Archaeometallurgy of lombard swords

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Vasco La Salvia


From artifacts to a history of craftsmanship



Latinitas et barbaritas: a confrontation of material cultures particulary referring to metalworking

On the production of iron swords

Conclusion: from artifacts to a history of craftsmanship

Reference list


“The history of metals is the history of civilization. The two are inseparable; each depends on the other for its development” (1).

The usage of the stratigraphic method in archaeology has enabled this research to achieve two crucial innovations, one of them being the attempt to demolish the traditional barrier between history and the natural sciences. In fact, the evaluation of the soils, the geological features, and the sediments which define a landscape has to be connected to the topography; moreover, it is as well nigh impossible to ignore the importance of both the “natural” content and the technological information found in the excavated archaeological features when reconstructing the environmental features and the economic foundations of a given period. The second development is that archaeology can no longer be regarded as a mere philology of artifacts. On the contrary, archaeology plays a relevant role within the work of historical research since both social and economic historians know the limits of referring primarily to written sources and are indeed even enlarging their horizons towards ethnology and the history of technology (2).

According to this perspective of analysis, archaeological research can focus on the reconstruction of the dynamics of population and the very structure of pre-industrial human society, the development of which has been delineated along complex lines rather than along simple and determined lines (3). Nevertheless, in order to have the possibility to evaluate adequately the entire amount of information contained in the evidence yielded from archaeological excavations, it is necessary to increase the usage of methods borrowed from natural sciences (4): the result of this combination of archaeology and natural science is known as archaeometry. In fact, using these methods, archaeological research can reach the level of the history of both the production and consumption of artifacts and their diachronic impact on the environment (5).

Modern science has already refined several scientific methods, such as physical, chemical, biological, and metallographic analyses, which were developed as implements to check and improve new technologies and which can be easily applied to the evaluation of pre-industrial artifacts since the vast majority of these objects share the raw materials of their production with contemporary ones. Thus, the main connection between scientific research and the study of the products of past ages consists of the continuity in the usage of the same raw material obtained by the exploitation of natural resources (6).

In this way, it is still possible to reconstruct the production processes and the choice of raw materials, but not the procedures of apprenticeship or the mentality of the producers. Actually, the main goal of archaeometry is to evaluate the composition and the structure of the materials used in order to produce objects and, therefore, to understand the technical choices which directed the working procedures. By studying these compositions and structures in detail, it is also possible to gather information about the provenance of raw materials, that is, to discern the region where these materials originated. Moreover, some of these materials include within themselves chronological information which is completely independent from the context and is known as absolute dating. However, the term absolute has to be considered in contrast to the term relative and not as a synonym of perfect (7).

From this point of view, archaeological evidence gains remarkable importance: the artifacts must be regarded as crucial for explaining the historical questions and not only considered for their artistic value and/or for their usefulness in establishing chronology. In fact, there are several problems: those related to the level of technical knowledge in different time-periods; those connected to the circulation and the trade of raw materials, finished products, and technical knowledge; those regarding the living conditions of craftsmen, and the social stratification and differentiation; and those tied to the function of the various objects. The evaluation of these areas supplies historical answers via the archaeometrical analysis of both the objects and the environment unearthed during the archaeological excavations. Concerning the Middle Ages, there are many questions which can be studied using this method of evaluation of archaeological evidence. These include the problem of the gap or the continuity in respect to technology between the Late Antique period and the Migration Period, the types of production (whether home-made, craftsmanship, or pre-industrial), and circulation of products (differences between towns and countryside) (8).

Certainly, there does not exist an archaeometrical analysis which alone is able to clarify history. In contrast to this, the results of such an analysis have to be evaluated according to the general archaeological context. Thus, as it is not possible to base studies of history exclusively on the evaluation of art history and written sources, it is also not possible to construct history solely on archaeometry (9).

The Lombard question

An approach based on the evaluation of the archaeological evidence, organized according to the methods aforementioned, was used in the case of the study of the Lombard settlements during the pre-Italian period. In fact, the analyses of the archaeological data yielded from the excavations, make it possible to reconstruct the general features of the development of the Lombard culture over the centuries and to evaluate the prevalent trends in material culture, ethnogenesis, and social stratification, and the relationship with Roman-Byzantine culture. The evidence of the Lombard culture uncovered in Pannonia and later in Italy suggests that it has to be regarded as the result of a continuous development within a strong trend of the continuity of the culture which slowly emerged in Moravia and Bohemia shortly before 500 AD (10).

