The discovery of an Anglo-Saxon sword this summer was cause for great excitement at the Barrow Clump excavation. We were keen to learn as much as possible about this 6th-century weapon, although the degree of corrosion on the sword and the fact that it was contained within the remains of its wood and leather scabbard meant that we would need to use an x-ray machine to do so.
Being 85 cm in length, the sword was too large for our in-house x-ray facilities here at Wessex Archaeology, so the Army, through Captain Doe and Sergeant Potts, kindly offered to undertake the work using equipment based at a Field Hospital Unit in Aldershot. Transportation of the sword was closely supervised by our Conservator, Lynn Wootten, and the Project Manager for Barrow Clump, Phil Andrews.
The x-ray images confirmed several things that we suspected about the sword, and revealed some interesting features. The sword was made by a process called pattern welding, where several bands of metal are beaten together to create a single strengthened blade. In this case, three twisted rods of wrought iron with steel surfaces were used, showing as a distinctive pattern on the x-ray image. The blade itself was also edged in steel. This is probably because steel can be sharpened to a much finer edge than iron. It is possible to tell the difference between metals on an x-ray image as they corrode in different ways.
In addition, we know now that the sword has no maker’s marks or other symbols. However, the x-ray images have confirmed that the sword is extensively corroded throughout and it will not be possible to remove the scabbard from the blade.
Lynn and Phil made the most of this exciting opportunity by also taking along the other grave goods discovered alongside the sword – a spearhead and shield boss (the metal centre of a wooden shield). x-rays of these items confirmed that the spearhead is not pattern welded like the sword, but was produced from a single piece of iron, and that the shield boss has retained its studs to fix it to the wooden shield, which are plated with tin to make them into a decorative feature.
The next step for our Conservator will be to analyse the organic materials that have survived from the scabbard, such as mineralised wood and leather. Keep an eye on the News Blog for further results!
By Laura Joyner