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The Kirkburn Sword

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • The Kirkburn Sword
  • Description

    Sword and scabbard. The sword is made of iron and the scabbard has a decorated copper alloy front and an iron back.


    The handle of the sword is made of four parts, slotted over the tang: a two-part pommel (a), a grip, (b), and a hilt guard (c).

    (a) Pommel:
    The more substantial lower piece of the pommel is a shaped iron frame, apparently enclosing a piece of horn. The frame is perforated in the centre to pass over the tang, and is surmounted by an iron washer and then by the second part of the pommel, a short cylindrical iron tube on its side. The tube, too, would have been perforated to fit over the tang, whose top would have been burred above it. Within the tube was presumably an organic cylinder (horn?), attached by a central iron rivet that passes through a perforation in the upper part of the tang and terminates in large domed roundels at the front and back of the pommel. The iron frame embraces six more roundels, those at the sides apparently linked by central rivets. The tang does not seem to be perforated for the lower central roundels, so one assumes they were pinned rather than riveted. Between the four pommel roundels on the front, and perhaps the back, are three, apparently triangular, panels of red glass 'enamel'. The top and sides of the frame, and the sides of the tube above it, are also decorated with red glass 'enamel', and include a circular motif with a central triangle, a crescent and possibly a running dog design, but very little of it survives. The four roundels on the front of the pommel are 15-17 mm diameter, each with a large domed iron cap, which is either the head of the pin/rivet or a washer secured by the pin/rivet, resting in a cup-shaped copper-alloy washer. The surface of the iron dome has been filed to a network pattern to key the red glass 'enamel', of which only patches survive. On the back of the pommel, the lower roundel is constructed in the same way, but has been thrown out of position by corrosion (if it had been pinned rather than riveted it would have been less secure than the others). The other three roundels on the back lack the 'enamel': the upper roundel (which is functional as well as decorative, as its shank passes through a perforation in the tang) has a domed copper-alloy washer and the side roundels have domed iron washers, all of them rest on flat or cup-shaped iron washers.

    (b) Grip:
    The grip is covered by a hollow iron tube. X-rays show the iron tang within, and presumably there was an organic packing between tube and tang. The whole of the surface of the grip is decorated with red glass 'enamel' in cells cut into the iron. On the front the design is quartered, with matching panels in the top left/bottom right and vice versa. In the simpler design are three vertical lines of arcading, whereas the more complex design has broad S-stems which are pointed at the ends and each enclose two crescents and two dots. The back of the grip, now with a central vertical split, is decorated with horizontal stripes of red glass 'enamel' between alternating broad and narrow ribs of iron decorated with vertical tooling.

    (c) Guard:
    The guard is made of horn, the grain of which crosses the width of the handle. Judging from X-rays, it terminates in an iron hilt end (a broad strip shaped to match the mouth of the scabbard) and, like its opposite number, the frame of the pommel, has curving arms, each enclosing a pair of roundels riveted together. The ends of the arms have been decorated with red glass 'enamel', but the design cannot now be distinguished. In the centre, the horn is decorated, front and back, with a further pair of pinned roundels to match those on the pommel. The three roundels on the front of the guard, and the central roundel on the back, are constructed like those on the front of the pommel (and keyed for red 'enamel'). The side roundels on the back have large domed copper-alloy washers resting on flat or saucer-shaped iron washers.


    The scabbard has a copper-alloy front plate (a) overlapped by an iron back plate (b). Its mouth is campanulate and quite high. A chape (c) is attached to the end of the scabbard, and a suspension loop (d) is riveted to the back plate.

    (a) Front plate:
    Immediately below the mouth, two roundels are riveted to the front plate: they are constructed like those on the front of the pommel (and keyed for red 'enamel'), but are slightly larger. The front plate is in two parts, joined on a line through the centre of the chape 'clamps'. The two pieces have similar decoration - a scroll with tendrils alternating to right and left - but its continuity is broken at the join, and the infilling and execution of the two parts is quite different. The tendrils are keel-shaped and spring from curved triangular shapes regularly spaced along the scroll. On the upper part, all the triangular shapes are infilled with fan-shaped voids and most have a simple hatched background (two elements of the background each have two 'petals' and hatching instead, a third is stippled and two others are blank). On the lower part of the scabbard plate (within the chape), the execution of the design is cruder and the infilling quite different - a mixture of variously shaped voids (some stippled) and hatched backgrounds. Throughout, there is a border of a zigzag or wavy line, with a line of single dot infillings on the inner side. At the bottom, within the chape end, these border motifs merge to form a diamond-shape. The junction between the two lengths of plate is covered on the front by vertical repair strips riveted to the sides. The front plate has several splits along the line defining the border. Some occurred in antiquity and were repaired by three cross-strips that have rivet heads that are quite crudely finished on the decorated surface.

