September 2023

The sword and the warrior

Χάλκινο ξίφος (ΜΔ 2591)

What can better exemplify the valor of a warrior than his own sword? A personal object closely intertwined with the identity of its owner, it has been used throughout history in various cultures as a symbol of power, prestige, and martial skill.

The specific bronze sword from the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (MΔ 2591) originates from a cemetery in Pieria, located near the village of Hagios Dimitrios, in the area of Spathes. Situated on a steep slope of Mount Olympus at an altitude of 1,100 meters, overseeing a crucial passage, the excavation site has yielded 34 tombs. Although the cemetery has not been fully explored, based on the findings, it was used during the Late Bronze Age, from the 14th to the late 13th/early 12th century BC.

The sword was found in the slab-lined cist Tomb 8, one of the richest graves in the cemetery. Inside, two individuals were interred. One, likely a male, was found in a slightly flexed position with the head facing south, while the other, probably a female, was placed with an opposing orientation. A heap of bones in the corner of the tomb is related to the reburial of earlier remains. In the Spathes cemetery, the practice of placing multiple deceased individuals in a single grave is customary and likely reflects familial bonds.

The sword was discovered beneath the right forearm of the male individual, and a bronze spearhead was revealed next to his left shoulder. Alongside the weaponry, the deceased was accompanied by three Mycenaean-style vessels (two alabastra and a flask) and a locally crafted perfume container. He wore two metal rings on his fingers, and in the chest area, seven engraved seal stones made of steatite and several necklace beads were found. The majority of the beads was made of electrum, a material that is imported from the Baltic region. Similarly opulent offerings were made to the second individual in the tomb.

The bronze sword consists of a spear-shaped blade with a central ridge, crafted as a single piece with the hilt. Two horn-shaped configurations between the blade and the hilt protected the warrior's hand, while a crescent-shaped stop at the end of the hilt ensured a better grip on the sword. One surface of the hilt is covered with a bone plate, fastened to the sword with rivets. A bone pommel found in the tomb adorned the end of the hilt. Fragments of the wooden sheath in which the sword was sheathed were also preserved.

Morphologically, the Olympus sword resembles a type known from the Mycenae acropolis, as well as from Crete, Ithaca, and Attica. This is why its origin is considered Mycenaean. It is dated to Late Helladic III A2 (1390/1370-1330/1315 BC). Its presence in Tomb 8, along with other Mycenaean-style or origin objects like seal stones, ceramic vessels, amber beads, and the bronze spearhead, underscores the distinguished role the deceased played within the local community. Among all the grave goods, the sword stands out as the most dramatic and potent means to express the deceased's ultimate virtue, presumably martial valor. Throughout his life, the sword kept him alive on numerous occasions by dealing death to his enemies. Having fulfilled its mission, the sword eventually accompanied him in the afterlife for eternity.

You can see the bronze sword in the permanent exhibition of Prehistoric Macedonia, in showcase 19