Weapons and Fiber ID: Lapithos Survey Update

January 13, 2014

 The condition survey of artifacts from Lapithos, Cyprus continues. In my first post, I introduced the intricate lively designs on ceramic vessels by potters from the Bronze Age.

I recently took a break from pottery and turned to the handiwork of Cypriot metalsmiths. 320 pieces in the collection are comprised of metal. These include bowls, jewelry (which I will feature in an upcoming post), pins, tweezers and a series of tanged weapons. Most of the metals consist of copper or copper alloy, although some are made of iron, lead, silver and gold. Cyprus was famous for copper in the ancient world, which was mined in the Troodos Mountains (the blue marker on the map below) and exported across the Mediterranean.  The word copper itself is derived from the Greek name for Cyprus, Kupros. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a nice short article on the subject, here. Tombs excavated by the Penn Museum in Lapithos (red marker on the map below) had numerous copper weapons that are characteristic of the Early and Middle Cypriot Bronze Age (c. 2300 B.C.-1550 B.C.). British archaeologist Hector Catling was the first to classify these kinds of weapons as “swords, dirks and daggers with rat-tail tangs.”

Map of Cyprus
Map of Cyprus
Illustration of “rat-tanged weapons” in Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World by H.W. Catling (1964).
Illustration of “rat-tanged weapons” in Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World by H.W. Catling (1964).

According to Catling, these weapons would have been hammered from a rough casting. The manufacturing process—casting, annealing and hammering—was confirmed in later metallographic analysis of some of the Lapithos weapons. Here is a look at three examples of the tanged weapons:

sword, dagger, knife
A “sword” (left), “dagger” (middle) and “knife” right, classified according to their size.

Luckily for us, these artifacts have not been highly cleaned, and some retain fragile evidence of organic binding on the tangs. The binding material, narrow strips and threads wrapped around the tang, would have been part of the original hafting, connecting the handle of the weapon to the blade. Below is a detail of binding material that has been preserved. In some cases the binding is preserved in the form of a pseudomorph, or “false form,” which occurs when copper corrosion forms around or replaces organic material. Even if the organic material completely deteiorates, its form can be  preserved in the corrosion. In other cases, the original organic material is still extant.

Binding on the tang

One of the daggers, which has heart-shaped shoulders and a hooked tang, has very well-preserved white thread. Below is an image of the dagger, and the area with the thread magnified under the microscope. The magnified image shows the preserved thread (with a notable “S” twist) embedded in concretions and corrosion on the surface.

Dagger 23-27-419, and preserved thread at the base of the tang, magnified 10.6X.
Dagger 32-27-419, and preserved thread at the base of the tang, magnified 10.6X.

Unexpectedly, a small sample of the thread was found mounted on a glass slide in storage with the object. Unfortunately no record of analysis of the sample appears to have been kept with the object. So curious to know more, I took the sample to our Artifact Lab and examined it under the polarized light microscope.  And this is what I saw…

Fiber sample in plane-polarized light, 400X
Fiber sample in plane polarized light, 400X
Fiber sample in crossed polarized light, 200X
Fiber sample in crossed-polarized light with full-wave fixed compensator.
Fiber sample in crossed polarized light with full-wave fixed compensator, 400X.

Polarized light microscopy is a key tool used in fiber identification. The dagger sample was examined in plane polarized light (top), crossed polarized light (middle) and crossed polarized light with a full-wave fixed compensator inserted (bottom). These different settings can highlight descriminating features of a fiber and aid in identifying what kind of plant or animal it comes from. For example, morphological features of this fiber are that it has a small lumen (tubular cavity) and nodular markings along the length of the shaft. An important optical feature is that the fibers are anisotropic–or shine brightly when viewed under crossed-polarized light and rotated. I was able to use polarized light microscopy to determine that the threads are made of a bast fiber, a classification of plant that includes hemp, flax and jute among others. Of the many bast fibers, the sample closely resembles known examples of flax. Flax has been used since antiquity to produce linen, and was highly common in the Mediterranean, so this possibility appears to be consistent with the object’s context. Flax is also the same fiber identified by Molly Gleeson, in a sample of wrappings from a falcon mummy.

Although not incredibly surprising, this fiber sample is a great example of what can be learned about an artifact if even only tiny traces of its original materials exist.

My work on the Lapithos collection is the focus of a Kress Fellowship. This Fellowship is supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation