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Dr Steven Snape on the Soldier’s Sword

Watch Dr Steven Snape tell us about this ancient Near Eastern style of sword.
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Now what we’re looking at here is really a heavy duty bit of military kit. It’s a khopesh sword. It’s really very distinct in its appearance because of its curved scimitar style blade. It’s made out of copper bronze. It really is quite heavy. It’s something which we know was used by Egyptian soldiers, because there are plenty of representations in battle scenes on the walls of Egyptian temples of the New Kingdom which show the khopesh being wielded in anger. You can see, I think, that this particular khopesh sword is rather corroded, not surprising considering how long it is this sword found its way into the ground. It’s also missing many other things, as well.
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The handle, you can see, would have, once upon a time, had a really quite substantial inlaid here, perhaps of wood or of ivory, to make the holding of this weapon perhaps even easier, more comfortable, than it is today. You can see that it is a full size weapon. You can see that it fits really quite well in my hand. It’s built for an adult man to wield, although the length of the sword isn’t all that great. It isn’t a huge sweeping scimitar that you would expect from 18th or 19th century European swords. Nonetheless, it is quite an effective weapon used in particular circumstances. It isn’t used for fencing. It isn’t used for sword-on-sword conflict.
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I think primarily what it’s used for is a brutal hacking weapon, which is primarily used on an enemy who finds it difficult to defend themselves. As I said, it is quite heavy. The cross section of this particular khopesh sword shows that it is quite a thick thing. And it tapers to a relatively sharp edge along the curved section, although today, as I see with the corrosion, that’s not particularly easily visible. It is a form of weapon which was used in a variety cultures in the Near East. It doesn’t seem to have originated in Egypt, although it became a handheld weapon of choice in the New Kingdom. It is in many ways a sort of combination of sword and axe.
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A sort of brutal hacking weapon. And the shape of it, as you can see, lends itself to that very well. And so, in those terms, I think it was probably a fairly effective weapon, as well as, once again– and I think this is important when we come to look at examples of Egyptian weapons– they are also items of status as well. And the fact that this is a really substantial bit of copper bronze, a metal which was pretty expensive in ancient Egypt.
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We’re looking at something which isn’t just a weapon, but which is a prestige item in the hands of the owner, marking them out as someone with real military status, as well as someone who was obviously prepared to kill on the battlefield. As a weapon, we often see it used in the hands of high ranking individuals or even kings. So that we often see in scenes of kings like Ramesses II, the king going into battle in his chariot, trampling down enemies in front of him, and waving a khopesh sword like this above his head.
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Doubtless the idea being that he’s going to smash it down on the heads or other parts of the bodies of the people who are prone in front of his chariot. And therefore he is going to literally hack up dozens, if not hundreds, of enemies by the power of his strong arm and the khopesh sword that he wields in that strong arm.

Here Dr Steven Snape takes a closer look at the sword from the Garstang Museum of Archaeology.

Compare Steven’s approach to your own. It is interesting to hear Steven speak, as he goes through the possibilities of what this weapon could be used for. It is strong and relatively heavy, and has a distinctive shape, all of which leads Steven to suggestions concerning its use. Steven also notes that it is rather ornate, and so may have been used more as a ceremonial weapon, away from the battlefield.

The process that Steven goes through is familiar to all archaeologists, that of looking at clues and slotting together what is known to arrive at the function of an object.

I hope you enjoyed engaging with this object, researching possibilities and questioning interpretations. There will be other opportunities in this course to use the same method of archaeological enquiry to surmise what various objects from the ancient Near East were used for.

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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

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