Finding the Perfect Sword
By Edoardo Albert
Twenty years ago, an archaeologist picked up the phone.
“Paul Gething, Bamburgh Research Project.”
“Hello. I’m calling from Scotland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. We’ve got something you might want to have a look at.”
“The contents of Brian Hope-Taylor’s house. You heard he died?”
“Yes, of course. How do you have his effects?”
The voice on the other end of the phone paused.
“It’s a long story. Some of it is labelled Bamburgh.”
Which was how Paul Gething found himself in a warehouse in Edinburgh looking at a vast pile of archaeological effects laid out on tables. It was the detritus of a lifetime digging by one of the great archaeologists of his era, but a man who had become a hoarder, filling his home and garage with the unpublished finds and reports of his investigations.
There was one section that was piled with files, sample bags, boxes and even a suitcase. The custodian from the RCAHMS had pointed Paul there.
“We reckon these are all from his Bamburgh dig.”
Looking at the jumbled pile, it was hard to know where to start. It was all a mess. Paul learned later that, when Brian Hope-Taylor had died, it was only the timely intervention of two of his old students that had prevented the contents of his house being consigned to a skip by house clearers. Instead, those old students had arranged for the contents of Hope-Taylor’s house to pass into the custody of the RCAHMS. Having received everything, and having renamed the jumbled mess the Brian Hope-Taylor archive, the RCAHMS was trying to contact all relevant parties with an interest in the many places that Hope-Taylor had excavated.
Which was how Paul Gething found himself opening a suitcase. Faced with all the boxes and files, and not knowing where to start, he had picked up the old suitcase and opened that. Inside were four corroded pieces of metal.
Paul could see at once that one was an axe head. Two of the other pieces clearly fitted together to make a whole sword. The third was also a sword, from its tang to half-way down the blade. But that was it. There was nothing else in the suitcase to indicate where Brian Hope-Taylor had found them. Without context, they were useless: just rusty pieces of metal. Archaeology depends, crucially, on knowing where something was when it was found.
But it was possible that they might find an excavation report, in among the files and folders, telling them where Hope-Taylor had found the swords and the axe. And there was something about them that set off Paul’s archaeological spidey sense. These were special.
So Paul sent them off to the Royal Armouries for testing while the Bamburgh Research Project settled down to the long and tedious task of trying to arrange, sequence and decipher Hope-Taylor’s idiosyncratic site reports.
It was a long and difficult task but they managed it. They were able to tell where Hope-Taylor had found the swords and the axe: the West Ward of the castle, in an area where he had found evidence of a smithy. And the when: the 10th century.
Now it was just a question of what. What had Hope-Taylor found. The answer, when it came back, was more extraordinary than they could ever have imagined. The axe head had been a beautiful piece of scarf-welded smithcraft.
But the swords. The swords were something else. The intact but broken sword was a four billet, pattern-welded sword, of a quality similar to the blade excavated at Sutton Hoo, making it one of the finest swords ever discovered.
The other, incomplete, sword, was even better. It was a six billet, pattern-welded sword of a quality that the archaeometallurgist who had run the tests, David Starley, had never seen before. It was not only special, it was unique.
Hearing Starley’s excited report, Paul realised that he had to find out more about this sword. From its typology, David Starley had been able to date the forging of the sword to the middle of the 7th century, when the kingdom of Northumbria had reached the peak of its power and prestige under kings Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.
This was a time when the stronghold of Bamburgh, now a sleepy village far away from anything else, had been the most important centre of power in all Britain. Its kings had held sway over more of the country than any of their contemporaries and they had sponsored the most profound change to take place in early medieval Britain: the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. The sword had been forged when the power of the kings of Northumbria had been at its height and it had continued to be wielded for three hundred years before, finally, it broke.
The old, rusted piece of metal that lay before Paul could not tell its story in words but what a story it had to tell. To be able to hear that story,
Paul realised that he had to find out how a smith at the edge of Europe, coming from a people hovering on the cusp between oral and literate cultures, had been able to forge a sword more complex than any that has been so far discovered. For to look at a sword is to see an illusion. It appears a simple, single piece of metal, its edges honed and maybe with a central groove carved into it, but nothing more than that. The hilts on old Anglo-Saxon swords, as shown by the Staffordshire Hoard, seem much more complicated to make.
But this is not the case. A sword is the careful balancing of contradictory requirements. It must be flexible, so that it does not break under the shock of impact, but it must be hard, so that it can take and hold a cutting edge.
To do this, Paul learned, the barbarian smiths who served the courts of the successor kingdoms to Rome developed a new way of forging swords, called pattern welding. This took separate billets – long thin bars – of iron, and folded and welded them together, over and over again. By doing so, the smiths spread the inevitable impurities in the iron evenly through the metal, hoping to ensure that nowhere would there be a concentration of impurities sufficient to cause a weak point in the blade. They heated and twisted and hammered the metal, over and over again, until they succeeded in making weapons far beyond anything that the Romans had achieved.
The swords forged by these barbarian craftsman of the early medieval period were among the finest weapons ever made, balancing flexibility and rigidity into weapons perfect for the small armies of the time. These were time intensive weapons: a single sword could take a thousand hours to make. When armies were still small, numbering in the low hundreds, a king could justify having his swordsmith devote so much time to forging a single weapon.
Holding the broken sword in his hand, Paul decided to learn h
ow those unknown barbarian smiths had created such unique weapons, and why they had made them. Little did he know, but it would be the work of a lifetime to find that out. Now, we have put that life-time’s work into a book, The Perfect Sword. I hope you will enjoy it.
The Perfect Sword by Paul Gething and Edoardo Albert is the story of the Bamburgh Sword, if how and why it was made, who made it, and what it meant to warriors and kings who wielded it over centuries.
This article is written by Edoardo for the History of England – it is a wonderful book, not just about the sword’s discovery – though that’s fascinating enough – but the craft of forging them, and their mystique.