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?


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

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”

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

This article 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.

Out of this sample of 69 spears or buttspikes, about 63% had been mounted on ash wood. Another 25% had been mounted on oak, hazel, yew, or a family called maloideae which includes apple, pear, medlar, quince, serviceberry, and hawthorn. The remaining 12% were made from an assortment of other woods.

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: 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

Bruce E. Blackistone posted some information on spears in graves in Britain from 400 to 700 CE on Sword Forum International in 2005 (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. Christine Haughton and Dominic Powlesland, West Heslerton: The Anglian Cemetery. Two volumes. The Landscape Research Centre: n.p., 1999 vol. 1 p. 124

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

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