Actually, the process of approaching the late Roman civilization had already started in Pannonia (due to the contact with the remnants of the provincial Romanized populace and the connections with the Byzantine army) so that many features of the subsequent Italian settlement appear to be a continuation of former cultural patterns practised in Pannonia. The long-lasting contact with the Roman-Byzantine culture in the pre-Italian period, to the north and south of the Danube river, makes it possible to consider the Lombard migration into Italy as part of a general trend of continuity in the evolution of the Lombard civilization, representing at that moment a simple distinction in quality and quantity, but not a gap (11).

In fact, in respect to the material culture, notwithstanding the fact that, within the plains of Transdanubia the Lombards had increased their military structure, the development of their culture was not interrupted (12). Actually, in Pannonia, an undoubted technological progress took place.

The hand-crafted pottery which was still typical in the North Danubian period disappeared, and a new form, produced with a lathe and having stamping decoration, appeared in the region at almost the same time among both the Gepids and the Lombards (13). This development towards more evolved models continued in Italy, and actually, in respect to the analyses of the Lombard pottery in Italy, hybrid types were produced which in their general feature shared characteristics of Roman production, such as the greenish or brownish glazing, and other peculiarities of the German tradition, such as stamping decoration (14).

Moreover, the craft of metallurgy evidently progressed. Witnesses to this development are a variety of silver arching fibulae, the minute “S” fibulae, which in this region reach the height of their formal evolution. The Lombard craftsmen were also still able to produce fibulae imitating Frankish-Alamann models and bronze vessels (15). By the time of their migration to Italy, the methods of metalworking, as yielded from a formal evaluation of the evidence of the Lombard necropolises, clearly point to “un art déjà perfectionné” (16).

Generally, the archaeological evidence from the earlier Lombard necropolises of Italy indicate that during the first decades after 568 AD, the Lombards continued to follow the tradition of production previously developed in Pannonia. It is only from the middle of the seventh century that the archaeological findings of the Lombards disclose a totally new trait. In this very period, the quantity of available data consistently diminishes (17).

According to the location of the archaeological evidence, it is possible to understand that the Lombards, for the first time, were relying in Pannonia on what remained of the system of cities of Roman origin; therefore, they came into contact with what was left of the urban culture (18). Apparently, kings and aristocracy lived in the cities and/or in the former Roman castra and/or in the villae in the countryside where the Lombards replaced the previous possessores (19).

It is during this period that the coexistence between the Lombards and the Romanized populace began (20). Women whose funerary goods resemble the features of the culture of a populace of provincial origin were buried in the Lombard necropolises, which is evidence of their assimilation in respect to the funerary goods and, consequently, also in respect to social rank in the Lombard society. With regard to the people of provincial origin buried at Hegykö together with some Western Germans, who at that time were being assimilated into the Lombard warrior aristocracy, it is not possible to recognize any feature which indicates their serfdom; therefore, they have to be considered as another example of the fusion of different ethnic groups (21).

With respect to social stratification, it developed its significant lines at the same time of the definition and evolution of the economic activities, according to the features that are recognizable in the Edictus of the king Rothari issued in Italy in the year 643 (22). Indeed, it is possible to regard this Edictus as a sort of “ethnic memory tank” structured on the basis of the memories of the antiqui homines, the elder members of the tribe, real “memory-men” experts in both tribal customs and history, and therefore, in the ancestral lex maiorum: the latter was, in fact, the traditional customary system which guided the Lombards through six hundred years of history and through a wide geographic space. As a matter of fact, this very Edictus in its complexity should not be considered merely as legal text but as the result of the sum of all these traditions - known as cawarfidae - which constituted the habits of the gens Langobardorum during their existence. Thus, this corpus of rules and mythical and historical remembrances of past events and experiences clearly represents features of the pre-Italian Lombard society. In fact, the contents of the Edictus are archaic, and thus they only partially fit the Italian situation; on the contrary, the Edictus does refer to an environment which is rather similar to the eastern European context mainly characterized by the feature of a Roman culture of strictly provincial origin encountered by the Lombards while serving amongst the Byzantine army (23).

Moreover, the variety within the body of funerary goods in the male tombs, especially in the weaponry equipment, is regarded by B-na (24) as an indication of this social stratification in progress. This connection between weaponry and social rank is not at all arbitrary, since in eighth-century Lombard Italy, the quality of the weaponry was still directly connected and proportional to the level of taxation (25). Nonetheless, according to Christie, cautiousness should be used in accepting the concept that the social structure and its related weaponry equipments as listed by Aistulf reflects the hierarchy of burial types identified in Pannonia. In fact, two centuries divide the finds and documents, and most probably, the original cultural patterns of the Lombards had greatly altered. By the time that Aistulf issued his laws in 750 AD, the Lombards had largely been Catholic for almost two generations, and this conversion would have interrupted the deposition of funerary goods with the buried Lombards; therefore, there are no convenient mid-eighth-century burials with weapons to be compared with the contents of laws. Moreover, it is possible that the changes in Lombard customs and burial rites already began in the early invasion years, granted the occupation of consistently Romanized territories, the incorporation of Catholic natives, and the interaction with the Byzantines territories of Italy (26). Thus, it would be impossible to compare the structures of the Lombard society in Pannonia and that of the period of Aistulf in Italy, notwithstanding a certain grade of conservatism was always present within the Lombards (27). Actually, this impossible comparison was never considered to be the goal of the analyses of the Hungarian necropolises. However, the Aistulf laws should not be considered as a complete novelty; rather they should be regarded as the result of the differentiation processes within the Lombard society which began at least during the reign of Liutprand. The Aistulf chapter states the expulsion of the poor freemen from the body of the gens langobardorum; in contrast with this, the Lombard arimanni-exercitales of the eighth century are yet to be identified with those possessores and negotiatores mentioned by the king Aistulf, who, notwithstanding their long-lasting contact with the Roman-Byzantine heritage, were still entirely claiming their traditional and national Lombard identity (28). Therefore, these laws do confirm that the quality of the weaponry is still to be considered in the given period as a primary tool in order to elucidate the differences in rank and wealth within the Lombards; there is, thus, no attempt to compare two different periods of Lombard history on the basis of the grave goods typology, but only an effort to individuate a constant factor which was possibly still used among the Lombards to stress social differences. Moreover, it has to be mentioned that the Germans, once settled in the former western Roman Empire, generally characterized the early medieval society by consistently stressing its military features, thus setting their seal on medieval Europe (29).

The evaluation of the Lombard necropolises of Hungary yielded the following evidence: one grave of a duke (in Veszkény); 4% of the tombs were of noblemen (tombs with precious and decorated arms and other luxuries); 43% of free warriors (complete weaponry); 20% of young and free people with mediocre weaponry (lances); 19% of not completely free people, that is the aldii (bows and arrows); and finally, 14% of slaves (30). It is important to stress here that archeometrical analyses performed on the bones of the buried Lombards (in the necropolis of Szentendre) to establish the level of cholesterol and, therefore, the quality of the diet yielded evidence of a complete correspondence between the people who had the richest funerary goods and the people who apparently followed a very healthy diet. The remnants of the bones buried in graves with the richest funerary goods also indicated the highest level of cholesterol while fourteen men buried in the periphery of the cemetery’s area without any goods were those who attested the lowest level of cholesterol (31).

Indeed, when all the skeletal remains collected during the excavations are submitted to anthropological analyses, the image which a necropolis is able to present is the most exhaustive one possible to create about an extinct populace (32). As a matter of fact, the grave goods of the Early Middle Ages represent a relevant source to investigate craftsmenship and a primary tool in order to evaluate trades and cultural exchanges (33). In fact, when a cemetery is excavated the remains of those individuals who actually conceived of, manufactured, and produced the given material culture are uncovered. Thereafter, anthropological analyses provide the possibility of establishing the sex, the average age, the height, and, moreover, information about the health and the reason of death. In the case of a large quantity of skeletons originating from the same necropolis and available for analyses, it is possible as well to gather information on the genetic features of the populace or family groups, the demography of the population, the average life-span, the children’s mortality, and the types of food (34). Moreover, according to Barker, it is possible to state that “the evidence to be obtained from human burials will include not only demographic statistics, details of ritual and in some cases a corpus of grave goods, but when closely studied they may also produce data on family groups and other relationships and evidence of disease or skeletal distortions resulting from patterns of work” and that “in every excavation we must expect aspects which are beyond interpretation from the material evidence alone. A reed pipe will tell us its range of notes but not the tunes played on it” (35). As a matter of fact, the evaluation and interpretation of the archaeological evidence has to be regarded as a crucial charge for the archaeologist and, actually, if not exhausted only for establishing typologies and chronologies of artifacts, the obtained archaeological information could consistently help to structure the diachronic reconstruction of historical events; therefore, it would explain history through non-written documents, providing a parallel method to that based on written sources. In order to attain such information, the archaeological analyses has to be involved with the study of the relationship between the finds, the theory of the archaeological investigation, and the supposed shape of the given ancient society (36). As far as the works of the Hungarian archaeologists on the Lombards are concerned, mainly B-na’s work, these latter mentioned criteria were always respected.

To summarize, it is necessary to consider that the evidence yielded from the grave goods of necropolises covers only an aspect of the whole culture which is deeply characterized by the ritual of the burial, and, therefore, it should not to any exent be considered as a tool to explain in toto the economy, the social patterns, the culture of a given populace (37).

