Army hospital x-rays reveal intricacies of Anglo-Saxon sword, shield, spear and grave goods

By Ben Miller | 24 November 2014

Sixth century grave goods found at Anglo-Saxon burial site scanned by army as archaeologists examine x-rays

A photo of a black and white x-ray scan on a long narrow sword
Archaeologists have enlisted the help of the army to x-ray a sword found in Salisbury during the summer© Wessex Archaeology
Archaeologists have used an army field hospital’s x-ray machine to examine a corroded steel sword, confirming the pattern of the weapon alongside a spearhead and shield core found at a burial site on Salisbury Plain.

The 85 centimetre blade was found with the grave goods at Barrow Clump, a 40-metre cemetery where 27 bodies – including the remains of Anglo-Saxon warriors – were discovered in 2012.

“The sword was too large for our in-house x-ray facilities,” reflects Laura Joyner, of Wessex Archaeology, who says the sword caused “great excitement” at the excavation.

“We were keen to learn as much as possible about this 6th century weapon, although the degree of corrosion on the sword and the fact that it was contained within the remains of its wood and leather scabbard meant that we would need to use an x-ray machine to do so.

“The Army, through Captain Doe and Sergeant Potts, kindly offered to undertake the work using equipment based at a Field Hospital Unit in Aldershot.

“The x-ray images confirmed several things that we suspected about the sword, and revealed some interesting features.

“The sword was made by a process called pattern welding, where several bands of metal are beaten together to create a single strengthened blade.

“In this case, three twisted rods of wrought iron with steel surfaces were used, showing as a distinctive pattern on the x-ray image.

“The blade itself was also edged in steel. This is probably because steel can be sharpened to a much finer edge than iron. It is possible to tell the difference between metals on an x-ray image as they corrode in different ways.”

Experts were equally thrilled at the chance to scan the other grave goods.

“The spearhead is not pattern welded like the sword, but was produced from a single piece of iron,” says Joyner.

“The shield boss has retained its studs to fix it to the wooden shield, which are plated with tin to make them into a decorative feature.”

Conservators will now analyse mineralised wood, leather and organic materials from the scabbard.

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A photo of people carrying out an x-ray scan on a large thin Anglo-Saxon sword
Conservator Lynn Wootten and Phil Andrews, the Project Manager for Barrow Clump, oversaw the scan in Aldershot© Wessex Archaeology
A photo of a black and white x-ray scan on a long narrow sword
The level of corrosion means experts will be unable to remove the scabbard from the blade© Wessex Archaeology
A photo of a black and white x-ray scan on a long narrow sword
Broaches, amber and glass beads, spear heads, a silver ring and drinking vessels have previously been found at Barrow Clump© Wessex Archaeology
A photo of a black and white x-ray scan on a long narrow sword
The sword was accompanied by a shield boss - the metal centre of a wooden shield© Wessex Archaeology
More from Culture24's coverage of Barrow Clump:

Archaeologists say Anglo-Saxon sword discovery "couldn't have been better scripted"

Anglo-Saxon arthritis sufferer, graves and swords found by archaeologists at Barrow Clump

Soldiers battle badgers on Salisbury Plain as innovative project reveals Anglo-Saxon remains
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