Fashion in the Age of Datini

Wood in Spears

People often wonder what type of wood they should use to make a spear. They often consider adapting tool handles or paying large sums to import prepared shafts. What woods were traditionally used for spears and other staff weapons in Europe?

Paleolithic to Bronze Age

Stuart Needham records the carbon dates of timber fragments inside 26 spearheads and 3 buttspikes. He notes the genus of wood in 24 of the spearheads and 3 of the “ferrules”

Source: Stuart Needham, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, David Coombs, Caroline Cartwright, and Paul Pettitt (1997) “An Independent Chronology for British Bronze Age Metalwork: The Results of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Programme,” Archaeological Journal, 154:1, pp. 61-65

An article by J.M. Coles et al. includes 40 assorted spearshafts or traces of spearshafts from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, mostly Bronze Age, in Britain and Ireland. Sometimes the source just listed what a whole group of spears was made of, and I treat those groups as one spear.

Source: J. M. Coles, S. V. E. Heal and B. J. Orme, “The Use and Character of Wood in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, Volume 44, (December 1978), pp. 25, 34-41

The main part of Stephen Green's study is just a smaller version of Coles et al. An appendix lists the wood in 17 bronze spearheads and 2 spear-butts in the Museum of London.

Source: H. Stephen Green, “Late Bronze Age wooden hafts from Llyn Fawr and Penwyllt, and a review of the evidence for the selection of wood for tool and weapon handles in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland.” Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (1978) Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 136-141

Jean-Pierre Mohen has some comments on the wood in bronze spearheads from the Île-de-France. He listed one unknown Sorbus sp. (from Essonne), one Viburnum lantana L. the "wayfarer tree" (from Grigny), and seven Fraxinus excelsior or ash (2 from Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, 4 from Essonne, 1 from Corbeil). Source: Mohen, Jean-Pierre (1977) L'âge du bronze dans la région de Paris: catalogue synthétique des collections conservées au Musée des antiquités nationales (Editions des Musées Nationaux: Paris) p. 210

Out of this sample of 97 spears or buttspikes, about 64 (66%) had been mounted on ash wood. Another 18 (19%) had been mounted on oak, hazel, or a family called maloideae which includes apple, pear, medlar, quince, serviceberry, and hawthorn. The remaining 15 spears (15%) were made from an assortment of other woods.

Iron Age

Paul Vouga says that the spearshafts from La Tène were of debarked ash and about 2 cm in diameter (La hampe, d'un diamètre de deux centimètres, est en frêne écorcé, et si régulièrement travaillé qu'au moment de la découverte il paraissait poli.). Source: Paul Vouga, La Tène, Monographie de la station publiée au nom de la commission des fouilles de La Tène (Leipzig 1923) column 54.

The wood in five spearheads from an Iron Age causeway at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire was examined. All five were mature ash (fraxinus sp.) which had been split and shaped. Two posts of the causeway were dendrochronologically dated to c. 436-405 BCE and objects continued to be deposited there into the Roman period. Source: Field, Naomi / Pearson, Mike Parker, et al. Fiskerton: Iron Age Timber Causeway with Iron Age and Roman Votive Offerings (Oxbow Books, 2003) pp. 25, 45

Ian M. Stead describes spears in graves of the Iron Age Arras Culture (c. 400 BCE-100 CE) in Yorkshire:

Slightly more than half have traces of the shaft surviving as mineralized preserved wood in the socket: a dozen examples were identified (certainly or possibly) and most were from coppiced willow (or poplar) and hazel; two were ash. Many of the sockets are perforated for a rivet or nail to secure them to the shaft.

Source: Stead, Ian M. (1991) Iron Age Cemeteries in East Yorkshire: Excavations at Burton Fleming, Rudston, Garton-on-the-Wolds, and Kirkburn. English Heritage Archaeological Report, 22 (London: English Heritage in association with British Museum Press) p. 75

Someone was buried with a spear at Kelvedon, Essex around 75-25 BCE. Jacqui Watson identified the wood in the socket of the spearhead as ash (fraxinus sp.). Source: Sealey, Paul R. (2007) A Late Iron Age Warrrior Grave from Kelvedon, Essex (Colchester Museums: Colchester) p. 26

Of this sample of 19 spears (or general statements about a group of spears), 9 were of ash and 10 of coppiced willow, poplar, or hazel.

