A Ph.D. student from the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice has made an astonishing discovery. While visiting a monastery/museum on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Vittoria Dall’Armellina recognized one of the small blades on display as being far older than the medieval period it was believed to represent. The weapon is actually much older — at 5,000 years old, it’s one of the earliest bronze age swords ever found.
Prior to the discovery of metal smelting, weapons were constructed from stone, bone, or wood. Humans figured out how to make stone hand axes by at least 1.5 million years ago and the earliest examples of a hafted axe date to ~6000 BC. Daggers appear before swords do in the archaeological record, for a variety of reasons. A long-bladed weapon is much more difficult to smith than a short one: Bronze isn’t a very stiff metal, and a long blade of bronze is more prone to bending than the equivalent length of iron.
The sword Dall’Armellina found is being described as made of arsenical bronze, meaning bronze that contained a high percentage of arsenic (greater than 1 percent) within the alloy. The sword is very similar in both shape and composition to swords found at the Royal Palace of Arslantepe. At 17 inches long (43cm) it’s not particularly large. But it showcases important characteristics that we would see in later weapons. Technically, a weapon of this length might be called a short sword, but it’s significantly longer than your typical dagger.
This is the blade found by Dall’Armellina, which dates to ~3000 BC. Here’s a set of Apa-type swords dated to 1600 BC, 1400-1800 years later:
Wait. Dammit. That’s the wrong Appa. But you know what? Let’s just go with it. So imagine that the Air Bison had lost one of his swords and was wielding two others that happened to look like this. Also, try imagining that Avatar took place around 1800 BC in and around the Mediterranean/Greece/Asia Minor:
Alright. More seriously now. The bottom blade is quite different from the new find, but the shape of the hilt on the top weapon looks like a design that could have evolved out of the earlier lineage. Not all swords looked alike, even in this period — here’s an Egyptian Khopesh that shows an entirely different type of blade:
As for how an Anatolian blade circa 3300 BC wound up in a Venetian monastery, a civil engineer named Yervant Khorasandjian appears to have sent a collection of archaeological artifacts to the monastery in 1886. The monastery, which was initially skeptical of Dall’Armellina’s claims, plans to exhibit the relic once it can reopen from the coronavirus epidemic.
As for when the dagger became the sword, that’s debated. Generally, the first weapons that are unambiguously swords as opposed to short swords are dated to ~1700 BC, when the blade reached a length of 100cm or more (39 inches+). But that’s an endpoint, not a beginning. Finding blades like this, forged so long ago, sheds valuable light on the metallurgical techniques that were used (at least, by these craftsmen), and, by extension, may provide information on those when techniques were first developed and deployed.
Top image courtesy of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice/Andrea Avezzu
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