Of Sword and Spear

A study of ancient weapons technologies and their influence on human evolution and culture

When most people think about technology, they are often filled with visions of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and spaceships. It can be easy to forget about the primitive ancestors of these modern-day miracles. Technology builds on itself through innovation and new ideas. It has been proven throughout history that the best accelerant of technology and innovation is war. For example, it was a mere sixty years between the first airplane flight to sending a man to the moon, largely due to the technological advancements gained from two world wars and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Back around 1,000 years ago, at the height of Medieval warfare, the pinnacle of modern technology was the steel sword. Or was it? Although it is portrayed this way in the movies and has been popularized by the media, did the sword really play more of a crucial role in man’s history than the spear did? After all, spears have pre-dated swords by tens of thousands of years, and they are still used today by many tribal communities around the world. So where does this discrepancy come from?

The spirit of weaponry

It’s no secret that swords are well represented in pop culture. Take, for example, Beowulf, Braveheart, The Lord of the Rings and the Arthurian Tales: all of these storylines, to some extent, are centered around the sword. In his article, “The Spirit of the Sword,” Mark Pearce (2013) argues that the sword “had some sort of spiritual persona with its own specific agency, believed to have its own intention and volition” (p.55). The sword seems to have a persona, or an extension of a person, much like Thor’s relationship to his famed hammer, Mjölnir. It is interesting that there is no equivalent representation with a spear in any story like the examples state above. However, in 1983, archeologist Rhys Jones was given the rare opportunity to film two aboriginal men from Australia as they continue the tradition of making stone-tipped spears. This is of extreme interest to archeologists like Jones, because this provides significant insight into how the original stone-tipped spears were made. Their process of making stone tips is identical to what it would have looked like tens of thousands of years ago. In the documentary, the whole crew travels to the quarry where the specific type of stone is gathered. It is here that one of the old men, Diltjima, says, “My spirit is one with that of the stone. My spirit comes here when I die” (McKenzie, K., 1983). Just like Pearce stated above. It is apparent that a spear can have just as much significance as a sword, that it can become a part of a person. However, it is the sword that gets all of the notoriety. 

The popularity of the sword

While it is much more common for mythological heroes to wield a sword, there was at least one example of the hero wielding a spear: Achilles, the Greek hero. Achilles was the bravest, handsomest and greatest warrior of the army of Agamemnon in the Trojan War (“Achilles,” 2018); however, the focus of this story is on him, not his spear. But that still does not answer why swords are overly portrayed in all of these popular stories. For centuries, the sword had been seen as a ceremonial weapon; a weapon that signifies importance and not necessarily intended to be used. Take for example a British officer or a general in the cavalry. This may have been a tradition started by the royalty and wealthy in Europe, at a time when swordplay was deemed as a noble and chivalrous sport. In addition, swords were seen as a civilized weapon compared to the spear, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s view on lightsabers (from Star Wars). This elegance of the weapon appealed to the higher-ups in English, and by extent the rest of Europe. Because of these people’s stature, they were able to write history as they saw it, leading to the idea that most wars were fought with swords. Perhaps it is necessary to take a step back and look in on what true medieval warfare looked like.

Figure 1. Historic spiked club (Kalif, n.d.)

What battles looked like

Medieval warfare was brutal. In fact, death was often slow and agonising. As a result, all out fighting was avoided as often as possible. Because of the vast amount of land that separated villages, the king would entrust a nobleman or lord with a piece of land and a small town to watch over. And if ever an enemy were to attack a village, it would be the responsibility of the nobleman to organize some resemblance of an army. These recruits were often farmers of the village. While these noblemen were better off than the farmers or peasants, they typically did not have the funds to supply an army with weapons let alone armor. This meant that these farmers had to arm themselves with whatever they had—usually hatchets, spears, or a strong wooden handle reinforced with metal at one end, such as a “mace” or spiked club (Figure 1). These tools were used to essentially beat the enemy into submission or defeat. Swords were not a tool any farmer would have, as they are extremely expensive and hard to make. In addition, swords are generally a more technical weapon requiring training and practice. However, the other weapons a farmer would have access to are much more intuitive than the thrusting and parrying of a sword.

