtesy of the Newport Museum.


Acknowledgement

The 2021 inspection would not be possible without the staff of the Newport Museum & Art Gallery, to whom we hereby thank for their willingness. We are also grateful to Bob Davies, Alex Parry, Adam Parsons and Gustav Solberg for providing us with the necessary literature.

Here we will finish this article. Thank you for your time and we look forward to any feedback. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


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