We are often asked "What was the first sword?" when we are feeling snarky we will talk about the first sword we personally made, but usually, we will say it's lost to time as we have no way to point to a piece and say that is the first.
The first time someone used a somewhat sharp stick to poke something could be defined as the first sword thrust unless it was a long stick then it was a spear :-). But the very first sword is a tough one to come up with as the earliest examples of double-edged blades are knife sized and that brings us to the issue of when does a knife become a sword. This is of course one of those arguments that goes round and round and does not move you forward much in thinking about the first sword.
In looking at the earliest examples of double-edged items that seem sword like in appearance that have survived to be found today most scholars consider these pieces from Anatolia and surrounding regions as the first swords.
Some of the earliest swords made at the beginning of the bronze age.
The pieces are cast from copper with arsenic alloyed in. Certain copper deposits from this region contain arsenic material and it provides a harder copper than just pure copper. This is considered some of the earliest moments of the bronze age when the copper begins being alloyed with other materials to improve its durability and usefulness. This is in fact the time and place the bronze age begins in what is today central Turkey.
This region is thought to be the birthplace of the sword as we see these blades begin to appear, made from this new technology and having the elements we think of as identifying a sword. They have a blade, guard, grip, and pommel like shape. Size wise they would be shorter than we think of today for most swords but in their time, they may well be the length that was achievable with the best technology of the day.
This area is where examples of the earliest swords have been found
The surviving swords of this type have been dated to approximately 5000 years ago. Thus, they are part of the earliest developments of the bronze age and the transition from prehistory into the use of symbols and writing to record the past by the first cultures to do so. This advancement in metallurgy can be seen in many objects of value contained in high status graves of this period and these swords are part of that material.
There is much discussion about the function of these pieces. Where they status symbols merely for display or could they have had practical use. Swords have been used for both reasons all throughout their history and even if they seem unwieldy to our modern ideals they may still have functioned well enough in the hand of an antagonist in 3000 BCE to ruin your day.
Just recently an example of these swords was found by an archeology student in the medieval collection in a monastery museum in Venice. It’s a great example of how a scholar should always keep their eyes open and not assume there are not treasures to be found in unusual places. Check out the story here. The testing on this piece and its form have lead some to conclude this maybe the earliest example of this form that has been documented.
The bronze age sword recently identified in Venice showing both sides
These pieces while very rare are the closest we can say today to what is the first metal sword. It is certainly an area to watch for further finds as we see the advancement of archeology and the increased interest in documenting and cataloging the finds from this region.
The swords with the earliest dates that we replicate in our stock items are the Shifford Viking Sword or the Anglo-Saxon Sword, each from the last half of the 10th Century. Literally 4000 years after the earliest copper/arsenic swords that are their ancestors.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.