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5,000-year-old sword discovered by archaeology student at a Venetian monastery (edition.cnn.com)
225 points by HenryBemis 14 days ago | hide | past | web | 110 comments | favorite

Wow, this is very interesting and right up my alley. One of my many random hobbies is collecting images of artefacts and I have a huge dir dedicated just to ancient swords. Bronze tends to look very similar due to the casting methods but it's cool to see an older iteration and compare it to say the Scythian (my personal favorites), Mycenaean, Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, etc.

Funny enough, the ones I have marked as oldest are called "The Swords of Arslantepe" [1] (which the article mentions in passing) from the same general region as this one, and are said to be also ~5k old, and of a very similar chemical composition. The weapons of the royal tombs of Ur [2] are right behind these in age.

[1] https://duckduckgo.com/?t=ffcm&q=Swords+of+Arslantepe&iax=im...

[2] http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/118301.html

edit: From the article, a new one to me: "and the sword found in the Tokat Museum in Turkey", now I have a new something to search for!

What do you make of the myth that Scots came from Scythia - e.g. in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath:

They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous.

Now I'm not say there is much chance of historicity of this myth - but I've been puzzled as to why anyone would pick on Scythia as a place to come from?


The way I see it, there are two factors for the origin myths:

The misidentification of various people. Practically every barbarian horde descending from euro-asian steppe into europe was called scythian as if it was one and the same. That was the case for huns, avars, magyars and others.

The desire to be associated with martial might/success. The desire to claim primacy (and therefore rights) over some territory. History is rife with such myths of origin.

I think there might be more merit to it than previously thought, but not just for the Scots, much more broadly to the earlier Celtic progenitors of a few later more distinct groups. For example, I don't remember the tribes name, but I recently learned one of the southeasterly Germanic tribes who claimed to be the oldest of the Germanic tribes also said they came from Scythia!

I tend to think of the Yamna and Corded Ware a lot when considering this question.

While it used to be more controversial, this has also been why the reduction of cost of genetic sequencing has been showing more and more scientifically viable analysis of these types of questions because DNA is much easier to follow! So the Scythians are really just a much younger version of some common ancestors, with haplogroup R1a being one of the more dominant ones.

In short, I think overfocusing on the younger "Scythian hypothesis" is too specific and prone to error, but there are lots of great insights to be had in following the genetic maps that have been exploding the knowledge set of proto-indo-european archaeology since about 2010.

> why anyone would pick on Scythia as a place to come from?

still a bit of a thing today


I wanted to answer to arethuza but you just provided a reference to the essence of what I was going to say: "The [...] Indo-Europeans, a nomadic culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, expanded in several waves during the 3rd millennium BC. Their expansion coincided with the taming of the horse." Basically, using horses as an overpowering advantage over others, the people living in the space that was later inhabited by Scytians spread all over, including westward. Not much room for "picking a place to come from", as I understand it.

I think that was a poor choice of phrase by me - what I meant was, how did the Scots (who definitely have historical roots in Ireland) get this idea from?

NB Scots in the sense of Dál Riata Scots, who eventually became the most powerful grouping in what became Scotland in the 9th century.


It seems your user name matches your hobby!

I suppose you have a point! Most people don't know the story of Arminius so I usually dont get any comments about it.

I just heard about it the other week via In Our Time on the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f69q

is your collection of images shared anywhere?

No, I'm not sure about copyright on most of them and how fair use would work for that. (I also have a map collection that is pretty awesome that suffers the same issue.)

That’s an interesting space. There should be a way to share just file hashes with a description and basic metadata for each of them, eg:

dea939...82f A scan of Newton’s personal notebook, page 13 (image from London Museum of History, 2013, 8000x6000 pixels)

That way people who like to build such collections would have ways to share and compare theirs, and see if they have anything missing from bigger datasets, etc. You could even imagine a wikimedia style commons to manage a repository of these hashes and associated metadata.

That's actually quite a brilliant idea! Now you have me thinking...

-One of my wife’s ancestors found a sword dating back some 1,300 years on the farm we currently live on, and it has caused lots of annoyances over the years.

The problem is that the national Norwegian archive of ancient artifact findings only register the property something is found on, not the exact location.

