Legend has it that there was once a fierce battle between Viking marauders and the native population somewhere in south-east Dartmoor. It raged on for hours and hours; swords and shields smashed against each other in a scene worthy of Peter Jackson, and much blood was spilled on both sides with hundreds of people left slain. Eventually, however, the natives were victorious, forcing the Vikings to flee back to their longships. There is a “pool”, not much more than a marsh now, said to mark the spot of this battle, from which one might still hear the sounds of the dead and at times it will turn red with the memory of their blood. From this pool in 1854, they retrieved a set of bronze spears…
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the chance to go and handle this set of spears for quite some time and this week I finally got my wish! It also has perhaps the most fantastic name of any hoard out there, on account of having been found in the eerily-named “Bloody Pool”, on Dartmoor and thus it became the Bloody Pool hoard. That and the legend attributed to the area make it a fascinating case study. The hoard of 4 incomplete spearheads (in 6 pieces) and 4 ferrules found are clearly Bronze Age, not Viking, but all good legends have to start somewhere.
Local (awesome) legends and fanciful speculations aside, this hoard is an important part of my research as all the objects have been deliberately broken before deposition. Late Bronze Age (1100-800 BC) hoards of broken weapons are not uncommon in Britain, and are often considered to represent the sacrifice of an enemy’s arms repertoire. The significance of these for me, however, is that this hoard represents the only weapon hoard in my study region and is of some of the most fantastic spears known in Bronze Age Britain (at least in my opinion!): Barbed Spearheads.
Barbed spearheads do what they say on the tin – they are large leaf-shaped socketed spears with barbs at the end that range around 20-30 cm long. Ideas about the purpose of these spears have varied drastically from fishing and hunting spears to objects of ceremony and ritual. They are frequently found broken and the Bloody Pool ones are no exception. One spearhead, now unfortunately lost, was found in three disconnected pieces, while the other two have been broken through the socket and across the blade. The edges seems to have been deliberately damaged, with signs of extensive notching and burring and it’s hard to imagine how these great things would break by accident. A fourth spearhead, of the Late, Pegged variety, was also broken, though its socket is intact. Handling the remains in RAMM was terrific as you really get a sense of the size and feel of them.
Interestingly, no one has ever tried to replicate them, despite such debate about their use, and with any luck this will be one of my major contributions to the field. If it pleases the funding Gods, I should be able to commission at least two of these to be produced and subject them to a variety of uses (a Viking marauder battle comes to mind…) before destroying them by whatever means my imagination conjures up (Spoiler alert: I’m probably going to hit them with a hammer)
While these spears are not the legendary Viking weapons people once believed them to be, they do represent an incredible piece of Bronze Age (pre-)history. Whether this was a ritualised metaphor for ending your enemies, or a ceremonial offering to the gods, one can really envisage the act of deliberate deforming and breaking these objects before depositing them into a watery grave. And this is a pattern that extends beyond the South West, beyond even the British Isles, and occurred throughout Europe.
*Update* Since writing this post I have in fact had replicas produced of the Bloody Pool barbed spearheads.
As always, I must thank Tom Cadbury at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, without whom I wouldn’t have half as interesting blog posts – if you want to see this hoard, it’s on display there! Also if anyone wants to read a more in-depth interpretation of the Bloody Pool legend, head over to Legendary Dartmoor: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/bloody_pool.htm