Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian weapons: Edged weapons - battle axe, sword, spear

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Edged weapons


The battle axe

    One distinguishes between two kinds of battle axe: the cutting and the piercing axe. Both were used by Egyptian soldiers, but under different circumstances.

Soldier with shield and cutting axe - Source: 'Weapons of the Ancient World' by R.Gonen     The cutting axe is a blade fastened to a sizable handle, the idea being to keep as far as possible from harm's way. As relatively little power was exerted the affixing of the blade to the handle was not very critical. The head was generally inserted into a hole or groove in the wooden handle and tied fast.
    The cutting axe is effective against enemies who do not wear body armour and helmets, as was the custom in Africa, Egypt included. It disappeared as armour became more prevalent, which happened later in Egypt than in Asia, where as early as the 3rd millennium BCE Sumerians are depicted wearing helmets.

The use of the cutting battle axe - Source: 'Weapons in the Ancient World' by R.Gonen     Infantry armed with battle axes was typically deployed after the enemy had been weakened by archers. The axe was more effective in cutting wounded or fleeing enemies to pieces than it was of use in breaching an intact battle line.
    The Hyksos, Asiatics themselves, are credited with having introduced scale body armour into Egypt and brought about changes in the form of the battle axe there by the middle of the 2nd millennium.

Battle axe head, excerpt - Source: 'Ancient Egypt' by L.Casson     The piercing axe was designed to penetrate armour, above all helmets. In Asiatic cultures this brought about a change in the way the blade was connected to the handle. The blade was cast with an eye through which the handle could be inserted. In Egypt on the other hand they continued to use the old method of fixing the blade to the handle in a mortise and tenon fashion.
    But even the adaptation of the axe to piercing armour could not prevent its falling into disuse. By the end of the New Kingdom it had been replaced by the sword.

The sword

    Unlike the other arms used by the ancient Egyptians, swords were a direct consequence of the introduction of metal. There are no stone predecessors of this kind of weapon. Axes, arrows and spears have a long wooden handle or shaft and a small cutting or piercing head which was fashioned of flint during the Neolithic.
Ramses III wielding a sickle shaped sword     Swords on the other hand have short wooden or ivory handles and long cutting edges, which could only be achieved with a metal harder than copper. Bronze, easier to cast than copper and significantly harder, was first used for making swords. Its natural temper could be further augmented by repeated heating and cooling and hammering.
    An early kind of sword was the khepesh or khopesh, a sicklesword introduced into Egypt from the Levant during the early New Kingdom, when the Egyptians came into contact with the Canaanites. It was short, had a bent blade, and was used for slashing. It went out of fashion during the 19th dynasty.

Ramses III wielding a sickle shaped sword

    The Sea Peoples, who clashed with the Egyptians in the 13th century BCE, may have learned their techniques from the metallurgically advanced peoples in eastern Europe. Under their influence longer swords of up to 75 centimetres began to be forged. They moreover favoured a straight, two-edged blade with a sharp point, which replaced to some extent the curved Egyptian swords.
    It was with improvements in the production and working of iron that the sword became the main weapon of the ancient infantry all around the Mediterranean. Less brittle than bronze, iron weapons could be made thinner and lighter and still retain their strength.
    Maces and axes were effective because of the weight of their heads, the length of their handles, and the force of the fighter; swords favoured the swordsman with the better technique. Precision of movement and the timing of the strike could give even physically less than overwhelming soldiers an edge over much stronger opponents.

Sherden bronze sword Sherden bronze sword missing its tip, length 48 cm
Mew Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum, UC16340

    Swords can be used for either cutting or stabbing. The blades of Egyptian cutting swords were bent and wide designed for slicing, while the swords of the Sea Peoples were straight, with stabbing the preferred way of fighting.
    In the late New Kingdom troop contingents were issued with either of these kinds of sword and deployed accordingly, if contemporary depictions can be trusted to be realistic. In the army of Ramses III for instance, Sherden and Philistine mercenaries armed with pointed piercing swords preceded native Egyptian soldiers with curved cutting swords. The Sea People shock troops breached the ranks of their Libyan opponents who were then cut to pieces by the Egyptians.

Egyptians wielding cutting swords, Sherden and Philistine mercenaries using piercing swords - Source: 'Weapons in the Ancient World' by R.Gonen
Egyptians wielding cutting swords, Sherden and Philistine mercenaries using piercing swords
Source:R.Gonen, Weapons in the Ancient World

    There is some controversy concerning the way New Kingdom swords were used. The bent Egyptian khopesh may have been developed from the battle-axe or the sickle and its form is reminiscent of it. Depictions generally show a warrior - often the pharaoh - with the khopesh raised and ready to slash an enemy.[1] Belonging to a different tradition European swords were straight, developments of the knife. The earliest swords were tapered along their whole length and ended in a sharp point. They were light-weight, with the centre of gravity close to the handle and were probably employed mainly for stabbing. The swords used by the Sea Peoples during the New Kingdom on the other hand were more massive, and it has been claimed that they were mainly used for cutting rather than thrusting.[2]  
Iron sword, probably Late Period; Source: Petrie Museum website
Iron sword fragments, blade length more than 70 cm
Probably Late Period
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC34339

    Late Period swords were made of iron, were the same width throughout apart from the tip and were without doubt mostly used for cutting.

