Once were Celtic warriors? Searching for the Bronze Age origins of warrior identity in Ireland

Like many people in Ireland, I grew up on stories of the great heroes of our mythological cycles – Cuchulainn, Fionn MacCumhaill, the Red Branch Knights, the Fianna and more. These are some of Europe’s earliest documented tales and are set in a quite recent prehistoric past, yet one which retains a strong resonance today with our contemporary take on all things Celtic! From our bed time stories to the displays in museums across Europe, one of the most exciting facets of this prehistoric world are the heroic warriors and the quests and battles they seemed to be endlessly involved in. But what is the archaeological reality behind any of this? Can we find any real evidence for these fighters and their social world?

“…the very weapons carried by warriors of these epics had their origins in the later Bronze Age…”

From an archaeological standpoint, this world of the Later Bronze Age and Iron Age was a time of great change. Often considered a Golden Age of our past – not in the least due to the large quantities of gold being turned out – this was a time when metals became increasingly important in people’s lives, being used for everything from cooking to killing. The final versions of the legends we know were written down in the Early Medieval period, yet it is probable that the ultimate origins of many were much more ancient. Nonetheless, the very weapons carried by the warriors of these epics had their origins in the later Bronze Age, beginning sometime around 1600 BC.

What I would consider to be two of the most important inventions of this period, and maybe even human history, are the sword and shield. We could also include with these the spectacular spears that were made for interpersonal combat. One can hardly imagine a historic battlefield (at least before gunpowder!) without these kinds of weapons, yet they emerged quite rapidly and together during a hugely transformative period of our past in the mid to late second millennium BC. War, as we came to know it, arguably had its origins in this transitional period building on organised conflicts of times past and moving into a world of armies and lines of battle, fought with swords, lances, shields and most probably armour.

Click on the above image to activate an interactive 3D model of the Bronze Age wooden shield from Annadale, Ireland, or on the orange box to open this in a new tab

(All models are hosted by the Breaking the Mould project at UCD and appear courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland)

Few would argue that these were not crucial developments for the people living in prehistoric societies, but how can we actually learn anything more about them beyond looking at them as cold objects in museum display cases or, for the lucky few of us, exploring the drawers in the crypts of our museums?

Weapons are a quite unique category of material from our past – in no small part due to what today most would consider the unpleasant environment in which they were used. But it is this active use that is so important for the archaeologist. These were made to be held and used by real people.  Their weight, balance, length – everything about them was intended to complement the human body in the things that they would have been used for. We have the possiblity to explore this through the field of experimental archaeology. Indeed we have one of the foremost centres for this field in the world located in University College Dublin.

In the past, experimental archaeology was considered by many to be something of a pseudo-science because it doesn’t involve boffins in white coats bustling around expensive laboratory equipment (though it can!), but is more based on practical aspects of doing things – how would this type of object work? Pick it up and feel it! We are increasingly aware in archaeology that learning comes both from looking at and feeling objects from past societies, in this way getting a sense of it as a thing that served functions for its ancient owner. I am sure most of us have been scolded as children “look with your eyes not with your hands” as we reach out to grab something that is of interest. Holding something, turning it over in our hands, moving our eyes over it as it moves – these are all things that help us learn.

“With experimental archaeology, we can go a step further”

With experimental archaeology, we can go a step further. We can make accurate copies of ancient objects and use these to test a range of factors associated with their use. We get to handle real (if modern replica) swords, spears, shields, axes and more in order to assess some of the ways they could be used. It is, admittedly, one of the more exciting aspects of researching the prehistoric world. Nonetheless, we don’t  just blindly imagine ourselves into the past and suggest things that we would like to do with objects, but rather establish a range of parameters that allow us to design tests that can approximate certain physical conditions of past activities.

One of the best ways of establishing the boundaries of what we would like to do in experiments is to first go back to the ancient objects, and apart from experiencing their properties by holding them, we can also look to the tiny traces of damage that survive on them. These are the results of past actions and activities and they can tell us a lot. But we can come back to that. Next, we should look at some of the ideas that can be explored in relation to the ways weapons were used.


Click to activate. Two later Bronze Age spears, one has intentional damage visible on the edges.