Hence, a hundred years after a sword was found in a mountainside a mile away from where we live, I have to obtain permission from an archaeologist every time I put a shovel in the ground, more or less...

The sword looks cool, though. (On display in a museum; no such thing as finder’s keepers for such old things - very rightly so!)

Do you have a link to the piece in the collection? I'd love to see it.

I’ll ask - I have to admit I’ve only seen it once - when at the museum, I asked kindly and a curator took mercy upon me, gave me a cup of coffee and proceeded to locate the sword from storage. I know a sizable part of the collection is being digitized - I’ll check!


How big is this farm?

-Not very big; approximately a square kilometer (.4 sqm) all told - most of which is forest and a mountainside. Some 30,000sqm arable land, all of which is maintained by neighbours who are active farmers -both my wife and I are engineers.

Can you divide the land so that the actual area it was found is on a different property?

A better headline is "Sword in Venetian monastery collection discovered to be 5,000 years old"

Accurate, but not as "grabby". Of course, I don't think the author was necessarily aiming for accuracy.

This seems to stretch the meaning of "discovered." Hey look, I just discovered a dinosaur at the natural history museum! It's older than they thought it was!

I'll take the opposite end and say it was discovered.

If you "discovered a dinosaur" that was completely mislabeled and of the oldest dinosaurs known to man "hiding in plain sight" - you deserve it.

Certainly it is a significant contribution, but I have to admit that my mental image when reading someone dicovered an ancient sword is of someone digging it out of the ground.

Well yes. From the article the digging out of the ground part likely happened but maybe a 100 years previously.

> Hey look, I just discovered a dinosaur at the natural history museum! It's older than they thought it was!

I mean, that actually happens, doesn't it? It's not that unusual for new species to be identified, misclassified in museums.

Uncovered? Refound?

I would like a better word, phrase for "sharing something that I just figured out, but didn't invent or create myself." Some thing like "News to me."

For instance, I'm currently "discovering" recipes for pumpkin pie. More of drunken sailor's walk thru an underspecified problem space.

It was discovered because no one really knew what it was before this.

Reminds me of the discovery of a 1,500 year old sword at the bottom of a lake thought to be King Arthur's legendary excalibur which was said to have been thrown in that same lake in Cornwall in England [0].

𝔄𝔫𝔡 𝔰𝔬 𝔶𝔢 𝔩𝔢𝔤𝔢𝔫𝔡 𝔬𝔣 𝔈𝔵𝔠𝔞𝔩𝔦𝔟𝔲𝔯 𝔴𝔞𝔰 𝔱𝔯𝔲𝔢...

[0] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/schoolgirl-e...

Where does it say that it is 1500 year old? The article says "the family doesn't think it is very old, probably an old film prop".

I first thought the previous comment was about that 8-year old girl in Sweden who found a 1500 year old sword:




(the puns never really end...)

Why are so many young girls finding viking age swords in lakes?

Because young girls discovering swords in other scenarios probably can't make its way onto news sites

Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government!

Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!

"Moistened bint" is still one of the most visceral phrases I've ever heard. Props to the Pythons for making archaic language offensive well beyond it's use by date.

"Strange women handing over swords is no basis for a system of government... You can't expect to wield Supreme Executive Power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!"

How did you make HN use that font? :)

Blackface letters are used in in mathematical notation, so it’s not so much a different font as an extremely broken equation.


Oops! Too late to edit :(

I wasn't even aware things were really made of metal before like 2,000 years ago. Crazy!

Is there a history of metal somewhere? Bronze, copper, tin, steal, gold, harvesting, forging, etc. It would be an interesting read of history, science, and discovery.

Wasn't 2000 years ago basically the height of the Roman Empire?

Yes, and 2000 years before that you have the Egyptians, who also had metal swords.

Wikipedia tells me that the earliest artifacts of metal comes from 7000 years ago.


People called Romane they go the 'ouse?

The Romans they go the house?

I suppose so, but that doesn't tell me anything.

Edit: Downvotes? I'm expressing my own naivety. Not everyone has intuition of the heights of empires and what that means for metal usage.

It's nearly impossible to grow up in Western culture (no experience with others) and not have some extremely basic Asterix-level understanding of what the Romans were and when they lived.

