What is it like to go to a Museum with a sword maker?

The answer to this question will depend on whether you like swords or not and if you do how much of a sword geek are you :-). On a recent trip to Chicago I had the luck to visit two exhibits, First Kings of Europe at the Field Museum and The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor at the Chicago Institute of Art. These both provide great opportunities to check out some arms and armor of exceptional quality. Visiting such places is one of our favorite things to do. 

Going through such an exhibit with one of us can be a bit different than your usual museum visit. It can even be a taxing experience for our family members who may not share the same level of passion for these pieces of history. This is usually easy to detect as we have spent the last 20 minutes looking at the first two cases of objects and you get a text from your loved ones that they are already through the exhibit and you can track them down later when you finish.

Romanian Bronze Age Sword

Bronze Age Sword, Apa , Romania c. 1500-1700 B.C. First Kings of Europe at the Field Museum.

In today's post I will give you a little taste of what it's like when we are in such a situation. We do not necessarily see the objects in the same way as a person would that is casually viewing them with some historical interest. One would probably look at the sword above and say cool sword and check out the next object. 

Hilt of Romanian Bronze Age Sword

We have a tendency to want to get closer and check out the details. Is the blade and hilt a one-piece construction or is the hilt riveted to a separate blade. How is the detail added? Can you see any tool marks? If its been used, worn and in the ground a long time sometimes that is not possible but other times if you can get close enough you may be able to tell.

Side view of bronze sword hilt

Then you start creeping around the side of the case a bit can you get a sense of the third dimension. Most people today assume a grip has always been done the same way on swords for the entirety of their existence. But as you try to slide between the wall and the display to see if your phone can get a shot.

 Thickness of bronze age sword

You get to learn the casting and materials may dictate a different answer for the bronze age maker. You see a thin grip that would be easier to make, and this style of grip can be see even into the early medieval period on some style of swords. If you only saw the sword from profile, you may well assume the grip was different. You have also now acquired the attention of the museum employees in the area.

 Early Iron Sword

#1 Iron Sword, 625-575 B.C., Ilijak, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The earliest Iron Sword are another treasure seen here. The maker has just continued the form of the bronze swords they are beginning to replace but here the piece would have been forged as opposed to cast. The elements of the bronze style of swords are there, even some of the decorative features, but the piece has been shaped by hammer and forge.

Eraly Iron Hilt of sword

The switch from bronze to iron was not fast and we even see some other styles of sword in both metals. The sword pictured below is a great example of a style one would not be surprised to see today. The construction is interesting and can be seen to consist of the blade and hilt as separate elements.

Croatian bronze sword

Bronze Sword 1100-800 B.C. Jurjevo, Republic of Croatia

The elegant lines of this piece make it quite appealing to the eye and I suspect very comfortable to have in the hand. The reinforcing ridge along the back edge is there but this blade looks quite thin and probably was deadly sharp.


Grip of Bronze Croatian sword

 The grip appears to be hollow which would lighten the weapon and make it quite agile in the hand. you can also see the rivet were the blade and grip are held together.

Butt of grip on bronze sword

Here we can see the grip cross section and the hole in the back which indicates the hollow grip. This style of sword would have been a very hand weapon and in a case nearby they have an iron blade that has survived of similar style.

 Iron sword Blade from Albania

Iron Sword Blade, 800-600 B.C., Kuci i Zi, Republic of Albania

The iron does not survive as well as the bronze but one can still see the nice shape of this piece and from of the grip that was probably made of a different material, possibly organic. 

So, you can imagine as we go along our visit, each object has a worm hole of joy we will go down and while family waits for us in the gift shop and the couple of guards that are following us around may seemed annoyed we are enjoying our journey to the past. I have rambled on a bit here so I will do some examples from the Chicago Institute of Art in a following post. But I hope this look in how we see the pieces we replicate for you illustrates what we try to bring to our work.

divider swords

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


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