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Celtic Swords in Archeology

The lasting image of Celtic civilization from the written sources, both Celtic and Classical, is of a culture dominated by a warrior caste which is ferocious and quarrelsome, heedlessly brave in battle and exceptionally thorny on points of personal honor. Particularly, the Irish Celtic tales present us with a society in which warfare is common, where battle is based on individual skill, and where battles take place between chosen champions. Among the ancient Celts combat was almost a ritualized sport with a well-defined code of behavior.
Across the mainland of Celtic Europe, a warrior caste is evident in the archaeological record, rife with Celtic swords, spears and shields. In all La Téne cemetery areas, burials of heavily armed Celtic men are a continually persistent characteristic along with Celtic swords, spears, shields and other armaments. The collective evidence of archaeology and the written material enables us to envision the boastful, swaggering Celtic warriors engaged in their deadly swordplay.


Irish Sword Finds
Irish La Téne Celtic Sword Finds
Scattered armaments, including Celtic swords, spears and spear-fittings, indicate that a Celtic warrior caste existed in Ireland. Slings are not present in the archaeological record (though they may well have existed), and helmets are also unknown. Two horned bronze objects of headgear were almost surely for ritual rather than for use on the battlefield.
Celtic Swords of Iron Age date from Ireland now number around 3. Celtic sword blade lengths are astoundingly short, varying from a about 46 cm to as little as 37 cm. This is in stark contrast with the lengthy Celtic swords used by Continental Celts, and demonstrates the local nature of the Irish Celtic swords and weaponry. The shortness of the Irish Celtic swords may signify their intended use for stabbing and hacking in close quarters fighting.
Celtic sword blades are leaf shaped, triangular, or parallel sided. Leaf shaped Celtic swords are probably the oldest. Sometimes there are midribs on Celtic swords and only some have longitudinal grooves or ribbing. Celtic sword hilts were often made of antler or sheep bone, and antler hilt-guards are also well known. Flattened oval antler pommels are infrequently preserved on Celtic swords. There is a separately made hilt-guard-plate at the top of the Celtic sword blade, typically of bronze, and usually bell-shaped. A wooden model provides the best indication of the original appearance of a typical Irish La Téne Celtic sword from Ballykilmurry, Co. Wicklow. This Celtic sword, though possessing a mysterious half-cylindrical protuberance on the blade, allows us to scrutinize in detail the unique character of the Celtic sword hilt-fittings, and most interestingly, the wooden model of the normally metal hilt-guard-plate which occurred between the organic hilt-guard and the blade.


Celtic Sword HiltsCeltic Sword Hilt
La Téne Bronze Celtic sword hilt
Two Celtic swords are distinguished from the rest as likely imports; One Celtic sword, remaining only as rusted blade fragments, was recovered from the 1st-century cemetery at Lambay in Co. Dublin, and is obviously of foreign manufacture. The other Celtic sword in question was recovered from the ocean in a fisherman's net at Ballyshannon Bay in Co. Donegal. This Celtic sword had a short, triangular blade of iron, now lost, and a sophisticated anthropomorphic handle of cast bronze. This Celtic sword with a human-shaped hilt is a late La Téne Continental type most likely to have been manufactured in western Gaul.

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