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Weapons

Ceremonial and Magic Weapons

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 10, 2020

Weapons Mace Head Palette SwordWeapons are, of course, instruments of violence. Occasionally, though, they assume symbolic importance that transcends their martial purpose and comes to represent the power and authority their possessors hold over others. At times, some ancient weapons were seen as mystical items, endowed with supernatural properties.

 

Maces were closely associated with the earliest Egyptian rulers. They could be used to crush an opponent’s skull in close combat but were also seen as important symbols of pharaohs’ strength and supremacy. Some ancient examples, such as the approximately 5,000-year-old mace-head of King Narmer, were not intended to be used in battle, but were explicitly designed to serve as ceremonial or votive objects. This mace-head was carved with scenes from Narmer’s life that emphasized his authority and the subjugation of his enemies.

 

In medieval Europe, some workshops attempted to imbue their swords with magical powers by inscribing the blades, as seen on a thirteenth-century weapon pulled from the Witham River in England. These often indecipherable messages, which include clearly Christian symbols, were presumably intended to invoke God’s protection in battle. They are part of a Germanic tradition dating to pre-Christian times in which magical runic symbols were etched onto blades.

 

Weapons New Guinea Human Bone Daggers horizontalThe symbolic and supernatural nature of ancient weapons is perhaps best embodied by bone daggers that were widely used in New Guinea. Traditionally, these lethal objects were made from the leg bones of cassowary birds. In special circumstances, though, they could be shaped from the femur of a fallen adversary or a deceased relative. “Human bone daggers were rare,” says Dartmouth College anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy. “To possess one, a man had to have killed another man in combat or have appropriated his dead father’s femur.” Recent research has demonstrated that these human bone daggers were stronger than their cassowary counterparts. They were also evocative symbols of the ferocity and prowess of those who wielded them. “These weapons were filled with substantial strength,” says Dominy. “They were manifestations of spiritual power and allowed the owner to lay claim to the rights and powers of the man who had surrendered the bone.”

Gladiator Weapons

By JASON URBANUS

Friday, April 10, 2020

Weapons Roman Mosaic Fresco Gladiator HelmetGladiatorial contests were wildly popular among the ancient Romans, drawing tens of thousands of spectators. At first, the bouts were simple affairs, fought between combatants lightly armed with swords or spears. But as these events grew more popular and involved a greater number of fighting pairs, the Romans boosted their entertainment value by pitting gladiators who specialized in different sets of weapons, armor, and fighting style against each other. This increased the unpredictability of a match’s outcome. For example, a secutor carried a short sword and a large shield and wore a rounded helmet that covered his entire head, except for two small eyeholes. A secutor often opposed a retiarius, who was equipped with a net in one hand and a long trident in the other. Other classes of gladiators included the dimachaerii, who carried two short curved blades; the equites, who fought on horseback; the essedarii, who rode chariots; and the laqueatores, who stalked their opponents with lassos and daggers.

 

While some ancient written sources describe these various types of gladiator, mosaics and frescoes capture their appearance. One such fresco was recently unearthed in a tavern in Pompeii. The vivid scene depicts two gladiators—a murmillo (“fish-man”) and a Traex (“Thracian”). The murmillo is recognizable by his visored helmet, right arm guard, left shin guard, large rectangular shield, and short sword. The Traex wore a similar wide-brimmed crested helmet, but carried a smaller shield and a short curved sword. He is portrayed wearing a characteristic protective belt and thigh-high greaves. In the Pompeian fresco, at least, the murmillo clearly has the edge—he is depicted triumphantly holding up his shield while blood gushes from wounds to his opponent’s wrist and chest.

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