The shield may be the most revealing weapon to being with. It may even seem counter-intuitive to call it a weapon, rather than armour, but it was something that people used quite actively to defend themselves and those around them. This allowed people to fight alongside each other effectively in a line, which in turn allowed people to fight together cooperatively in new ways. To thing why this is important, we need to step back in our history a bit… Since the earliest times, and probably even preceding our own genus of humanity – homo sapiens – humans had used violence against each other, at least sometimes with lethal intent. While they no doubt cooperated with each other, the basic weapons they used were very similar to the personal tools used for craft and for the hunt. Even the ways that they used these, swinging them in arcs to strike with force or thrusting out with small blades to stab or cut were grounded in ways of doing things that extended back into deeper time.

The common and regular use of shields was therefore something entirely new and revolutionary – these were objects that had little or no parallels in pre-existing social activities. In the Bronze Age, the first shields emerged around the time of the first swords, sometime in the middle of the second millennium BC, and these were made from wood (as may be expected), but also from leather. These leather shields were surprisingly effective, especially if treated with wax to help harden and stiffen them, as experiments have shown. Perhaps more surprisingly, it was argued for a long time that metal shields were not very effective and were really just for show. While they were certainly showy and nice looking, I have bent the tips and dented the edges of many replica swords on my replica shields and failed to cut through their (often) reinforced rims. That they were exclusively used for display for doesn’t appear very likely anymore for most shields, though some may have of course.

“that leap in blending technology, society and killing was never again to change in our history”

As an invention, shields were something quite revolutionary because they were tools made explicitly for war. The creative energies of humans for using their increasingly important resource – metal – had turned to war. In the Bronze Age, not content with using metals for prestige items or basic tools, the envelope of what craftpeople could make was pushed in the creation of new tools for fighting. That leap in blending technology, society and killing was never again to change in our history. The innovative sheet metalworking techniques needed to make shields were matched by smiths through a quantum leap in casting technology. Mastering this gave them the ability to cast long swords and big spears in a way that could take full advantage of the qualities of metals. Nothing like these could have been effectively made from stone – metals made all the difference.

The weapons that were invented in the Bronze Age were thus to set the scene for warfare in Europe for thousands of years to come – swords, shields, spears and even spiked battle-axes or war-hammers in many places. Their importance lies not only in their creation as “things” but also because the way that they were used shaped the social practices of warfare. This use was in the hands of skilled warriors. These men, and potentially women, were no longer using tools that they were familiar with from other aspects of their lives like hunting or craftwork: now they began to use objects specifically designed for fighting and killing other people.

Placement of the damage on four bronze shields from Ireland and Britain – note most damage is to the area around the torso of the holder and rare in the part extending beyond this frontal protection of the body

This fighting required training and learning about the ways these weapons could be effectively used. They also opened the door for new ways of fighting together, to stand alongside each other and defend an arbitrary piece of space as your line of battle. We can see in the surviving shields that the damage was directed towards the chest of the wielder, suggesting that it was held quite static, indicating that people either side of them restricted movement (while also protecting them) and attackers could only get at them face on. Of course, there was no shortage of room for showmanship and heroism and we can be quite sure that some warriors would build great names for themselves in this way, but for society, the major development of the Bronze Age was the ability to think more strategically about war. I discuss this more with my friend Christian Horn in a paper coming out early next year in a series of volumes dedicated to tracing the global history of violence from today into the deep past.

“Violent conflict was not something on the distant horizon; it became part of social order…”

This revolutionary use of a new technology – tin bronze – meant that in times of peace, great energy was spent in sourcing metals and experimenting with the shapes and sizes they would be made in. Violent conflict was not something on the distant horizon; it became part of social order as its tools came to be very visible, and no doubt, proud possessions of their owners. To learn more about how these could be used, I have spent some considerable time looking at the thousands of weapons that survive from the Bronze Age in museums across Europe. In Ireland, where I live, we are fortunate to have some of the best preserved weapons from all of Europe, and this is made all the luckier because we have so many of them surviving!

A unique quality of bronze makes this period particularly useful for understanding the origins of historic forms of fighting, and this is that it survives incredibly well. We may well imagine ancient weapons to be rusting old relics, encased in thick brown rust. This could not be farther from the truth – bronze survives so well that many pieces, apart from the discolouration of a patina, appear almost identical to how they looked they day that they were placed in the ground. This means that we can look at the very wear and tear that was inflicted on them when they were last used by ancient warriors – collapsing millennia of distance through the very objects that are of interest to people on both sides of the divide.

Click to activate 3D model. Open in a new window to access the commentary on the damaged areas of this sword.

