Rapiers and Dirks

Rapiers and dirks are two-edged bladed weapons with the upper end of the blade widening into a flat butt or hilt-plate with rivet-holes or notches for attaching a hilt. Typologically they have been divided into four groups. The remains of hilts often consist of bone, ivory and horn. The only difference between a dirk and a rapier is that a Rapier is over 30cm long and therefore considered to be more of a thrusting weapon and a Dirk is under 30cm and so more useful for stabbing. However it is often difficult to identify whether a blade is a dirk or a rapier as they are frequently found in a fragmentary state.

Experimental archaeology has also indicated that dirks and rapiers could have been cast in the same mould so the distinction between the two is not a particularly useful one.

Some rapiers could have been used as weapons but the fragility of a number of them, especially the ones found in rivers and bogs and other 'wet' contexts, indicates that perhaps they were votive offerings and not created to be used as weapons. Many dirks and rapiers show evidence of reworking and additional rivet holes and notches perhaps showing that they were of high value as they were not simply thrown away when damaged.

Group I

Example: WG.2062

Date: 1550-1400 BC
Distribution: In the UK the majority are found in Ireland however those with a single groove are mainly found in Southern and Eastern England. A concentration have been found in the Thames.
Comment: Most Group I dirks and rapiers are between 20-30cm and so the majority can be classed as dirks. They have a rounded mid rib which may be surrounded by grooves, channels and ribs and can be classified further by the presence or absence of these decorations. Mostly they have two rivet holes but there can be more. The provenance of many Group I dirks and rapiers is unknown although over 90% are single finds. Most of the weapons in this Group have a water patina (tarnish) indicating that they were deposited in watery contexts such as rivers and bogs.

Group II

Example: NMS-B87B95


Date: 1550 - 1350BC
Distribution: More numerous in Ireland than England and Wales and concentrated in Northern and Central Ireland. Found all over England and Scotland but concentrated in the Thames and Fens of East Anglia.
Comment: Group II weapons are generally undecorated, have a central mid ridge, two rivet holes, poorly formed shoulders and trapezoidal butts. They vary greatly in length but are generally between 20-40cm and evidence suggests that many of them may have had horn hilts. They have a lozenge shaped-cross section. Many blades show a water patina (tarnish) and so must have been deposited in damp areas. These blades are mainly single finds and unprovenanced. A number of Group II blades seem to be in perfect condition and so perhaps were votive deposits.

Group III

Example: IOW-D28401
Date: 1400 - 1250 BC
Distribution: More commonly found in England than Ireland. In England Group III weapons are most common in the Thames and East Anglia
Comment: Group III blades are defined by a triple-arris, which means that the middle ridge on the blade (also known as an arris) has two flanking ridges running either side of it therefore creating a three ridged blade. Mostly they only have two rivets and trapezoidal butts. There are many different types and variants. These weapons are much longer than those from Group I and II and are mostly rapiers of over 30cm with some reaching almost 80cm. They are also considered to be the most elegant and are often found in good condition in watery contexts indicating they could be votive offerings. The dirks and rapiers of Group III found in hoards are generally hoards made up exclusively of dirks and rapiers.

Group IV

Example: WILT-F28F12
Date: 1400 - 1150 BC
Distribution: A number of types of Group IV blades are more common in Britain while other types are more numerous in Ireland. Concentrations of Group IV blades have been discovered in the Thames and East Anglia
Comment: Group IV blades have flattened or slightly rounded central sections and they can be divided into two main butt forms. Firstly there is the large trapezoidal butts, know also as an archaic form with corner rivet-holes. Secondly there are the blades with smaller butts and rivet-holes lower down. These dirks and rapiers are similar to the other Groups as they are mainly single finds found in watery deposits and therefore possibly votive offerings. However they are different from Group I, II and III in that they are far more numerous and a larger proportion of Group IV blades have been found in hoards.

References

  • Burgess, C., and Gerloff, S. 1981. The Dirks and Rapiers of Great Britain and Ireland. Munchen: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchandlung
  • O'Connor, B. (1980) Cross Channel Relations in the Later Bronze Age. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports S91