Gold dagger and scabbard belonging to  Tutankhamen Gold dagger and scabbard belonging to Tutankhamen
Source: Ägypten, Schatzkammer der Pharaonen, Bechtermünz Verlag

    Scabbards were known, though seemingly rarely used. Some had little metal eyes with which they could be fastened to a belt (see magnification). Others were made of leather or some other perishable material and reinforced with metal edges to prevent the blade from cutting through the scabbard.

The spear

Hunter holding spear - excerpt from a photo of the Hunters' Palette - Source: 'Weapons of the Ancient World' by R.Gonen     The spear was used since earliest times for hunting. In its form of javelin it was displaced early on by the bow and arrow. It continued to be employed as a lance in the hunt of lions and bulls, having a longer reach than other handheld weapons.

Hunter holding spear - excerpt from a photo of the Hunters' Palette
Source: R.Gonen, Weapons of the Ancient World

    In war it did not gain the importance among New Kingdom Egyptians which it was to have in classical Greece, where phalanxes of spear carrying citizens fought each other and later defeated the Persians.
    There is no evidence of spears from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, though one suspects that such an effective weapon, easily manufactured and used, was never completely abandoned. During the New Kingdom it was often an auxiliary weapon of the charioteers, who were thus not left unarmed after spending all their arrows. It was also most useful in their hands when they chased down fleeing enemies stabbing them in their backs. Amenhotep II's victory at Shemesh-Edom in Canaan is described at Karnak

...... Behold His Majesty was armed with his weapons, and His Majesty fought like Set in his hour. They gave way when His Majesty looked at one of them, and they fled. His majesty took all their goods himself, with his spear.....
Karnak Stela of Amenhotep II
W.M.Flinders Petrie A History of Egypt, Part Two, p.155
The spear was appreciated enough to be depicted in the hands of Ramses III killing a Libyan. It remained short and javelin like, just about the height of a man, unlike the Macedonian lance of later times which was three to four times as long.
    In the Late Period the Egyptians began adopting weapons and tactics prevalent among the other Mediterranean nations; in the war between Cyrus and Croesus huge numbers of Egyptian spearmen were involved [3]:
... a body of Egyptians were coming by sea, amounting--so said the Indians--to 120,000 men, armed with long shields reaching to their feet, huge spears (such as they carry to this day), and sabres.
Xenophon: Cyropaedia, Translated by H. G. Dakyns
Gutenberg Project
According to Xenophon they fought in squares one hundred men wide and one hundred deep.
Their spears were immensely stout and long, such as they carry to this day, and the huge shield not only gave more protection than corslet and buckler, but aided the thrust of the fighter, slung as it was from the shoulder. Shield locked into shield, they thrust their way forward; and the Persians could not drive them back, with their light bucklers borne on the forearm only.
Xenophon: Cyropaedia, Translated by H. G. Dakyns
Gutenberg Project

[1] One should be wary of the realism of Egyptian pictures. The image of Ramses III (above) shows the king in a triumphal rather than a combative stance, similar to the many depictions where the pharaoh wields a mace, e.g. Seti I, stela of Amadeh
[2] Lafayette C.Curtis has kindly provided me with material concerning the development of European Bronze Age swords, from which I'd like to quote a short passage:
The stabbing sword, though considerable skill was needed for its correct use, was a primitive form of the weapon; its thrusting properties were the result of its weakness and inadequacy, not a manifestation of skilful swordsmanship of a very sophisticated kind on the part of the men who used it. The fashioning of a cut-and-thrust sword which did not come apart in the hand when someone was hit with it was an advance in sword-cutlery, not a regression. More evidence that a deliberate, thought-out advance was made from stabbing to cut-and-thrust is provided by an analysis of the metal from which these swords were made. This has shown that in the early Bronze Age the alloy of the stabbing swords contained on an average 9.4% of tin, whereas the later ones contained 10.6%. This alloy may be compared with the gun-metal from which nineteenth-century cannon barrels were made, than which it would be difficult to find anything more tough - an alloy of copper with between 8.25% and 10.7% of tin. Equally tough, then, were the swords of the later Bronze Age - quite stout enough to stand up to the wear-and-tear of cutting.
E. Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry
[3] I'd like to thank Lafayette C.Curtis for drawing my attention to this development.

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