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  The Groatsetter Bronze Age Sword

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 of preservation.

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.

As this timber has never grown in Orkney, it would appear that the sword, or at least the timber to create it, was imported.

The 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.

According 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 sword for?

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.

The 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.

See Also

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The Ewart Park phase of the Bronze Age dates from the 9th century BC and is characterised by the general use of lead-alloyed metal, a wider range of products, and a proliferation of hoards, mainly of scrap metal or 'ritual' deposits.
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