Among the many artefacts uncovered in the parish of
St Andrews over the years, a Bronze
Age wooden sword is unique in Orkney.
The blade was
found in June 1957, near the Tankerness farm of Groatsetter - also found recorded
as Grotsetter, or Grotster, which are simply transcriptions of the Orcadian pronunciation
of the name.
Like the Orkney
Hood, the Groatsetter sword was uncovered in a heavily peated area of the
parish - the anaerobic conditions undoubtedly leading to its remarkable state
The farmer of Groatsetter, Mr Robert Petrie,
was cutting peats close to the Burn o' Blown, when his tusker (peat cutting tool)
struck something solid. Checking the face of the bank he saw what appeared to
be a wooden sword securely embedded in the peat - over seven feet from the top
of the bank.
The leaf-shaped blade was a replica of a Ewart
Park type sword - a style of early British bronze sword found from 980-790 BC.
Measuring 70 centimetres long (2ft 4in), it was carved from yew wood.
this timber has never grown in Orkney, it would appear that the sword,
or at least the timber to create it, was imported.
sword has been carbon-dated by the National Museums of Scotland and dates from
between 900BC and 815BC.
The full length of the sword was
31.3 inches (79.5 cm); what remained of the hilt measured 3 inches (7.6cm). The
'blade' at the thickest part measured 6 inches (15.2cm) in circumference and tapered
to thin edges, terminating in a sharp point.
to The Orcadian newspaper on June 20, 1957, the sword:
"has been at one time highly polished, and is in excellent preservation.
Part of the handle has been broken off. Dividing the handle from the blade there
is a sign of decorative carving."
Although the weapon's
"blade" was in a remarkable state of repair, the hilt was considerably
worn and polished through repeated use. This seems to imply that although the sword was handled
regularly, it was not used for anything that would damage the blade. It continued
to be used after the pommel broke off.
So what was the
It has been suggested that the sword was used
as a real weapon - an imitation bronze sword in a place where bronze, and bronze
artefacts, were relatively scarce. Alternatively, it could have been a wooden practice weapon.
But as you will see
from above, the wooden blade was undamaged, which seems to discount
any active use as a weapon - training or otherwise.
Another possibility is that
it was a "master" which was used to create clay moulds for the casting
of swords. But
why have a mould where there appears to have been a scarcity of bronze? And where
are any of the blades made from it? These two questions, together with the fact
that any sword made from a mould of the Groatsetter Sword would have been large,
unwieldy and used a large amount of precious metal, seems to discount this idea.
final theory is that it had a ritual, or ceremonial,
purpose. Although it may well have been created for the simple purpose of training, somehow it found its way to Orkney, where it may well have assumed the role of a status-symbol. An item carried to impress.
The sword's actual purpose remains lost
to time, as do a number of other questions. Was it created in Orkney? Was it a
gift? Plundered? Traded?
And was its place in the peat-bog
actually an offering to the gods, or was it simply dropped and lost?
Its discovery fits with the idea that water
was an element considered special to the early inhabitants of the islands.
Was the blade deposited ceremonially in the peat-bog, perhaps as an offering to
the spirits, gods or the otherworld?
This is highly possible, given other
examples of votive deposits we now know about. One thing is for sure, however.
The wear and tear evident on the sword shows it was not created simply for use
as an offering. It had been in use for some time, and continued to be used after
the hilt broke.