British Collection Highlights:

Iron Age Sword from Wittenham, Oxfordshire

A fine example of a sword and scabbard have been found in the River Thames near Little Wittenham in Oxfordshire. Weapons appear to have been less common in the Iron Age than in the Bronze Age. The main weapon in the Iron Age was the spear. Only about one in ten warriors would have carried a sword, making this quite a rare object.

The Wittenham Sword dates from the Late Iron Age (120 BC - AD 43). It consists of an iron sword inside a decorated bronze scabbard.

The scabbard is of extremely high quality with intricate decorative features, and would have belonged to a warrior of importance. If you look closely, you can see delicate ‘ladderwork’ decoration along its length. The handle end features a panel of raised spirals which date the sword to the late Iron Age (about 100BC). There are also two rivets which were a design feature used to hold the scabbard onto the person’s belt. However, their function was obsolete by this time and they seem to have been included out of habit rather than necessity. The scabbard is made up of two beaten bronze plates overlapping at the sides.

X-rays of the iron sword (now corroded inside the scabbard) show that the sword is about 5cm shorter than the scabbard, but the fit at the handle is good. The X-rays indicate that the point where the tip of the sword narrows appears to line up perfectly with the start of the decorative end of the scabbard, so the scabbard and sword appear to match. This difference in length may have been to protect the tip of the sword from damage as this woud be a vulnerable part of the sword. The handle was probably made from wood, leather or horn and has now perished.

While the sword may have been lost in the river, it is more likely that it was placed there deliberately; many pieces of high quality metalwork were deposited in rivers or bogs in the Iron Age.

The sword is on display in the 'European Prehistory' gallery on the ground floor

X-ray of Wittenham Sword

X-ray of showing Wittenham sword within the scabbard (AN1982.1096)

Click to enlarge

Wittenham Iron Age Sword and Scabbard (Click to enlarge)

Wittenham Sword (AN1982.1096)

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Sarah Glover
January 2012