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The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

Since 1863

For everyone interested in Yorkshire's past

Iron Age Yorkshire – the Kirkburn sword


Kirkburn sword (reconstruction S. James) (Late Iron Age)

As the Kirkburn sword was drawn from its scabbard, an enemy would have taken a step back: intimidated by the sight of beads of blood-red enamel, surrounding their opponent's hand on the hilt, and apparently dripping from the end of the chape. This red-hot glass decoration (as ‘enamel’ is more correctly known in prehistory) created an awe-inspiring and perhaps frightening effect, adding to the very real threat of the weapon itself.

Whilst actual sword injuries are rare amongst the Iron Age inhabitants of East Yorkshire, a skull of a young man from Acklam Wold indicates that it occasionally had fatal consequences. Archaeologists working on the Iron Age have begun thinking about objects such as swords in a different light: recognising that the Celtic art which decorates them is an integral and powerful part of their effect upon the viewer.

A key aspect of this art is the use of colour and in particular the dominance of red on objects. It can be found on weapons such as the Kirkburn grip, pommel and scabbard plate and the guard, scabbard and chapes of both swords from the chariot burials at Wetwang Slack. Red coral ‘eyes’ once decorated the fish-shaped chape of the Grimthorpe sword. The roundels from the Bugthorpe sword burial are also decorated with red glass studs, riveted with iron pins, mimicking the appearance of ripened hips or haws. Such discs may have been used as shield fittings, vehicle trappings or embellishments for personal clothing. Horse-gear (including strap unions and terrrets) from chariot burials such as Wetwang were also decorated with a range of red glass and coral studs, beads or plaques.

Coral was also used on the long stemmed wheel-shaped hairpin from Danes Graves and the radiate-footed brooch from the Queen’s barrow at Arras. An iron, gold and coral pin was found in chariot burial 2 from Wetwang Slack, alongside the unique bronze canister, inscribed with Scabbard-style art, and finished with a bead of red glass. Red ‘enamel’ knobs were also attached to the disc-foot of various brooches from the Great Wolds Valley cemeteries. Occasionally, coral was used in association with other red-brown coloured materials, such as the plaque from the Queen’s barrow at Arras: here, a bronze setting of concentric rings of coral framed a central roundel of sandstone. Interestingly, this stone was smeared with a red dye of paste, to enhance this colour.

Sandstone beads which vary from fawn-brown to red were also used on a bronze brooch from Danes Graves. Other red coloured substances include the use of local ‘red’ chalk, ferruginous dolomitic clay and a bead of red porphyry, used on a bracelet from Arras. Rather than seeing these merely as ‘substitutes’ for the more exotic substances of coral and enamel, they may well have been seen as appropriate local analogues for these materials due to their similarity in colour.

So was the use of this colour merely fortuitous? After all, the effort to which people went to incorporate such materials in both armaments and ornaments was considerable. The use of red caught the eye and drew attention to certain features of an object, suggesting this was both a deliberate and meaningful tradition. So what did the colour red mean in later prehistory? Such colours were powerful: provoking associations and meanings which were drawn from the prehistoric world in which people lived. Red may have conjured associations with bodily substances like flesh and blood, evening light or autumn, or even certain places in the landscape where soils or rocks were red in hue. Red can be associated with certain states of being, such as anger and excitement, or danger. All of these associations made it a particularly apt colour to use on objects which protected or defended the body.

Support for this interpretation comes from the writings of Pliny the Elder, who noted that the Gauls believed that coral had apotropaeic (warding off evil) properties, and therefore used it in protective amulets for infants. It also made ‘an excellent remedy’ in powdered form for those who brought up blood, and was used to ‘make flesh’ in the cavities left by ulcers or scars, suggesting the pink or red colour of coral made it analogous to human fluids and skin. In a similar vein, red ‘enamel’ may have been seen as analogous to freshly-spilled blood. This might explain why it was the appropriate substance with which to decorate swords: conjuring the effect of a weapon perpetually soaked in droplets of an enemy’s life-force.