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The king of swords: the Bamburgh sword, a unique pattern-welded weapon found in Northumbria, has helped shed new light on a critical period of Anglo-Saxon history.

Fifty years ago, excavating within the walls of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, the archaeologist Dr Brian Hope-Taylor unearthed an extraordinary sword. But, in one of those curious twists of archaeological fate, he didn't realise what he had discovered, and the sword was forgotten until 40 years later, following Dr Hope-Taylor's death, when workmen started clearing his house. A former PhD student rescued an old and corroded blade that was about to be consigned to a skip. This was eventually identified as the Bamburgh sword (apparently it had been left in a suitcase in the garage) and returned to the castle.

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The site of the castle, which sits on a huge outcrop of rock on the North Sea, has been continuously occupied since the Bronze Age and was an Anglo-Saxon stronghold in the sixth century (it is first mentioned in 543 AD) and the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria from the seventh century. Here a new generation of archaeologists was working on the Bamburgh Research Project to discover more about this important site. On a hunch, one of the project directors sent the sword to the Royal Armouries in Leeds to be tested.

A few days later an excited armourer called to say that not only was the sword pattern-welded (made of a number of strands of metal twisted together and forged--only the most exceptional swords of the Anglian era were forged that way) but that it consisted of six strands of welded iron: no other Anglo-Saxon sword has been found anywhere in the world with more than four constituent strands.

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An Anglian swordsmith was faced with two contradictory problems when forging a weapon. Iron is flexible and thus will not break in battle, but being malleable it loses its edge, turning it into little more than a blunt club. Steel (iron with added carbon) is much harder, so it will retain a cutting edge after slicing through umpteen shields, but it is also more brittle, particularly to lateral, parrying blows. And a warrior with a broken sword would not survive the battlefield for long. Pattern-welding married the strengths of iron and steel and minimised their weaknesses. But it took years to acquire the skills to make such swords and hundreds of hours of labour to heat, turn and beat the strands of metal together to fashion one. There were probably only a handful of swordsmiths capable of forging the Bamburgh sword and even fewer patrons able to pay for it. It may possibly have belonged to King Oswald, the first canonised Anglo-Saxon king, who ruled Northumbria between 634 and 641.

Only a king or one of his closest associates would have been able to afford such a sword and either he would have wielded it himself or it would have been given to a retainer to ensure lifelong loyalty. Any enemy faced with the unsheathed Bamburgh sword would have known immediately that he was facing something out of the ordinary. Pattern-welded swords glint with an unmistakeable iridescent light. The wielder of such a weapon would have trained in combat from childhood and, most likely, spent much of his adult life engaging in the favoured Saxon sport of duelling.

Similar in size to a spatha, the weapon of the Roman imperial cavalry, which was between 68 cm and 81 cm long, the Bamburgh blade is a single-handed weapon and was originally about 76 cm long. Forged in the seventh century, it was buried in the 10th or 11th centuries, so for 300 to 400 years we can suppose it was handed down, from father to son, the most prized possession of a royal or noble family. As such, it would have been a physical incarnation of that family's battle prowess. When it came to a blood feud, the sword was almost a totem of vengeance, for though a man might be killed, Anglo-Saxons believed that great swords were endowed with something Eke a soul and would return through the generations to seek vengeance on the slayer and his kin.

It is possible that the legendary status of certain swords arose in part because of the greater strength of pattern-welded blades, the craftsmanship and skill involved in making them and the secrecy that seems to have attached to their creation (nowhere in the sagas or records is there any mention of how a sword was made, instead they appear from the forges of mythical figures such as dwarves). Secrecy would have been important both to safeguard the technology that fashioned the swords, but also to prevent embarrassment for the swordsmith as there was a high rate of failure in manufacture. Tens of thousands of hammer blows went into making a pattern-welded sword and each one had to be accurate. One faulty blow and the blade would be ruined.

It was this, coupled with a growing demand for weapons in the later Anglo-Saxon period as the Viking threat increased, that led eventually to the demise of pattern-welded swords in Britain in the 10th century. Blacksmiths started to produce cheap imitations: an ordinary iron core with a thin layer of pattern-welding on top. But as these less costly weapons became more widespread, warriors began to realise that they weren't as powerful as they looked. Thus, as army sizes expanded and the impact in battle of any single warrior was reduced, the terrifying myth of pattern-welded swords began to fade.

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Today the Bamburgh sword is on display at the castle. As a result of its continuing excavations at the site, the Bamburgh Research Project has revolutionised our understanding of the kingdom of Northumbria. It is now clear that Bamburgh was one of the key political and religious centres in the Europe of its time, with trade links stretching to Byzantium; and the monasteries at Lindisfarne and Jarrow, which straddled the capital, in frequent contact with the pope in Rome.

The Bamburgh sword has led directly to new archaeological techniques and theories. Currently, work into local iron ore deposits is underway to try to determine whether or not the sword was made at Bamburgh itself. Although we cannot be sure that it was the sword of a king, it is certainly a king among swords.

Edoardo Albert is a writer and editor. Paul Gething is a director of the Bamburgh Research Project.
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Title Annotation:History Matters
Author:Albert, Edoardo; Gething, Paul
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2010
Words:1053
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