The Tale of the Broken Sword
They were buried on hills, just within sight of one another. They had spent all their life together, but now they were a distance apart, but forever linked by the landscapes around them.
Sounds romantic right? But we’re not talking about ancient Romeo and Juliet. This blog is actually about a Bronze Age sword that was discovered in surprising circumstances. The wonderful mystery around these fragments makes the sword one of my favourite objects in the museum.
In 1983 a metal detectorist discovered a fragment of a Bronze Age sword on a hilltop at Trentham. Although it was only half a blade, it was still a remarkable 2,900 year-old find. Like many important archaeological discoveries in the area, the sword fragment ended up here at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
But the story didn’t end there…
Fast forward 13 years. A different metal detectorist, with no connection to the previous one, was scanning over a hilltop in Hanford, around 2 miles from the Trentham findspot. Finding a promising signal, he too discovered a fragment of a Bronze Age sword.
Both fragments were reunited at the museum and, to everyone’s excitement, they fitted together perfectly. Two fragments of the same sword buried on hilltops, 2 miles apart, and discovered by chance 13 years apart. Furthermore, the nature of the break suggested it may have been done deliberately.
One theory for the breaking of this sword might be for recycling – the destruction and burial of objects to later reclaim and recast. However, this doesn’t explain why the two pieces were buried in two different places, or why they were necessarily buried at all.
Is there a clue in the landscape? Both sites are separated by the River Trent, where other Bronze Age artefacts have been recovered further downstream. Furthermore, the Hanford burial site also included a series of springs nearby. Watery places held some sort of ritual or social importance for Bronze Age communities. Metal objects, including what must have been high-status items, were placed into rivers, lakes and bogs, probably as offerings. This is one of the defining practices of the Bronze Age, and continued long after (we still throw coins in fountains and wells today).
So did the proximity to the river influence the chosen burial sites? This still doesn’t explain the breaking of the sword.
One compelling idea is that the sword represents some sort of agreement or promise between two people or social groups. The sword was broken as part of the agreement and a piece kept each interested party as a physical reminder of the bond. Perhaps they were buried once the agreement was completed. The bottom of the blade and tang is still missing, so perhaps there was a third party whose fragment remains hidden?
Another idea frames these swords as objects of power – possibly conferred by their maker or owner. They were certainly high-status objects that only some people had access to. Maybe the destruction of the sword was meant to break its power, and that of its owner?
It’s likely we will never know why this sword came to be buried the way it was. But it’s exactly this mystery, and the incredibly unlikely circumstances of its discovery, that make me like it all the more.