And that they basically copied large chunks of their own culture from Greece which invented democracy a few centuries earlier.

I mean, even Christian fundamentals have that context based on their lecture of the Christ saga.

It's all fundamentally what our own culture is based on in the West, just look at Washington DC and the buildings. Or Wall St. The Greco-Roman influence is permeating the West.

Sure this is true when you sit and explicitly consider all of it. My comment was more about the intuition of it all. A lot of people don't carry it in their head.

If you took a random sampling of American's and asked them "when did people start using metal," what do you think the average response would be? I'd expect the answers to range from one hundred years ago to a million years ago.

It's nearly impossible to grow up in Western culture and not have some extremely basic asterix-level understanding of geography, yet we have people who literally cannot name a single country on a map of the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umpalMtQE50

But if you made them pause and consider the map, and you highlighted the US and asked pointedly, "This is the US, right?" Probably most of them would correctly say yes.

This is the difference between highlighting and consideration vs. not. Many people (most?) aren't going to have the thought of "when did humans start using metal?" It's a very specific question. Until they really consider it, for many it will be assumed to be within some ridiculous range.

Have you pointedly considered every historical question in the universe? If not, what wildly incorrect assumptions might you be making about history? If there are any (there are), then you shouldn't be so judgmental of others' assumptions about some things.

To me, when I think of metal I think of computers, cars, train rail, braces, buildings. When I think old, I think stone. When I think Roman, I think old, therefore stone. "Height of the roman empire" doesn't even work in changing this perception. How long did the roman empire exist? (The assumption for falls into the same wild range predicament.) I guess they had metal coins, but did they have them the whole time if it was an empire that existed for a long time? Metal I guess was used in the middle ages right? So like, maybe towards the far-late stage of the Roman empire, like 500 AD?

It's just an unhelpful comment and criticism that comes from the perspective of believing everyone's brain should act like the commenter's.

The subtext is that the Romans weren't beating on each other with clubs.

You're making the same mistake. What did they use, spears? Can't you make spears from wood and stone?

I guess you must mean swords, but I feel that the subtext of your comments is humble-bragging how obvious these things are to you.

See my comment to your sibling comment by neuronic.

2000 years ago is an easy one. Hint: if you want to nail a guy to a cross, you'll need to work some metal!

Tangent, but I can't help but recall one of my favorite headlines and subheds in the Guardian, from a couple years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/19/experie...

Given that it's a bronze sword it seems fairly clear it wasn't medieval. Surprising that this took so long.

Blatantly mislabeled stuff being rediscovered in archives and dusty back shelves of museums is more the rule than the exception. It happens all the time. There's way more stuff collecting dust in museum archives than there are subject matter experts to review them.

For instance: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/09/historians-find-long...

Also, natural history museums are good places to discover new species.

- https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/meet-the-new-s...: “Helgen notes that two out of three new mammal species are discovered in museum collection cabinets”

- https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190925120420.h...: “New species of crocodile discovered in museum collections”

- http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141230-the-new-species-hidi...: “Here are five extraordinary new species that have been discovered in museums in recent years”

Why would that be clear? You can buy new bronze daggers today.

Because bronze was outdated by Roman times (let alone 1000 years later), and high quality weapons were prestigious.

You can get one now because it's fun.

I'm not a historian / archaeologist, so I can't really be sure here, but I would have assumed bronze would have been valued throughout history for-at least-it's appearance?

I also would have assumed the fun-factor has been a historical constant too? If you're wealthy enough, at any time since the bronze age, you might want a bronze version of [thing] for the same reasons people want a bronze [thing] now?

You raise an interesting point, and one that I have thought about quite often.

In archaeology, there seems to be an assumption that people in the past only ever did things for two reasons: Utility and religion. If an object doesn't seem to have an obvious usefulness, it's assumed that the artifact is of religious nature.

People have not changed much in the last few thousand years, and thins that we find interesting today must surely have been interesting in the past. In your example, why wouldn't a person 1000 years ago consider a replica "ancient thing" just as interesting as we do today?

Just imagine a future archaeologist looking at the modern work with the mindset of current archaeologists? What kind of religious symbolism would they ascribe to a picachu cosplay outfit?

Archaeologist here.

