Andrew Welton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History used his 2014 Rothman Doctoral Fellowship to travel to the United Kingdom and explore important museum collections, research libraries, and collect data from the field. This research furthered his dissertation project exploring the ancient artifacts, specifically medieval spears, of early Anglo-Saxon England. In his talk, “Spears, Smiths, and Iron in Anglo-Saxon England,” Welton discusses how raw materials, weapons, and the men who crafted them were intricately woven together in early medieval society. Spears were more than passive objects to be used by the soldier; they were social objects which possessed a unique and valuable agency. By considering the social lives of spears, Welton shows that new questions can be posed about the relationship of archaeology to history, as well as the relationship of material objects to social practice.
The social life of a spear is perhaps best revealed by its death. Welton’s examination of metallographic studies of spearheads, in conjunction with an analysis of Anglo-Saxon burial practices, reveals that buried weapons need not always indicate high social status as is usually assumed. Burial with an unreliable or ineffective weapon may, indeed, reflect negatively on the identity of the individual with whom it is interred. The smiths who forged weapons lacked the technology to consistently create homogenous iron alloys. Consequently, the forging process was unpredictable, and a smith’s success had to be proven through experience and use of the weapon. Spears and swords that were proven in battle often became family heirlooms, and their successful performance imbued them with personalities. The Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, indicates that successful, strong weapons were sometimes given names. Thus, successful spears may have acquired personalities and legacies. The nature of these legacies – whether success or failure – can sometimes be inferred from the metallurgy of the surviving spearhead, and must be considered when determining its significance within the burial rite. Burial with a spear whose poor quality was known to its user may not have indicated the status or worth of the spear or, for that matter, the body it accompanied, but rather its failure.
By showing how weapons possess their own personality and achievements, this project indicates that our engagement with material objects is not only utilitarian. Material objects, including spears, are agents that affect human history. Our engagement with these objects shapes us as much as we shape them. It also shows that historical analysis can benefit from an in-depth examination of material objects, which has traditionally been left to the field of archaeology.
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