Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger
(About): A Functional Masterwork Reproduction in Steel and Bronze
Far back in the prehistoric mists, before the Roman Empire stamped its mark onto Europe, a fierce but sophisticated warrior-culture predominated in Europe. And at the hip of their finest chieftains hung shortswords with mysterious human-shaped hilts. These were the La Tène Celts, and their swords were the historical basis for our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger. Legendary Canadian artisan crafters Darksword Armory have meticulously studied the handful of surviving Celtic daggers, reproducing their designs, aesthetic and symbolism to create the most authentic Celtic dagger made in two thousand years.
The La Tène Celts
Our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger closely replicates the styles of short-sword favoured by the La Tène Celtic culture which spread across Europe before the Roman Empire, achieving its widest spread from the Iberian Peninsula, to England and Ireland, all the way across Europe to the Ukranian basin. These were not the same peoples; there were hundreds of separate tribes and kin-groups, most of whom are wholly lost to history – but they did share a material culture, similar art styles, similar common objects, and similar systems of symbolism. La Tène Celtic art is perhaps a little different from what we might think of as ‘Celtic art’ today, which has been heavily influenced by later Viking and Anglo-Saxon forms – La Tène art is strongly vegetal, melding winding plant forms together – as in the spectacular ‘Dome of Dragons’, part of the decoration of a two-wheeled chariot from the 3rd century BCE, discovered during the extension of the runways at Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport. The La Tène culture is named for La Tène, Switzerland, a village on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel, where thousands of Celtic objects were discovered after the lake’s level dropped in 1867. La Tène culture developed from the earlier Hallstatt culture around the 4th century BCE under heavy influence from the Greek and Etruscan Mediterranean cultures, with whom they traded – the La Tène culture had faded by the 2nd century CE, under massive pressure from the Roman Empire (both in terms of material influence, and in terms of military occupations and culture replacement).
A Mediterranean-Influenced Blade for a Chieftain
We can see the strong hallmarks of Mediterranean influence upon the blade of our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger. The blade is significantly shorter than the long bronze swords of the preceding Hallstatt era – it resembles a Roman gladius, and was likely culturally influenced by Mediterranean designs. It is short – 15 ½ inches from forte to point – but its craftsmanship is unrivaled. It is handsomely tapered, increasing its taper to a short point at around two-thirds of its length. It is very clearly designed as a thrusting weapon: it is unfullered, and it is diamond-shaped in cross-section. This produces a stiff, inflexible blade that would have been extremely capable at piercing the armor of its day: stout cloth, scale-mail and even chainmail. Iron Age smiths frequently used pattern-welding and complex composition to forges these swords, making robust blades with hard steel edges and softer iron cores so they would flex rather than break. Darksword Armory’s master smiths have hand-forged the blade from 5160 steel, an incredibly resilient high-carbon stainless spring steel that was developed for rugged applications in the automotive industry. After it has been tempered with Darksword’s signature dual-temper, it behaves in exactly the same manner as the historical originals: with a HRc of 60 at the edge and 48-50 HRc at the core, it has an unbeatable combination of edge-retention and elasticity. This means that it is a battle-ready blade, capable of being used in light combat, re-enactment and roleplay with minimal damage. Indeed, it is an extremely rare Celtic dagger for sale today that is built specifically for practical re-enactment and battlefield use.
A Human-Shaped Hilt Cast in Solid Bronze
The hilt of our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger is a stunning reproduction of the symbolic anthropomorphic (human-shaped) hilts that appear on some La Tène-era weapons. Historically, they developed from X-shaped hilts, such as this one from the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, found in Western Ukraine. Hilt-makers began to add more and more human-like elements, changing the proportions into those of a person, and eventually adding a human head, sometimes with staggeringly intricate detail. The 1st-century BCE La Tène shortsword at the Met Museum, New York, has an incredible example of the anthropomorphic hilt – of particular note is its beautifully engraved hair and stern facial features. These hilts were cast from bronze, possibly using the lost-wax method. As to their meaning, we have only educated guesses. The Iron Age cultures of Europe were an oral culture, and did not record their history in a form that we can reconstruct today, and the other contemporary literate Greek and Roman cultures afford us only a handful of fragmentary observations – thus we are left to extrapolate from what material culture has survived, in the form of burial practises, ritual sites, pottery and art objects. We know that many Iron Age settlements were intermingled with burial sites, with ancestors often buried beneath floors or very near to homes. Might these hilts represent an ever-present ancestor spirit, watching over one in ritual and in battle? Darksword Armory have reverently duplicated these construction techniques, carving their own authentic replica of a Celtic warrior talisman and using it to cast the hilt of our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger in solid bronze. It is made as a functional, battle-ready sword with a peened full-tang, and so will perform admirably in light combat, in energetic roleplay and in authentic re-enactment.
In totality, it is a weapon that raises the hair on the back of our necks here at Medieval Ware! It is a ghost from the pre-Roman past, brought back to life, rich with mystery and hidden meaning. It could be used for the most faithful re-enactment of an Iron Age Celtic chief – or you could incorporate it into a fantasy portrayal of a cultured tribal warrior or maybe even the dark sacrificial dagger of an evil wizard.
