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Iron Age Sword

Although it may not look very exciting now this old piece of metal is all that remains of an Iron Age sword, a weapon of value and status, which came for display in the museum in 2005.

In about 2003 eleven year old James Stewardson, was walking though a field in Outgate near Hawkshead. Sticking out of the muddy edge of a banked path he noticed something rusty. He picked it out of the ground and took it home.

Someone said it was probably an old bit of farming equipment, but James thought it was a sword and his dad, encouraging his son’s enthusiasm for investigation and history, suggested that they check it out with Kendal Museum. Archaeology Curator Morag Celment felt there was something intriguing about it, she sent a photograph to the experts in ancient swords. The rest is, as they say is history!

Swords from the Iron Age are rare in this part of the world, coming from a time before, and up to, the Roman settlement of Britain. The sword could have been made from local iron ore but its construction needed very specialist knowledge. Early Iron Age swords were shorter, good for stabbing, but by later times they were longer, their curved sides suited to slashing human flesh by someone on horseback.

The ‘magical’ powers of smith and sword makers are common elements in ancient myths and when you find out how the sword was made you can see why. The rock would have to be heated to 800ºC to extract the iron ore, repeatedly heated and hammered, and in the case of this sword separate rods of iron were welded together around a harder core to make it strong without being brittle.

Our sword has been deliberately broken in ancient times – maybe as an offering to the gods. It is now gnarled and rusty and conserved with a protective coating. It no longer has the hilt (which would have been on the right in the photo above), maybe once decorated with sinuous ‘Celtic’ patterns, of softer organic material – perhaps leather, that would have been made to fit snugly in its owner’s hand.

The sword now lies in a case in the Wainwright Gallery and maybe carries in it the hopes of someone from two thousand years ago – and also the wishful imagination of a 21st century schoolboy.

The sword fragment above shows the ‘tang’ on the right hand side. All organic hilt materials have long since decomposed exposing the tang (the protrusion at the end of the blade to which the hilt is attached). The hilt may have been carved from wood, bone or ivory and decorated to reflect the importance of such a sword and the status of its owner. Below you can see a reconstruction to show how the sword may have looked when it was new. The tang is now covered by the hilt.

Artist impression of the iron age sword.