University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Of Daggers and Scabbards: Evidence from Organic Pseudomorphs and X-Radiography


By: Tessa de Alarcon

April 16, 2016

As part of the Ur Digitization Project, I have been spending time looking at the metal tools from the site.  As Kyra Kaercher has already noted in her blog post, many of the copper alloys from Ur have organic pseudomorphs.  These are sort of like fossils, in that they are organics which have been preserved through the process of mineral replacement.  In this case, the minerals replacing the organics are the corrosion products of a metal object.

Because of this, one of the exciting things on a few of the copper alloy daggers from Ur, is evidence of scabbards made from leather or textile.  These material types are not usually found at Ur as they are only preserved under very specific burial conditions.  However, as scabbards, they were in close contact with metal and so are in a good position to have survived as pseudomorphs.

The image on the left shows B17506 under raking light. The drawing on the right shows the pattern of the scabbard in blue.
The image on the left shows B17506 under raking light. The drawing on the right shows the pattern of the scabbard in blue.

B17506 (U.8246) is the best example.  Woolley even noted it in the original description of the object: “Copper knife. Broken. On the blade are well preserved traces of a woven rough sheath covered with linen”.  The object has a pattern of X’s out of an organic material.  I recently looked at this object with the new 3d microscope in CAAM (Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials) to see if I could determine what it was, however, the structure is somewhat amorphous making me lean toward tooled leather, although it may be some other type woven plant fiber as well.

B17544 and details showing what remains of a scabbard.
B17544 and details showing what remains of a scabbard.

It is not the only example, however. B17544 also shows a similar pattern of X’s although not nearly as well preserved.

But the real surprise was 35-1-425.  Kyra flagged this one as possibly having evidence of a scabbard however, it showed such a complex layering that it was too hard to say for sure what was going on.  There is on one side a layer of plaster and matting and on the other there are clumps of soil with a woven structure below.  The organics in the case, appear to be only partially mineralized.

35-1-425: the images on the top show details and locations for matting on the object and the images on the bottom show details with locations of woven structures.
35-1-425: the images on the top show details and locations for matting on the object and the images on the bottom show details with locations of woven structures.

35-1-425 also seemed to have copper bindings wrapped around the end of the blade.  I decided to X-ray the object to see the copper binding better.  What I did not expect is that the X-ray would confirm the presence of a scabbard and provide a better visualization of the overall pattern.  Based on the digital photomicrographs, unlike with B17506 and B17544, the scabbard on this object appears to be made out of a woven textile.  Although, it may originally have had leather components as well.

The X-ray of 35-1-425 is shown above. It was captured at 120kV and 4mA and has an enhanced edge filter applied. The drawing on the bottom shows the pattern in the scabbard in blue and the location of the copper bindings in green.
The X-ray of 35-1-425 is shown above. It was captured at 120kV and 4mA and has an enhanced edge filter applied. The drawing on the bottom shows the pattern in the scabbard in blue and the location of the copper bindings in green.

The X like patterns apparent on all of these objects is not surprising.  While these scabbards were all made out of organics at Ur they were also made of metal with similar types of patterns.  This can be seen by looking at the electrotype copy in the museum collection of a sheath found at Ur (29-22-10B).  The original, U.9361, was found in tomb PG. 580.  Like the ones shown above the pattern on the sheath is made up of intricate X’s.  Whether the metal is made in imitation of organic ones or vice versa is unclear, but it seems regardless of the material, similar patterns were used for for scabbards no matter the material.

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