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How Ancient Europeans Saw the World

Visions, Patterns and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric times
Peter S Wells



.........scabbards were mostly made of wood (Figure 27), and we do not, therefore have much information about how they were decorated. From the end of the Early La Tene period on, however, swords were long, and scabbards of bronze and iron offered extensive rectangular surfaces for decoration. Since the scabbard was ordinarily the most visible part of the weapon, this decora­tion played an important role in communicating visual information about the weapon and about its bearer.


In inhumation burials, the sword was most often placed next to the corpse on the individual's right side, but there are many exceptions. Sometimes the sword was set on the left side, sometimes it was placed on top of the body. In cremation burials, the sword was commonly positioned on one side of the burial pit. During the later phases of the Iron Age, swords were often bent into U-shapes or even into circles and placed in the grave in that altered form.

From the Middle Bronze Age, when they first became relatively common, swords were a standard accouterment in well-outfitted men's graves; graves, in other words, that contained other special kinds of objects, such as feasting ves­sels, wheeled vehicles, and gold ornaments. A sword can thus be seen as a stan­dard part of the elite man's outfit from the middle of the second millennium BC until the seventh and eighth centuries AD, when the practice of outfitting graves with goods gradually declined in much of Europe. Swords almost never occur in otherwise "poor" graves, and it is unusual to find a wealthy male's grave that does not have a sword (or, during the sixth and early fifth centuries BC, a dagger).

The arrangement of swords in graves provides important evidence for our understanding of their role in the visual world of late prehistoric Europe. Clearly care was taken to place each sword where it would be visible to the participants at the funerary ceremony. A particularly striking case is that of the cremation grave at Mailleraye-sur-Seine in northern France. There a whole series of objects was arranged in a dearly defined pile, and three swords were placed together across the top, as if sealing the deposit

In many Late Iron Age graves, the sword and its scabbard were bent before being placed in the burial, sometimes into a circle, sometimes at 180 degrees. This practice has been referred to as "killing the sword," so that it was in a condition to accompany the deceased, but we need to think more broadly about this prac­tice. I would instead emphasize the visual effect on viewers of a sword, the most…