Building on the work of pioneers like Kristian Kristiansen and Sue Bridgford, I developed a method for measuring this ancient damage and using this to seek to understand how the weapons of the past were used. This required meticulous recording of the frequency and shape of damage and what this might tell us about the types of activity, even specific actions, that would cause the damage. This could then be taken a step further. Working with master bronze craftsman, Neil Burridge, I assembled an array of replica swords and I made a range of shields that approximated how ancient shields would function. Working now at the new Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture at University College Dublin, my colleagues and I used the replicas to simulate some of the ways that they could be effectively used, taking our lead in part from medieval fighting manuals. Through these tests, we could analyse how the weapons could function well but also to consider the types of damage that were caused during this type of use.

sword shield

Experimenting with replicas and copies of Bronze Age weaponry


“…we discovered that these swords and shields were used with great skill…”

By comparing ancient and experimental damage, we discovered that these swords and shields were used with great skill in the past. How can we tell this? One of the ways is simply that if we use bronze weapons in a manner that Mel Gibson might in a movie, they get badly damaged. Very quickly. We virtually never see this level of damage on the the pieces that survive from prehistory. What we do see is many counts of very small and slight damage. This means that blades did on occasion intercept each other but that this was controlled by either or both parties to ensure that it was not catastrophic.

Now warriors in the heat of battle hardly take time to consider such things in detail, which in turn suggests that through training, they had a good range of options that included, but was not restricted to sword-on-sword contact when controlling space, defending against and making attacks.  We even have from Ireland, and another example from Scotland, wooden swords that were most probably used for training in the prehistoric warrior’s craft. We do find real weapons that had failed their user and broke during use, and some that are badly damaged, and it may well be that there were fatal consequences. The wealth of material from Ireland provided a really strong case study for examining the origins and development of purpose made weapons of war, and the results of my analyses are published in an upcoming paper in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Click to activate 3D model of wooden training sword

“…the revolution in 3D digital modelling provides new opportunities to understand ancient weapons…”

In recent years the revolution in 3D digital modelling provides new opportunities to understand ancient weapons and this has begun to have a very positive impact on archaeology. We have used this to our advantage when documenting ancient damage on swords and spears. In a paper out in December 2016 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, we take the opportunity to turn this new technology to ancient metalwork. Using conventional photographs and affordable / free software, my colleague Mariusz Wisniewski and I have created highly detailed virtual models of the objects we are studying. This allows us to make short notes on an incredibly life-like version of an object, like an ancient sword, that can really help to get across the details of how these were damaged when used in ancient hands.

The results of these three papers are some new steps along the way to learning how weapons like swords and shields were used as social as well as physical tools in past societies to fundamentally reshape how we managed or even used conflict to manipulate power – both real and imagined. In this “Golden Age” of gods and heroes covering the later Bronze Age and earlier part of the Iron Age, we are coming to learn more about how conflict was at the heart of social dynamics.

“…primitive life being nasty, brutish and short…”

Looking at the lofty chiefs and their stratgems, seeking to identify the dead in their graves as warriors or using more recent historical data to ‘flesh out’ the story of conflict in Bronze Age Europe has for a long time dominated how we look at ancient war. We are only now beginning to think about how we can better use the weapons that warriors used to learn more about their lives. This approach gives insights into the day-to-day lives of prehistory by assessing the social activities of their martial art traditions, the creative expressions of craftspeople in weapons that they made, the ways these weapons were treated in life and when they were removed and deposited in the ground or watery places they were to lie for millennia until being found today. This epoch was far from being a time of unstoppable war and violence – like in Hobbes’ view of primitive life being nasty, brutish and short! – but a world where in lieu of the rule of law as we know it, new ways of organising potential force shaped the ways that people within groups acted towards one another and the groups that lived around them.

There can be little doubt that in all periods of our past “war is hell” and as a form of human behaviour, something we should strive to mitigate or avert with all means possible. Yet if history tells us anything, it is that war is has been with us for a long time and we have no reason to expect it will vanish soon. In exploring the hows, whys and whos of its deeper (pre-)historical past, we have an opportunity to look into the particular ways in which it emerged and became part of our society, and in this way explore an important element of the path that led us quite directly towards the modern period in terms of tools, practices and identities. The Bronze Age was a turning point on this path.

So the next time you visit a museum, and enter the realm of the Bronze Age, go and take a closer look at the tiny marks from fighting that survive on the edges of weapons – the world of those ancient warriors may just take one step closer in your imagination!