Figure 2. “Spear tip used in the middle ages” (n.d.)

Spears across the world

This is not even to mention the ubiquity of the spear. Across every single culture, the spear is present (Figure 2). Nikolas Lloyd, from Lindybeige (a YouTube channel that focuses on medieval warfare), puts it this way: “. . . the spear is universal, I suggest, because it was good. I can’t believe that any weapon would be universally adopted, probably independently invented several times, and last such a test of time, if it weren’t flippin’ good!” (Lloyd, 2018, 1:36). This video consists of twelve people sparing each other in teams, six with swords and six with spears. He goes on to prove, that in most scenarios of spear versus sword, the spear will win. In fact, out of 61 re-enactments, spear won 35 of those times. What makes this test even more interesting, is that the participants of this test had been trained in swordplay and had next to no experience in fighting with a spear. This shows that the untrained levy could not only take on an experienced nobleman or knight, but stood a good chance of winning (although they would have captured the nobleman for ransom, as was the custom of the time). Also important to note, spears were not the best in combination with a shield, as they are stereotypically shown. The shield ends up getting in the way, not allowing the user to capitalize on the full potential of the spear. In fact, spears stood the greatest chance of surviving when they were in a group, in line with each other, as they would have been in a battle scenario. 

History of the spear

The first spear was very likely a sharpened stick. This tool gave the primitive ape-like creators the capacity to hunt and kill from a greater distance. About one million years later, tips were made out of sharp bone fragments; however, they were brittle and could only be used once. In another million years, stone tips were added by Homo heidelbergensis. Wilkins, Shovel, and Brown (2014) write about the advantage that the stone tip gave:

“We provide evidence that the evolutionary advantage of tipping a spear with stone has a functional explanation. A larger wound track translates to more tissue damage, an increased probability of hitting the heart, lungs, and/or major blood vessels, and an increased probability of incapacitating prey” (“Discussion,” para. 10).

In addition, the added weight on the front of the spear made it possible for the first time to throw the spear without it deviating from its projected course; up until this point, the spears were used strictly for stabbing. 500 thousand years more, and the Bronze Age gave even more strength to the spear tip and took the place of stone. The last major material to be used was iron. As it is the strongest, and easiest to work with, iron carried the mantle for the rest of its civilized use. While this has been the general trend throughout history, there are plenty of exceptions. For example, there are many island tribes to this day that use conch and other sea shells as spear tips, along with volcanic rock. Other communities did not need to innovate past wooden instruments. Wooden poles could be split multiple times at on end, and then sharpened (Figures 3 and 4). This type of spear is used for spearing fish and eels)

Figure 3. A modern reproduction of a four-pronged fishing spear (Scheiter, n.d.)

Human evolution through the spear

That same sharpened stick was quite possibly created by Australopithecus afarensis (same group as the famed “Lucy”), predating Nomo neanderthalis, the stereotypical caveman by upwards of three million years. And it is this tool that lead us down the path to the man who thinks. This ability to think, plan ahead, create, and apply, is at an entirely new level of cognition. When discussing other animals with higher cognitive abilities, there are a few that come to mind. For example, octopus, dolphins and great apes (who have found their own niche within nature and evolved on a separate path). There are some species of octopus that use coconut shells as a means of both protection and ambush in hunting. Dolphins use sea sponges to protect their noses while digging around in the seafloor sand for crabs. Apes have learned the ability to used sticks as rudimentary spoons for scooping ants out of their nests. It is the use of tools that most clearly signifies the presence of intelligence within a species. The more useful the tool was, the more potential for intelligence there is. And the spear is a very useful piece of technology. As man evolved, so did the spear. Bone tipped spears popped up briefly before the stone tip was introduced later by the Homo heidelbergensis. Not too much is known about this group, other than that they had a fair bit of stone making experience, including knives. There were no real innovations for another million years or so, until the Bronze Age. At this point in history, Homo sapiens are the only prominent hominid left. The stone tools are replaced with bronze, as bronze is easier to work with, and doesn’t break quite as easily as stone. As man has grown exponentially smarter, it only takes a few hundred years for the spear to evolve once again. This time, bronze is replaced by iron. While it is slightly harder to acquire, it is much stronger than the bronze. 