> In archaeology, there seems to be an assumption that people in the past only ever did things for two reasons: Utility and religion. If an object doesn't seem to have an obvious usefulness, it's assumed that the artifact is of religious nature.

> I wonder if archeologists actually do believe everything was either utilitarian or religious, or if that’s just the way it gets reported?

This is definitely now how archaeologists think. Archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. Our goal is to understand how people live through the lens of material culture, i.e. how people inhabit a world made out of stuff. Of course it is common to consider the pragmatic aspects regarding why weird things might have been created or the purposes that they might serve in people's lives, but chocking the unexplainable up to ritual or religion is just dumb and amateurish. No archaeologist I know actually does this. Archaeologists generally feel comfortable acknowledging that we can't explain certain things from our current standpoint, saying that it's ritual without a basis for that claim is just plain dumb and is never taken seriously. It is an extremely outdated trope.

> People have not changed much in the last few thousand years, and thins that we find interesting today must surely have been interesting in the past. In your example, why wouldn't a person 1000 years ago consider a replica "ancient thing" just as interesting as we do today?

Note in my definition of archaeology I don't focus on the past? That's intentional, since archaeologists very commonly examine contemporary material culture.

> Just imagine a future archaeologist looking at the modern work with the mindset of current archaeologists? What kind of religious symbolism would they ascribe to a picachu cosplay outfit?

As an archaeologist, my understanding is that pikachu products exist to make money for the people who sell pikachu products.

You need to understand that archaeologists are never working in the dark. We reason through an abductive process, like adding brushstrokes to a never-quite-complete painting (also similar to medical diagnosis). We'll never actually understand how people lived in the past, since it is impossible to verify any such claim. But we can come up with a reasonable understanding by slotting different streams of complementary evidence together.

In archaeology, there seems to be an assumption that people in the past only ever did things for two reasons: Utility and religion. If an object doesn't seem to have an obvious usefulness, it's assumed that the artifact is of religious nature.

This isn't really true at all. For example, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri[1] is an ancient rubbish dump full of all kinds of random documents. One of the more amusing ones is "The contract of a wrestler agreeing to throw his next match for a fee".

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxyrhynchus_Papyri

I wonder if archeologists actually do believe everything was either utilitarian or religious, or if that’s just the way it gets reported?

I find it difficult to believe archaeologists, who are themselves students of the liberal arts and sciences, can’t see what we’re talking about here.

Having said that, it’s possible archeology suffers from some sort of view-narrowing where you either tow the line or get laughed out of the room?

You can, but they're not practical weapons, either, really. Once decent ironworking was available, bronze became largely impractical for edged weapon manufacture, to the extent that you'd be unlikely to find one.

My understanding is that iron weapons were not greatly superior to bronze, just cheaper/easier to make.

This has some truth, but steel weapons were better than both.

High quality pattern welded[1] steel swords were available in Roman times from at least 150 BC[2], and by 600 AD were ubiquitous. They were later mostly replaced by easier steel production techniques.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_welding#Pattern_weldin...

[2] See the table of finds in https://www.tf.uni-kiel.de/matwis/amat/iss/kap_b/backbone/rb...

MUCH cheaper, once the technological transition was complete. To the extent that making a bronze weapon as an actual weapon wouldn't make sense. They're available now as effectively decorative items, but I'm pretty sure that's a 20th century phenomenon.

Appears to be more of a dagger, but you can't fault the ergonomics. Beautifully designed, and I would guess not just for ceremonial use.

> I would guess not just for ceremonial use.

The article has words to the effect that swords were "first forged[] both as weapons and as symbols of authority".

Of course that can't possibly be true. They were weapons first. Without the use as weapons, there would be no reason to see them as symbols of authority.

Isn't that what a crown is, though? It's not a weapon but it's a symbol of authority.

Weapons come before crowns etc.

Although crowns are presumably abstracted from helmets.

> Weapons come before crowns etc.

I don't think anyone suggested weapons didn't exist before these swords either?

In the Iliad (much more recent than this sword, but nonetheless informative in some ways), swords are symbolic of nothing. The text is very clear on what the symbol of royal authority is -- it's a club. ("Scepter")

I'd be pretty comfortable with the idea that clubs are no more recent than weapons in general.