Iron Age Metallurgy: How Did They Make Our Dagger?
In the European Iron Age, metallurgy encompassed the ‘seven metals of antiquity’: silver and gold, copper and tin, iron, lead and mercury. They formed the cornerstone of material culture from the end of the Copper Age (c. 3000 BCE), all the way through the Iron Age, the Classical Era, and the Early-Medieval era; indeed they were the only elemental metals known to people until the discovery of arsenic in the 1200s CE. If we briefly examine the context of European metalwork in the Iron Age, we can see why swords made from metal had such unparalleled significance in the Celtic world.
The Ancient Metals
Lead was likely one of the earliest metals to be refined into its metallic form: lead ores can be smelted in a simple wood fire, meaning that it may well have been discovered by chance. Although it is abundant in the Earth and easy to refine, it was not an enormously important material in the ancient world, mainly because it was too dull to be attractive for decoration, and too soft to be useful. It was, however, produced in large quantities, mainly due to its association with silver – lead is often a byproduct of smelting galena, a common lead ore. Due to the popularity of silver as a means of decoration and as a medium of exchange in the form of bullion and coinage, Rome in particular dominated the European production of lead: its output peaked at more than 80,000 tons of metallic lead produced annually. Lead roofing, lead pipes (the Roman word for lead ‘plumbum’ bequeathing us with our word ‘plumbing’) and lead bullets were all prolifically used by the Romans. In fact, Celtic lead mines were extremely important to the Romans, as the Celts had likely perfected processes for lead mining and smelting. Lead pots and vats were much prized in winemaking, since copper pots would impart a bitter flavour, whilst lead tastes sweet! Such wines would have been highly sought-after by those outside of Rome’s borders, in the land of the Celtic dagger. Mercury was also reasonably well known to ancient peoples: Mediterranean Europeans like the Greek and Roman cultures used cinnabar, an ore of mercury, in a variety of household applications, such as in cosmetics or medicines. Metallic mercury, created by condensing the fumes given off by burning mercury ores at temperatures in excess of 1000°F, has even been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1500 BCE.
We have mentioned how simple smelting processes at low temperatures could produce silver from galena; and so thus on to the king of prehistoric metals: gold. Metallic gold is a very stable element, and so could be found in pure form in many places across Europe. Britain and Ireland were renowned for their gold production, the latter being described as an ‘ancient El Dorado’ by legendary Iron Age historian Prof. Christopher Hawkes. The fineness of gold, and its untarnishing aura of immortality likely drew ancient Celtic peoples to it, and they produced astonishing works of wearable art such as the Mold Cape, dating from 1900-1600 BCE, as well as many fine gold sword-hilts and accoutrements for their Celtic daggers. However, it is the three other metals – iron, copper and tin – that form the basis of our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger.
Bronze and Iron
The two metals which have gone into our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger, bronze and iron, are a little more complex to refine. Tin was likely very easy to come by as, like lead, it could be smelted at temperatures easily attainable by a simple wood fire. But copper-containing rocks like malachite have to first be roasted in a fire to produce copper oxide, and then smelted at a much higher temperature (around 1700°F). Archaeologists theorise that this was probably done experimentally in pottery kilns, and then later developed into its own specific process. Although copper and tin are both poor metals on their own, when they are mixed in the rough proportion of 1:7 tin to copper they produce bronze, a highly effective metal that can be used for casting and beating. The earliest bronzes might have been a fortunate fluke from tin-contaminated copper ores, but around 2000 BCE there is clear evidence that both metals were being deliberately combined in pursuit of bronze. Bronze is far better than the copper, stone and bone tools that were hitherto used, and they produced new weapons and armor which would dominate until the Early Modern Era and beyond: swords, axes, daggers, chainmail and plate armor.
Although iron-containing rocks are much more common geologically than copper or tin, iron production is much more difficult. Producing metallic iron required reduction in a bloomery, a specially designed oven that (counterintuitively) keeps the iron cool enough to prevent it from melting whilst it reduces (loses its oxygen to go from iron oxide to pure iron). If the conditions were right, the resulting bloom, a sort of hot spongy mass of metallic iron and unwanted slag, had to be hot-worked (heated and hammered) to produce usable wrought iron. Unsurprisingly, this technique only became commonplace after several millennia of bronze working – around the beginning of the 1st-millennium BCE in the Middle East, although it became dominant much earlier in the Indian subcontinent.
As we can see, the amount of time and effort that Iron Age people had to go to in order to create metallic objects was enormous – and thus the objects they created from them were imbued with huge significance and reverence. These two metals set the scene for the fine Celtic sword-makers of the La Tène culture to create the glorious bronze anthropomorphic representations, and the fine steel blades, that form the historical basis for our Anthropomorphic Celtic Dagger.
Looking for Celtic armour? Check out these Greaves!
- Total length: 21 inches
- Blade length: 15 ½ inches
- Blade width: 1.7 inches
- Blade material: 5160 carbon steel
- Blade hardness: 60 HRc at edge ; 48-50 HRc at core
- Weight: 2 lbs. 1 oz.