Further innovations

Perhaps the greatest innovation of the spear was done by the Romans. One problem that the Romans faced was that they could throw their spears at the enemy, but the enemy could pick up those spears and throw them right back. To solve this problem, they created a type of spear called a pilum (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Diagram of a pilum (“The Romans in Britain,” n.d.)

The shaft was made of the typical wood, while the top half was made entirely of iron. The tip was fire hardened, but the rest was left soft. This means that the hard tip would penetrate the target, but the soft metal shaft would bend under the pressure, rendering the weapon useless to the enemy. The halberd, a close second to the pilum, was used in the Medieval time period and consisted of:

an ax blade balanced by a pick with an elongated pike head at the end of the staff… It enabled a foot soldier to contend with an armoured man on horseback; the pike head was used to keep the horseman at a distance, and the ax blade could strike a heavy cleaving blow to finish the opponent. The blades of halberds took on a variety of shapes, often being engraved or inlaid and exquisitely finished as works of art (“Halberd,” n.d.). 

While it is not entirely known and is continuously debated what each part of this weapon was used for, some things are clear. The top closely resembles a spear and can be used as such. It is thought to have been used in line with other men wielding the same weapon. Because of this, it could not have been used as an ax: there would not be enough room to make the same motion. Instead, it is supposed that it was primarily a stabbing and thrusting type of weapon, with the ability to chop in a downward pulling motion.

Figure 5. “Halberd with pike head” (n.d.)

Conclusion

I do not wish to change the media’s representation of the classic hero’s weapon. In fact, I truly enjoy the stereotypical hero with the broadsword mounted to our intrepid hero’s back. However, I do think it is vital to stay historically accurate. While the famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” does not entirely apply here, it is true that when we do not know the entire history behind any such subject, we fill in the blanks with our own preconceived notions (Santayana, 1905, p. 284). And these notions are quite often wrong, robbing us of the insight on the history of us as a species. If we take the time to learn about the lives of our ancestors, however, we may just learn a little bit about ourselves as well. And this is why the spear deserves a more prominent role in the media portrayal of historical human warfare. It has been with us since the very start of humanity, it embodies the beauty of creativity and ingenuity, the ugliness of war, the struggle of survival, and it remains a part of us still to this day. In another million years, as we look back on ourselves as a species, I wonder what technology will be remembered as the technology that defined our progress.

References

Achilles (2018, February 18). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Achilles-Greek-mythology

Augustyn, A., Bauer, P., Duignan, B., Eldridge, A., Gregersen, E., Luebering, J., Zelazko, A. (n.d.). Achilles | Myth, Significance, & Trojan War. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Achilles-Greek-mythology

Halberd (2007, August 23). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/halberd

Halberd with pike head (1884.21.46). (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/weapons/index.php/tour-by-region/oceania/europe/arms-and-armour-europe-150/index.html

Kalif, W. (n.d.). The Medieval Mace. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from http://medieval.stormthecastle.com/armorypages/mace.htm

Lindybeige. (2018, September 23). Spears are better than swords (longer version). Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afqhBODc_8U

McKenzie, K. (1983). Spear in the Stone. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://mtu.kanopy.com/video/spear-stone

Pearce, M. (2013, February 01). The Spirit of the Sword and Spear. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal/article/the-spirit-of-the-sword-and-spear/C4BD6C178139842A03256660A87D134E

The Romans in Britain. (n.d.) Retrieved November 11, 2018, from http://www.romanobritain.org/8-military/mil_roman_soldiers_weapons.htm

Santayana, G. (1905). Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Santayana G: Reason in Common Sense: The Life of Reason. New York, Charles Scribner.

Scheiter, P. (n.d.). How to make a fishing spear. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://hedgehogleatherworks.com/blogs/blog/how-to-make-a-fishing-spear

Spear. (n.d.). A Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/AHARVARDIG_10313520612

Wilkins, J., Schoville, B. J., & Brown, K. S. (2014). An Experimental Investigation of the Functional Hypothesis and Evolutionary Advantage of Stone-Tipped Spears. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0104514