I'm not sure that follows. If a sword was totally economically impractical for use as a weapon, to the extent that only the king gets one, but was clearly better than the contemporary weapons, it's not a weapon, it's a symbol of authority.

Unless the only people who had the resources to control the forges were those in authority.

Good point. That must be why swords and plows are both equally effective symbols of authority.

Forges have always produced utilitarian items for the common man. If, hypothetically, the only thing you could make out of metal was useless, non-weapon swords... then once again there would be no reason to do it at all.

Just because you control what comes out of the forge doesn't mean you there is material scarcity. What doesn't scream authority like making a sharp and regal piece of metal for no other reason than to display it. It's like you've never heard of jewellery.


*mislabeled at a Venetian monastery's museum, which was full of stuff from (various definitions of Armenia).

> Two years worth of research confirmed the sword is among the most ancient ones ever found, dating as far back as 5,000 years ago.

Two years? But, I have seen Hollywood movies that they just need a magnifying glass and 5 minutes to get a conclusion.

There goes another myth. Science and history are complicated and require more effort and time that movies are willing to concede.

I always laugh when stealing research data of ongoing work is an import plot point. Making sense of it can be hard for the person who wrote it, let alone a close colleague, but a stranger? Haha, good luck.

Fiction aside, funding makes a difference here. Give non military science funds comparable to hollywood movies and we'll likely go from 2 years to a few months.

AIUI, they could get a good impression pretty quickly, but if you're publishing, you want to be _sure_.

Actually getting permission to do the required testing also probably took a while.

That might make the movies a little too long.

How does one get better at noticing that something is "off" like this sword not matching its claimed origin? To me, it took more than student being an expert here. Experts often miss things like this in my experience if they're not paying attention for it. I'm assuming that the student was the a tour not in her capacity as a Bronze age weapons specialist, so if that's true then this wasn't necessarily something she would be paying attention for.

When I notice that something is off, it's usually a fleeting thought that quickly passes. Sometimes when I notice that something is off a second time, I'll realize that I didn't "catch" the thought the first time. I think I've been getting better at catching those thoughts and writing them down. I'm also confident that there are methods to increase the frequency by which one catches these things, though I'm not certain how.

I'm making a guess here, but mindfulness and being 'awake' (bit vague terms I know) would do it I think; I believe so many people walked past that sword without really paying much attention to it - oh it's an old sword in a display case (I think?), neat. In a place like that, and I get the same thing in historical museums, you get so much things coming at you that it's hard to take it all in - let alone think critically about it.

I'm guessing she took more than a quick glance at the sword and the blurb.

Well, in this case, I don't think it was a subtle "something is off." The sword matched a specific pattern that she was very familiar with from her studies. She recognised it.

It seems like in this case, there was a vague description that didn't align with her acute knowledge of a very specific/esoteric subject. Her father was an archival researcher at the monastery. So to get better at this, a good path would probably be to develop general critical observation skills, as well as a deep understanding of particular subjects that you'd be exposed to.

I think you may be misreading the term "father" in this context. It's not that the grad student's literal biological father is a researcher at the monastery. One of the priests/monks, who carry the honorific title Father[0], is an archival researcher in the monastery.

[0] https://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/d003rpHowToAddre...

Woops, looks like you're right about that.

I know that this is more of an announcement of the recognition of the misattribution of an artifact in the museum’s collection, but I am more curious of it’s provenance; specifically, how it made its way into the museum’s collection. And what its original archaeological context was.

The article says a former student, a civil engineer, donated it. Read TFA to see all the details.

Ah yes. And now I see the read more button. Thanks.

Looks like a sword from Zelda 1.

Way higher resolution though...

LOL, maybe they got the idea from this historical sword.

Looks more like a dagger tbh

Fascinating that there's so much metal used in the handle rather than using a tang inside a wooden handle.

If it's a device for showing off rather than an actual weapon, as seems likely given the age, then more bronze equals more important king!

It probably has to do with the balance of the weapon?

Whats even cooler is that this sword/dagger might have been made from meteorite. Eg. It could be alien.

Doubt there are bronze meteorites known to humanity.

Either way, copper, the major component of bronze, is a product of exploding supernovas. That's cool enough.

It's in great shape.

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