Roman and Migration Era

Spearheads and ferrules from the Roman period in a French collection contained remains of ash wood, ash wood, elm wood, and an unidentified wood. Source: L. Bonnamour (ed.), Du Silex à La Poudre: 4,000 ans d’armement en val de saône: exposition, 1990-1991 (Editions Monique Mergoil: Montagnac, France) pp. 98-100

The socket of a spearhead from Roman Carlisle contained ash wood, apparently shaped from a split or sawed tree. Source: Howard-Davis, Christine (ed.) (2010) The Carlisle Millennium Project. Lancaster Imprints, Volume 15 (Oxford Archaeology North) p. 714

Bruce E. Blackistone does not talk about type of wood in his summary of archaeological reports on spears in graves in Britain from 400 to 700 CE (backed up on Age of Datini). He mentioned the sites Alton in Hampshire; Worthy Park at Kingsworthy near Winchester, Hampshire; Bifrons in Kent; Sewerby in Yorkshire; and Empingham II in Rutland.

Jacqui Watson of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory examined 28 Early Anglo-Saxon Spears from West Heslerton in Yorkshire, England. Nine are hazel (presumably corylus avellana), five willow or poplar, four mature ash, three alder (presumably alnus sp.), and seven unknown. Source: Christine Haughton and Dominic Powlesland, West Heslerton: The Anglian Cemetery. Two volumes. The Landscape Research Centre: n.p., 1999 vol. 1 p. 124

Of this sample of 33 spears or spearheads, 7 were ash, 1 elm, 3 alder, 9 hazel, 5 willow or poplar, and 8 unknown.

Of the total of 149 spears up to the year 700, 80 (54%) are of ash, while 30 (20%) are of poplar, willow, or hazel. Another 7 (5%) are of oak and 8 (5%) are of maloideae. That leaves 24 spears (16%) which are of other genera or unknown woods!

Medieval and Early Modern

Victor Gay found two references to lances of fir, one from the 12th century and one from a tournament in 1495. Bonoit’s Chronicle of the Dukes of Normandy volume i page 214 has “And on brynies of fine mail / They broke a thousand lances of fir (sapin)”. Pine or fir lances would probably break with a nice loud crack and impress the crowd.

In 1488, the armourers of Angers said that henceforth all staves of javelins should be of ash or linden (!) not pine because pine is too breakable (item 7).

Will McLean found some sources for horsemen’s lances of ash or beech (for war) and pine (for friendly play) in the 15th and 16th century in “Lance Construction”, Will’s Commonplace Book

John Waldman says that a Wegeli published a catalogue of the arsenal at Berne in 1939. Out of 96 pikes, 93 had ash shafts, three had shafts of beech or birch. Rudely made impact weapons for peasants often had pine, fir, oak, or ash hafts. John Waldman, Hafted Weapons in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. History of Warfare vol. 31 (Leiden: Brill, 2005) pp. 92-94

Summing Up

it seems that while ash was the favourite, there were many other woods which could do the job. Oak, maloideae, hazel, and beech seem reasonably popular for good spears. Pine and fir were used for weapons which did not have to survive many strikes.

What about the question whether to make spears from split wedges, sawed planks, or round timbers which grow long and straight (coppicing / pollarding or just harvesting young trees)? Over on MyArmoury, archaeologist Andrew W. says that he has seen spears in early medieval graves made from round wood, and spears in early medieval graves made from wedges of timber.

Many of the spears found in 5-7th century Anglo-Saxon graves used coppiced wood (saplings). I haven’t gotten around to adding up the numbers for coppice vs. mature (ie, cut down to the desired size and shape) timber in the 40-odd sites I’m studying, but it seems very roughly evenly distributed between the two methods. … I’m on a dig at the moment (Lyminge) and don’t have many of my sources scanned to check, but I know West Heslerton had both mature and coppiced trees for shafts. There are more sites I’ve encountered with coppiced shafts, but I don’t have good notes with me in the field.

You can buy the report on the cemetery at West Heslerton for 35 British pounds from the Landscape Research Centre, UK.

So I think its easy to overthink whether to cut a nice straight shoot, or saw off a piece of plank and work it down with hand tools or on a lathe. Do what you can with the tools and materials you can get. Does anyone know of other sources?

Edit 2022-06-14: Added details from the report on West Heslerton

Edit 2022-10-21: Added more spears from the Iron Age and the Roman empire.

Edit 2022-11-15: Added Mohen's data from Bronze Age France and updated the summary totals and percentages.

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