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Ritually Bent Sword
Period: La Tène Period, third to first century BC
Culture: Celtic
Material: Iron
Dimensions: 54 cm L
 
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This incredible iron sword, finely preserved in the scabbard, bears the effect of ritual bending. Despite the unusual configuration, the intact form of the scabbard enables one to perceive that it contains a parallel-edged sword with a median ridge.  It is incised near the hilt with two triskelions, and other geometricized decoration. Such a decorative scheme would have indicated that it was associated with warriors of high social status.


The phenomenon of ritually bent weapons, especially swords, is curious in the La Tène Iron Age and is known across Europe. Swords contorted in this manner are common in Celtic grave deposits as well as in sanctuaries as votive offerings. In western Europe, this practice is attested in ritual deposits at Le Cailar in the Gard department in southern France and the fortress site at Bourguignon-lès-Morey in the Haute-Saône department in eastern France. This occurence can also be found in a number of graves in central Europe, such as Monte Tamburino in Tuscany, Iwanowice in southern Poland, as well as Muhi in eastern Hungary. This type of ritual is also known in eastern Europe, since a number of bent swords are known from the sites at Crisana and Banat in Transylvania.


Such ritually altered weapons are normally bent one to three times. Primarily in the instances when swords are found with their scabbards, they are kept sheaved and bent together, as in this example. The obvious question is why were these weapons bent? This has provoked a range of suggestions. A practical explanation is sometimes given: swords were too long to fit in funerary or votive deposits. Or, it was intended to make the prospect of looting weapons for reuse less attractive. Perhaps the two most plausible explanations are bound up with the mystery of Celtic society pertaining to superstition; swords, charged with magical powers on the battlefield were at the end of the warrior’s life, literally, ritually killed.

The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the La Tène period, commented on the bending of swords, but his words have only confused the issue, since it relates to a weapon bending easily in Gallic hands against the Romans at the Battle of Telamon in 224 BC. This may more likely reflect on the poor quality of the metal.

An interesting parallel from eastern Hungary belongs to the collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at Illinois (Inv. 1922.07.0026, La Tène, 600-200 BC). The other examples across the regions outlined above are complemented by the suggested literature.

 

Further literature


For the Iwanowice sword in southern Poland, R. Pleiner and B.G. Scott, The Celtic Sword (Oxford, 1993).


The Muhi sword in Romania, M. Hellebrandt, Corpus of Celtic Finds in Hungary, III, Celtic Finds from Northern Hungary (Budapest, 1999).


For the Monte Tamburino finds in Italy, D. Vitali, La necropolis di Monte Tamburino a Monte Bibele, vols I-II (Bologna, 2003).


The discoveries at Bourguignon in France are presented by, É Dubreucq, ‘Un depot d’armes du IIIe siècle av. J.C. à Bourguignon-les-Morey (Haute-Saône)’, in P.H. Barral, A. Dubigney, C. Dunning, G. Kaenel, and M.-J. Roulière-Lambert, eds, L’âge du fer dans l’arc jurassien et ses marges: depots, lieux sacrés et territorialité à l’âge du fer : actes du XXIXe colloque international de l’AFEAF, Bienne, canton de Berne, Suisse, 5-8 mai 2005, II (Besançon, 2005), pp. 653-658.


For the Le Cailar finds in France, R. Roure, et al., ‘Armes et têtes coupées au Cailar (Gard): Premiers elements de reflexion sur un depot ritual en Gaule méditerranéenne’ (referenced in the publication above), pp. 671-680.


An especially informative paper on ritually bent La Tène swords is presented by D. Mandescu, ‘Killing the Weapons: An Insight on Graves with Destroyed Weapons in Late Iron Age Transylvania’, in S. Berecki, ed., Iron Age Rites and Rituals in the Carpathian Basin, Proceedings of the International Colloquium from Targu Mures, 7-9 October, 2011 (Targu Mures, 2012) pp. 343-356.

Provenance

Dutch Art Market.
Private Collection, Cologne, Germany, acquired 1996.

Published: Art & Adornment: Treasures of Combat, Ariadne Galleries, 2016, no. 32.