The Naue II Sword

Brock Hoagland

One of the longest lasting of all sword types was the Naue II, also known as the grip-tongue sword or Griffzungenschwert. First appearing in the late Bronze Age it lasted well into the Iron Age, a span of 500-700 years, and was made in both metals. To gain some perspective, imagine that the matchlock musket was still a primary infantry weapon today with a change in materials but not in basic design. And the Naue II might still beat it by a couple centuries.

As early as 1450 BCE (high chronology; for low chronology reduce Bronze Age dates by 200-250 years) in northern Italy smiths came up with an early type of a sword now known as the Naue II. This was a sturdy sword of a style known as cut-and-thrust being suited for both, although the Naue II was more designed for delivering a powerful slash. There were cut-and-thrust swords before this, but after further development the Naue II spread widely and replaced other swords types. It spread first into central Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles. But it also went in the other direction. By 1200 BCE or around the time of the Catastrophe that befell the great Late Bronze Age civilizations (with the exception of Egypt) it had spread to Greece, Crete, the Aegean Islands, the Levant, Palestine and Egypt. It was quite popular in Greece and the Aegean, but it is in Central Europe that the greatest number has been found—38 bronze ones from the Greek world (including Cyprus), over 100 from Italy and over 130 from the former Yugoslavia. (Note: More have undoubtedly been found since my reference for these numbers was written.) In all these areas it was the standard sword until the 7th C. BCE with iron replacing bronze, but still the same basic design.

What accounts for its popularity? First and foremost, it was a superb weapon well suited for the battle tactics prevailing during its centuries of use. It was longer than many of the swords it replaced (sword types in the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean had grown quite short by that time) and there is an inherent advantage in having a longer reach, within practical limits. Many of the swords it replaced could be used for stabbing or slashing, but not both. As mentioned previously it was a sturdy weapon, one that would stand up to hard use on the battlefield without failing its user. And it is possible that northern “barbarian” mercenaries serving in the armies of the eastern Mediterranean civilizations brought with them the weapon they knew. However, it had to be superior to the ones it encountered or it would not have replaced them and remained in use for so long. Enough have been found from the Greek world to assume that some must have been made locally and were not imports.

The Naue II ranges from 50-85 cm in length with many falling in the range of 60-70 cm. Most had straight sides until narrowing to the point, but a few in both bronze and iron swelled slightly towards the tip giving them a leaf-shape. Some had midribs, often consisting of most of the blade’s width, others were lens-shaped and a few diamond in cross section. All were intended to have a good edge. The hilt (tang) was flanged and the hilt plates were set within the flanges and riveted. Held in place by both flanges and rivets, a warrior had little worry that the grip would work loose during battle. With a secure hilt and a long blade a warrior could deliver a devastating slash against an opponent and the Naue II was probably used most often in this fashion, at times removing heads, arms and legs in battle. However, it did have a good point and could be used in a thrust if that was more effective in a given situation. With such a weapon available to them it is not surprising that warriors chose the Naue II over other sword types.

With such a wide variety of lengths and cross sections, it would require a lengthy article to show a number of representative examples. I shall instead showcase three. I chose these due to their sizes, state of preservation which allowed good drawings to be made of them and their find spots. All are good general representations of the Naue II and are made in bronze.

The first was found on the Aegean island of Kos and is now in a museum on Rhodes. Similar ones would have been found throughout the Greek world during the late Bronze Age. Total length is 59.5 cm.

As can be seen, most of the blade’s cross section was fairly thick, but it thinned considerably at the edges. It must be pointed out that blades with a lens-shaped or diamond cross section thinned gradually throughout their width and did not have such a dramatic transition. The I-beam above the hilt illustrates the flanges that helped to keep the hilt plates in place. Seven rivets are shown here and that was fairly common. However, some had as few as three and others as many as nine. The hilt plates would have been organic—wood, bone or horn being most likely, although ivory is not impossible.

The second one is from Bulgaria. Length is 70.3 cm. In this case the transition throughout the blade’s cross section is not as dramatic it being more lens-shaped. The fishtail or ears at the end of the hilt are also less dramatic. Eight rivets were used on this one to secure the hilt plates.

The last one is again from the Greek world, this time from Crete and is now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Length is 51.2 cm which makes it one of the shortest of the Naue II. Seven rivets were used to secure the hilt plates. Again we have a relatively thick cross section which thins hardly at all until the edges themselves.

The section projecting past the grip portion of the hilt (I’ll call it a tab) must have been for a pommel. Since there is no rivet hole in the tab the pommel must have been secured in some other fashion. One likely method would have been for the hilt plates to project back past the tab. A small wedge of wood slipped between the plates projecting just a few millimeters past them would cause the ends of the plates to spread when a pommel was tapped down onto them. If glue was also used, the result would be a secure pommel. (Thanks to Jeroen Zuiderwijk for explaining how this could be done.)

Other Naue II without a tab could use the same basic method to secure a pommel. Of course the pommel would eventually come loose, but since it and the hilt plates would undoubtedly be changed from time to time, this would not have been considered serious. Like any good warrior, the owner of a Naue II would inspect his equipment and make sure it was kept in good repair.

Since the Naue II was carried for as much as 700 years, first in bronze and then in iron, we may be sure it rarely failed its owners on the battlefield. And that is the ultimate test of any weapon. A sword that was carried for such a long time has to be considered a remarkable success.

The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews.
Swords and Hilt Weapons by Michael D. Coe, et. al.
Arms and Armor of the Greeks by A. M. Snodgrass.
Die Schwerter in Griechenland by Imma Kilian-Dirlmeier (drawings).



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