However, those statistical analyses performed by B-na and based on the data yielded from the evaluation of the Lombard necropolises in Hungary clearly point to the existence of differences in rank and status among the freemen. In addition, it has to be said that it is still difficult to connect directly this evidence with a definite social structure that would identify specifc roles and hierarchies in the society. On the other hand, these statistical data when assumed together with the results of archeometrical analyses performed on the bones of the buried Lombards (in the necropolis of Szentendre) to establish the level of cholesterol and, therefore, the quality of the diet do certainly indicate a complex social structure. In fact, in Pannonia 20-25% of the men’s tombs has to be identified as warriors graves, and this very percentage is relatively high for an epoch, such as that of the Migration Period; on the contrary, the number of serfs is apparently low in respect to that of warriors (38). In fact, short and long swords, lances, and shields may occur over the warrior’s graves, depending on status; bows and arrows are attested only in poorer graves, suggesting that this weaponry was granted to the half-free in Lombard society (39). These data led to a picture of the Lombard society which still clearly resembles the description drawn by the Edictus of the king Rothari.

The contribution of Archaeometallurgy

Notwithstanding the massive program of archaeological excavations in Hungary, in the context of the evaluation of Lombard material culture according to B-na, information - from an archaeometrical point of view - about ironmaking is still lacking. Actually, although the archaeological excavations have yielded evidence of abundant exquisitely wrought iron implements from graves of the Roman period and cemeteries of both the Lombards and the Gepids, details on the craft of iron working in the Danube region are not yet available (40). Since the iron working procedures - that is the exploitation and transformation - are connected with and directly influence the development of agriculture, weaponry, and all other branches of craftsmanship (41), it is difficult to consider an evaluation of the material culture as complete which does not cover this crucial field of human activities.

The main goal of the present work is an attempt to contribute to filling the gap in this particular field of studies, that is, archaeometallurgy. Several historical questions can be studied from this point of view, including the problems related to the influence of the culture of the Late Antique period on the Lombards, the importance of their migration to Italy in respect to the technological improvement of their craftsmanship, and the existence of a common technological background among the Germans with regard to sword production and, generally, to ironmaking. The following quotation is an example of the usefulness of the archaeometallurgical approach in clarifying historical questions, such as the conditions which were the basis of the Viking expansion during the ninth century:

“Elments physiques et chimiques autorisent des tentatives de reconstitution du diamètre et de la hauteur de cuve des fours disparus, voire sur les memes sites, d’etude des evolutions: c’est ce qui a ete fait en Norvège méridionale, ou les plus anciens fours sont enfoncs sur une dalle de base, alors qu’a partir du siècle de notre ère, ils s’lèvent de 30 a 50 cm. au-dessus du sol. L’évolution technique accompagne un accroissement de la production, qui culmine au IXème siècle au moment de l’expansion viking” (42).

Modern metallurgy embraces a) the actual methods used in ore-dressing and the extraction of the metals from the ores by refining, whether by smelting or other processes, and b) the study of the principles involved in these processes and of the properties of these metals including the phenome-na observed when worked or otherwise treated in the course of the manufacture, and finally, c) the practical application of the facts concerning metals which have been discovered as the result of experience or investigation (43). By simply adding a diachronic perspective to this method of research and knowing that, as already mentioned, these artifacts share the raw materials of their production with the contemporary ones, the result is archaeometallurgy, that is, the diachronic study of the working procedures applied to metalworking.

The information obtained through archaeometallurgical analyses concerns the evaluation of: 1) the shaping of the object, that is, its thermomechanical history; 2) the thermical treatments, such as quenching and tempering; 3) the thermochemical treatments, such as cementation; and 4) the types of welding (44). The final output of this evaluation is the reconstruction of the entire working procedures, traces of which remain in the final product.

Examining some of the archaeometallurgical data from the Lombard necropolis of Hegykö, that is, swords # 65.43.1 and # 65.59.1, is still necessary in order to get more information about the knowledge of the Lombard blacksmiths, referring above all, to the words of Paulus Diaconus: “Arma quoque precipua sub eo - king Alboin - fabricata fuisse ... (45).

Possibly, a comparison between the Pannonian materials and the results of the analyses performed on the swords of the Lombard necropolis of Benevento (Italy) could help to elucidate whether or not the Lombard migration of 568 AD should be regarded as a gap or as a continuity in the developing process of metallurgical technology.

Moreover, since the migration of 568 AD was a movement of an entire people, it can be considered as a way of transmitting technical knowledge through the migration of the craftsmen. Thus, it would also be possible to study the impact of the Lombard migration into Italy, with respect to iron working, as a relevant key for understanding the further developments in Italian early medieval iron production.

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