The Middle Bronze Age rapier from Lissan, Co. Derry

The Lissan rapier is the largest rapier ever found in either Ireland or Britain. Rapiers are bladed weapons made of bronze that developed by elongating the blades of daggers in the Middle Bronze Age after 1500 BC. Shorter rapiers under 30cm, which are very close in size to daggers, are often called dirks. Rapiers are known from Ireland, Britain and continental Europe and continued in use in Ireland until the introduction of the sword after 1200 BC. Rapiers have intricately detailed blades with combinations of mid-ribs, grooves, ribs and channels and were cast in two piece moulds. However all the rapiers share the common failing of a thin butt and poorly placed rivet holes that caused many of the rivet holes to break and the handles to fail. The weak handle meant that the rapiers would only have been suitable for stabbing or thrusting as slashing would tend to damage the handle. Some have questioned how effective they would have been as weapons if the handles were so prone to failure.

The Lissan rapier was found in a bog in the Co. Derry townland a few kilometres north-west of Cookstown while cutting peat by hand in 1867. It is 80cm long and 5.7cm across the shoulder. From the shoulder it narrows rapidly to the blade and then more gradually towards the point. Technically it was one of the most difficult bronzes of the period to cast as it is not only extremely long but also has a fluted blade. However, the handle was poorly made and one of the rivet holes is broken. The handle would have been of bone or another perishable material. The extreme length of the Lissan rapier and the weak hafting suggest that it was not intended as a functional weapon but was a piece of display weaponry. Just how weapons were displayed in the Middle Bronze Age is not known. Perhaps there were mock combats involving a kind of display fencing. What we do know is that once the functional lives of rapiers like Lissan were over they were deposited in lakes, rivers and like the Lissan rapier into bogs.

The Lissan rapier can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare St., Dublin.

Above left, image of The Middle Bronze Age rapier from Lissan, Co. Derry. Image after the Guide to the National Museum of Ireland 2007.

Further reading
Burgess, C.B. and Gerloff, S. 1981 The Dirks and Rapiers of Great Britain and Ireland. Prähistorische Bronzefunde, 4.7. München, C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung., No. 387.

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