PREHISTORIC WEAPONS

Wednesday, December 18, 2013



The enemy attacks! Full-blown battles were fought at the time of the Tollund Man. More illustrations. © Niels Bach

Among the earliest and most widespread of man's weapons is the spear. Originally it was merely a wooden pole with one end sharpened with a stone or piece of bone, but once palaeolithic man had discovered fire, some 500,000 years ago, charring was also used to harden and sharpen the tip. The next stage was to insert pieces of stone or bone in order to reinforce the point, and then to fit a stone head. From a very early period there were two types of spear, thrusting and throwing. The throwing spear, or javelin, tended to be lighter and in order to increase its range a device called the spear thrower was introduced. This acted as a lever and was a piece of shaped wood, bone or horn with a hook or recess into which the end of the spear fitted. 

Two of man's other original weapons are the club and the axe. The club was originally made of hardwood, the head being larger than the handle. Like the tip of the spear, the head was then reinforced with stone. The original axe was made entirely of stone, simply an almond-shaped head sharpened by flaking. In about 3500 BC the wooden haft or handle was introduced, being attached to the stone head by means of bent wood, horn sockets, lashing and gum. Then, during the neolithic or New Stone Age era, 7000-2000 BC, the art of grinding, polishing and drilling of stone was developed, which radically increased the effectiveness of the axe, both as a tool and as a weapon of war. The head was now often fitted to the handle by means of a circular hole drilled through it, known as the `eye'. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the bow was already in existence around 15000 BC. It was first developed by the Mediterranean civilizations, and was taken up in northern Europe during the ninth millennium. From the start, yew, because of its good tensile characteristics, was the preferred wood, although in colder climates, where yew did not grow, elm and occasionally pine were used. Most bows were man-sized, and by the third millennium the composite bow, strengthened with horn and sinews, was in use in some regions. The string was normally made with plaited leather strips. Stone arrowheads were used, and the arrow itself was straightened by passing it through a hole drilled in bone or horn. In order to obtain arrows of standard size-important in terms of accuracy-they were shaved by means of a hollow tube cut as grooves in a split stone. The other basic weapon was the slingshot, a spherically shaped stone which was projected from a leather sling, which the firer whirled above his head in a circular motion in order to impart increased velocity to the stone.


Late Ice Age hunting technology
Knecht's (1994) study of the evolution of Upper Palaeolithic projectile points has shown in detail how people adapted to the ice age environment and to the animals available for hunting. It has also demonstrated advanced conceptual abilities among these people and an acute awareness of the physical properties of the raw materials that were available. Knecht was able to illustrate technological progress towards more efficient, flexible spears. Another major consideration in the gradual changes in material and design was the ease of repair whilst away from camp. She also carried out experiments using a goat carcass to test the velocity and efficiency of the spearpoints as hunting weapons. Her findings corroborate those from Stellmoor. Flint points propelled by bow, spear-thrower or unaided human muscles were formidable weapons, capable of penetrating animal tissue and bone. The hunting of large, dangerous prey could be carried out effectively and more safely from a distance.



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