Daggers found in shaft graves during the bronze age

Daggers found in shaft graves during the bronze age

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     The ornamental daggers of the late bronze age found in the shaft graves at Mycenae, that date between 1550, and 1500 B.C. were made by Cretans for the mainland market. Even though these daggers were made in Crete none have ever been found there. Some other places where similar daggers have been found are the island of Thera, Vapheio, Pylos, and the Argire Heraeum. This shows that there was trade among all of those places during the time period that the daggers were made. Most of the daggers were found in grave circle A at Mycenae.
How they were made
     The men who made the daggers found in the shaft graves were very skilled craftsmen. They showed contrast of color and of relief with the decoration of their work. On both sides of the daggers was a slotted silver or gold plate which would be decorated before being put on. They would decorate the plates with gold, silver, copper, alloys, and another technique known as niello. Niello is a black metallic alloy of sulphur, copper, silver, and usually lead, used as an inlay on engraved metal. It is considered painting in metal. The metal surface is brushed with a borax solution as a flux to help distribute the heat evenly, dusted with powdered niello, then heated. After cooling, the surface is scraped and shows a black pattern in the incised lines. The Egyptians are credited with originating niello decoration, which was practiced in classical times, spread throughout Europe during the middle ages, and came into high repute in the 15th century(Encyclopedia Britannica). Even though Egypt came up with the idea, you must note that it is native work, and not merely an imported article. (Web page, 7) The attitude of the figures and of the lions, and the form of the cat, are such as no Egyptian would have executed.(Web page, 7) After the plates were decorated, they used rivets rather than a soldering technique to put the parts together. They also used the technique of inlaying on the daggers when adding the gold portions. They would cut a narrow strip of gold from a thin sheet. Then they would make undercuts and dovetails wherever the gold would be going. After that they would then put the strip of gold over the undercuts, and use a hammer and a small wedge to bang the gold in.
Decorations used on the daggers

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     Out of all the decoration seen on these daggers, the lion is the most used. Other forms such as gazelles, human figures, ducks, leopards, dolphins, fish, grass, and rocks, are also shown on some of the daggers. All of the lions on the daggers, share broad planes, flame like locks of hair, and mask-like faces. But why were lions used so frequently on these daggers? One reason is that the lions convey great power and spirit (Younger). Emily Vermuele had another thought when she said, lions were not difficult for the goldsmiths to make, since the contours are standard and the inner details are simplified”(Vermeule).She thought that it may have been because the lion figures were easier to make than others. On one dagger, three gold lions seem to be running down the sword. Their figures are accentuated by the outlining of niello around their edges. On another dagger, a herd of gazelles is being attacked by a lion. He catches one near the hilt of the sword, as the others run away. One of the gazelles seems to be looking back in fear. On another part, four men with shields, bows, and spears, attack three lions. Two of the lions seem to be escaping down the side of the dagger, but it looks like the third, has killed one hunter, and is going after the rest. On another dagger, is a scene of leopards hunting ducks by a river with fish, and a border of papyrus. These designs weren’t put on these daggers for no reason. The dagger shows a very sophisticated narration. In both scenes the aggressor attacks from the hilt of the dagger, while the attacked is depicted toward the tip of the blade. The composition thus stands as a metaphor for the use of the dagger itself (Younger). Besides all of the figures on the daggers, there has been some ornamental daggers found without figures on them. One of these daggers used a spiral pattern made with niello.
Why the Daggers were made and how they were used
     The use of these daggers is not definitely known, but there are many speculations. One thought is that they were used for sacrificial or religious purposes. Some people think this because the daggers are so well made, made with precious metals, and took so long to make. Others think that they may have been used in combat by the higher ranking people. They think this because the daggers were definitely strong enough to be used in battle and were made with metals that could withstand strikes very well. Even though the use of these daggers is indefinite, where they came from and who made them is almost definite. These Daggers are thought to come from Crete were they were made by very talented sword makers , and sold at the mainland market. The only reason that people can find that doesn’t support this origin is that no daggers of this type have been found in Crete. But even so, if they were made for trade and trade only, none would be found there anyway.
How the lion daggers relate to other art works of the same time
     The use of lions on the daggers, link them to many other artworks of the same time. Emily Vermeule stated, while comparing the daggers and a gold cup, “there are the same deep sway backs, taut tendons, split hind legs, squared-off shawl of flame locks, flanged jowl, round ears, and snub noses.”(Vermeule) John G. Younger also agreed that the daggers have many similarities with other art of that time. He compared the daggers to the Gold Rhyton from Mycenae when he said, “many of the lions show similar characteristics: broad planes, incised ruffs that now appear on belly and haunches, and flame locks for the mane.(Younger) He went on to say that it wasn’t so much the features, but how the features were depicted.
     After reading many articles, books, online stories, and listening in class there is only one thing I have really concluded about the Ornamental daggers of the Late Bronze Age... Nothing is known for sure about them. A lot of people think they came from Crete, but did they? Many people say that they weren’t used for battle, but could they have been? Could the daggers have been put together differently then how archeologist think? Even though many questions still surround these daggers I have learned what probably was. The daggers most likely came from Crete, the daggers probably weren’t used for battle, and they most likely were put together the way I talked about earlier.


1. Dickinson, Oliver: The Aegean Bronze Age,
     Cambridge University Press,2004

2. Encyclopedia Britannica.

3. Herbert, Manyon: Metal Working in the Ancient World,
     American Journal of Archeology, vol.53

4. Higgans, Renold: Minoan and Mycenae Art,
     Thames and Hudson Inc., New York, New York 1997

5. Vermeule, Emily: The Art of the Shaft graves of Mycenae,
     University of Cincinnati, 1975

6. Younger, John G: The Mycenae - Vapheio Lion Group,
     American Journal of Archeology, vol.82

7. Http://www.oldandsold.com/articles19/greec-15.shtml
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