Antiquities > Other Metal Antiquities

New Gallery: Bronze Weaponry of Western Asia

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Robert L3:
Thanks, Q.

Robert L3:
My latest acquisition has forced me to change the title of my gallery from “Bronze Weaponry of Western Asia” to the more inclusive “Weaponry of Western Asia.” It is a so-called “iron mask sword,” one of only about 90 extant examples of this very strange variety of ancient Iranian weapon:
Enlargement here:

From what I can tell, the remaining iron mask "swords" usually measure less than 50 cm (about 19 ½"), which is, technically, the measurement that serves as the division between the classification of a dirk and a sword. However, for whatever reason, they are nonetheless popularly referred to as swords rather than dirks in the references.

Most of the authors specializing in ancient Iranian weaponry date iron mask swords to the early first millennium BC. Oscar White Muscarella (Bronze and Iron: Ancient Near Eastern Artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) speculates that "The homogeneity of all the swords of this class suggests that they must have been made within a relatively short period of time and by a limited number of craftsmen." It's conceivable they were manufactured by a single workshop. Muscarella goes on to discuss the complexity of their manufacture: "Technologically, swords of this class represent a remarkable accomplishment of the ancient craftsman for they are one of the most complex weapon types known from antiquity...On macroscopic examination alone one has the impression that they were made in one piece – the intent, no doubt, of the craftsmen. However, both X-ray and careful laboratory examination of many examples have demonstrated that all the swords were in fact constructed from a number of units, varying in quantity from sword to sword."

They all have disk-shaped pommels that are decorated with heads (protomes) - that hang over the edge of the disk and that seem to morph into frogs(?) on top of the pommel. They also feature grips with two molded cords, ending in guards adorned with couchant predators (lions?), and blades curiously set at a 90-degree angle to the handle.

It seems likely that these swords were created for some ceremonial purpose. Certainly, their unique form must have had some special significance. But the meaning of their iconography is lost to time.

I have been well aware of this strange variety of ancient Iranian sword for several years. That awareness was exclusively the result of research. A number of examples from the collections of major museums are well documented in reference books and websites. But, until just recently, I had not spotted any on the market. I was thus amazed to see one in an auction recently and, despite its very poor condition, I submitted what turned out to be a winning bid. Even with its many obvious flaws, it’s a standout piece in my collection. My new pickup measures 17 ½", although it has certainly lost some of its original length to the severe corrosion. I haven't weighed it, but it is quite heavy.

In my example, one of the two heads adorning the pommel seems more animal than human. I’ve provided details of one head to the left in my gallery image, details of the other to the right.

The crouching animals on either side of the guard are very hard to decipher on mine. Their rear legs are somewhat visible. But imagination may be needed to make out much more than that. They are facing inward in the details at the bottom of the picture.

Virgil H:
This is a stunning piece. Beautiful.


Robert L3:
Thanks, Virgil!

Interesting collection, thank you for sharing.  Is weight perhaps a factor in distinguishing a spear head from a dagger? 


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