Rare Byzantine swords found in medieval fortress
Archaeologists in Turkey have discovered two ‘rare and unique’ swords in a heavily fortified city in the Byzantine Empire, a new study finds. One of the swords, unearthed in a church, may have been placed there as an offering.
Both the iron the weapons are ring pommel swords, meaning that the pommel – a rounded knob at the end of the hilt – is shaped like a ring. Ring pommel swords were rare in the Byzantine era, but these blades are also unique for another reason: Intriguing features on the swords distinguish them “from the ring pommel swords of neighboring civilizations,” the scholars wrote in the study.
The swords are so unique that it is difficult to determine which ethnicity or group of mercenaries used them around 1,000 years ago, the researchers said.
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Archaeologists discovered the swords at Amorium, a Byzantine city that was an important crossroads between Constantinople, the capital of the empire, and other major cities, such as Nicaea and Ancyra (now Ankara). Amorium was also, temporarily, a military hotspot and became a stronghold that served as the region’s first line of defense against Arab invasions, including the Arab conquest of Amorium in 838 AD, the researchers said.
Researchers have been making systematic excavations at Amorium since 1988, leading them to find the two ring pommel swords: they unearthed the first, a fragmentary and corroded sword, in the atrium of a church in 1993, while they found the second sword in 2001 in the lower part of town. Both swords date from the 10th and 11th centuries, during the Middle Byzantine period (AD 843 to 1204).
The discovery of a sword in a church may be “considered bizarre” because it was customary at the time to lay down arms in holy places, said the study’s lead researcher, Errikos Maniotis, a researcher independent with a master’s degree in Byzantine. archeology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
It is possible that the sword was not brought into the church with the intent of violence, but as a votive offering – a special object purposely left for gods, religious leaders or establishments. “He has been known since [historic] sources that weapons were placed as votive offerings in churches,” Maniotis told Live Science in an email.
For example, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, the Byzantine emperor from AD 913 to 959, wrote that Saint Theodore Teron’s shield hung as a relic under the dome of a Byzantine church in his honor, Maniotis said. Weapons placed in churches are “usually associated with sacred relics related to warrior saints,” he noted. “In addition, we have the armament depot in the monasteries of Mount Athos [in Greece], like a chain mail stored at Iveron Monastery. Thus, this sword could have a votive character, offered by its owner to the church with other objects, perhaps.”
The second sword, found in the lower town, has a 5.5-inch-long (14 centimeters) handle and a double-edged blade at least 24 inches (61 centimeters) long. the study Zeliha Demirel-Gökalp writes in the study. Demirel-Gökalp is director of excavations at Amorium and a professor in the Department of Art History, specializing in Byzantine art, at Anadolu University in Turkey.
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The dimensions of this sword suggest that a soldier in the Byzantine army may have used it as an optional secondary sword during battle, the researchers said.
Although rare in the Byzantine Empire, ring pommel swords are known from other cultures. The earliest known ring-shaped pommel dates to the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), and the practice spread to the nomadic Scythians and Huns, the researchers said. Ring pommel swords are also seen in other cultures, including the Sarmatians, who lived in Central Asia, and the Romans, who may have adopted the practice of Sarmatian mercenaries.
However, unlike previously discovered swords, the sword found in the church has a structure that resembles a hilt cross – a piece of metal that sits perpendicular to the blade at the end of the hilt. Cross-guards are often used to identify old swords, and this one resembles a “sleeved cross-guard,” the researchers said. This feature, along with others, has never been seen before on ring pommel swords, “which makes this specimen unique,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The swords are so unusual that researchers have proposed giving their design a new name: hybrid Byzantine ring pommel swords. Given that they were found in close proximity to each other in Amorium, perhaps “there was a specific arsenal in the city that made this certain type of ring pommel sword,” the researchers said in the study. “Or, maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
The excavations of the Amorium are supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish Historical Society and Anadolu University. The study was published in December 2021 in the art history review.
Originally posted on Live Science.