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Open Day at the Rollright Stones

IMG_1611On August bank holiday in 2017 I was privileged to be asked to be a Neolithic woman at the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. The Rollright Stones are made up of several monuments that may have been erected over several hundred years in the Neolithic and potentially early Bronze Age too. There is a stone circle, the remains of the stone chamber of a long barrow, also known as the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone, the King stone, which is now across the road from the rest. There is a wonderful legend about the stones about the king being tricked by a witch and his whole host being turned to stone.

It was a hot day so I tried to keep to the shade, and enjoyed showing people how to boil water using hot stone technology, demonstrating back-strap weaving with nettle fibre and a little bit of flint-knapping. Children and their families also tried out grinding grain on a flat quern and making pots.

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A sword is a sword is a sword – right?

Wrong.

IMG_0461I’ve been practising HEMA (historic European martial arts) for a couple of years now (i.e. not very long) and have tried my hand at sword and buckler, longsword (that’s me with a nylon longsword on the right) and backsword. All of these types of swordplay have manuals from about 1300 AD onwards to help us work out what people were doing with them at the time they were used. Of course, their use would have varied depending on whether they were used in judicial fights, duels or by soldiers in an army. What I hadn’t fully realised until recently was that each sword demands slightly different play partly because they all have different defences for the hands.

As you reach out to lay a blow or thrust on your opponent, your hands are the nearest target for your opponent to hit. With the sword and buckler that small metal shield is there mainly to protect this outstretched hand. With longsword, the protection comes in the form of quillons, as well as how you play with the sword in contact with your opponents for most of the time. With a backsword, which is played one-handed, there is more of a swept hilt that provides a little more protection for that hand, but not against thrusts, which is because it’s more of a slashing weapon.

Recently (like in the last two weeks) we have started to play with round shields in the Viking or Anglo-Saxon style. While there are no manuals for this period there are hints in sources and body mechanics to go on, and the capabilities of the weapons themselves (Roland Warzecha’s YouTube channel has useful tips – see embedded video below). Swords of this time do not have very prominent quillons or crossguards, and one of the main threats is therefore sliding down the sword to snipe at the hands. Only by being in constant motion and reacting to the feeling of your opponent’s blade and shield on yours can you hope to control their blade and not get hit. Every now and then something clicks for me when playing with swords and this was one moment. I have to admit it was after being hit on both thumbs that it came to me!

I would very much like to try out similar techniques with prehistoric swords, which also have very little crossguard, and the round or oval leather or wood shields of which only a few have been found. Bronze Age swords were generally much shorter than later iron swords because they were cast, not hammered. Bronze cools and hardens very quickly so there was a limit to the length of the sword that could be made (thanks to Brett Thorn of Bucks County Museum for that insight). Because of the size, did they have to be played out in longpoint, thereby making the hands more of a target? Or, like in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period would the shield be the primary weapon? Something to find out.

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Going further back in time to middle Bronze Age rapiers (nothing at all like later rapiers) they are actually tangless swords. Because of this they could not make a lateral cutting motion, but had to be thrusting weapons. Perhaps this meant that hands were not such a target, but this is something to play with. This is a good description of these earlier swords and the development of swords up to Viking times. There is so much more fun to be had with swords!

Ötzi’s tattoos, my tattoos

Last year I finally decided to get the tattoos I had wanted for ages. It’s a big step, to commit to letting someone permanently mark your skin, but as I nervously brushed my teeth that morning I caught sight of the little crossed scars that I bear on my stomach from a couple of laparoscopies. I had not particularly wanted those marks on my body, but they were there. It was time I chose what was emblazoned into my skin.

It was Ötzi who sealed my fate as an archaeologist when he was discovered in 1991. At the same time as I was enthralled with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I was amazed by the incredible preservation of this man from the Alps, down to his tattoos and even pubic hair. Now, Ötzi has 61 separate tattoos, apparently, and I was never going to recreate them all, particularly as many would be on areas of my body that never see the light of day. So I chose three sets that I could most easily show to people.

There are two rough lines on his right wrist that some have suggested are not tattoos at all but the marks of a tight band wound round his wrist, but if that’s the case, why are they just on the upper surface of the arm? Then I chose a cross on the outside edge of my knee joint and three circles on my ankle. Ötzi actually has two but I decided on one circle for every member of my immediate family.

One of the most fascinating things about Ötzi’s tattoos is that many of them fall on acupuncture points that are used to relieve joint pain. Sure enough, from x-rays of his bones, the tattooed joints seem to suffer from osteoarthritis. So the tattoos were medicinal. This is how I interpret my tattoos to children and adults alike when I dress as a prehistoric person. I am my own replica object.

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