    (b) Back plate:
    The iron back plate overlaps the front plate for most of its length, but the lower part is obscured by the chape. At the top of the chape, the back plate, like the front plate, had broken and the straight break had been repaired by overlapping (top over bottom) and securing the joint with a line of four iron rivets.

    (c) Chape:
    The edges of the iron chape rise slightly above the levels of the tops of the 'clamps' and the bridge. The 'clamps' are in fact independent roundels, riveted to the front plate and constructed like the roundels on the front of the pommel and at the top of the scabbard (also keyed for red 'enamel'). On the front, but not on the back, the full length of chape frame has been filed to a network, like the roundels, and was once covered with red glass 'enamel'. On the back, the deep iron bridge is decorated with a panel of red glass 'enamel' that is pointed on the right, obscured by corrosion on the left, and has a circle of iron in the middle. The heavy, round chape end is neatly shaped, and has been recessed on the front so that almost the entire surface could be filled with red glass 'enamel'; only a narrow border of iron would have been visible. At the bottom, on the front, is yet another roundel constructed like those on the pommel and the chape 'clamps', also covered with red glass 'enamel'; its central rivet seems to have secured the tips of the two scabbard plates to the chape end. On the back, the chape end seems to be undecorated and flat but for the slight dome formed by the end of the rivet that secures the roundel on the front. X-rays suggest that the chape was made in two pieces: the frame and bridge; and the chape end. The two pieces were joined at each side by a rivet through the chape end and the frame. The chape was riveted to the back plate of the scabbard with a rivet through the lower part of the bridge. Indeed there are two rivet holes through the back plate, one above the other, but the upper hole is empty.

    (d) Suspension loop:
    The suspension loop is towards the middle of the back of the scabbard. The long, narrow loop plates, the upper much shorter than the lower, taper towards the ends before terminating in circular plates, each decorated with a triscele with a red glass 'enamel' background. There is a central rivet (with a raised head) in each circular terminal, and another rivet at the start of each loop plate, adjoining the loop. The mineral-preserved remains of a length of thong are associated with the suspension loop (perhaps wound round it); the presence of hair/fur shows that it was made of animal skin rather than leather.


  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 300 BC - 200 BC (circa)
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Type series

    • La Tène II
    • Stead Group E
  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Length: 697 millimetres
    • Length: 590 millimetres (blade)
    • Width: 40 millimetres (top of blade)
    • Length: 137 millimetres (handle)
    • Length: 592 millimetres (scabbard)
    • Width: 44 millimetres (top of scabbard)
    • Length: 192 millimetres (chape)
    • Length: 216 millimetres (suspension loop)
    • Weight: 375 grammes (section from reverse of scabbard, including mount)
    • Weight: 1001 grammes (rest of sword and scabbard)
  • Curator's comments

    This sword and scabbard were found in a grave in an Iron Age cemetery at Kirkburn in East Yorkshire. The 'Kirburn sword', as it has come to be known, was buried with a man who was in his early 20s to late 30s when he died. The man was placed in the grave in a crouched position with his knees pulled towards his chest. The sword and scabbard were positioned behind his back. As part of the burial rite the remains of a pig were placed on the man’s chest.

    As a final act before the grave was filled in, three spears were thrust into the man’s chest. This burial rite has been recorded in other graves from East Yorkshire and was part of the ceremonies associated with burial.

    Associated records:
    Human remains: 1987,0404.35
    Animal remains (pig): 1987,0404.42
    Spear-heads: 1987,0404.3-5

    Possibly associated:
    Iron nail: 1987,0404.48
    Pottery sherd: 1987,0404.49

    This sword is catalogued as number 172 in Stead 2006 (p.184-5, p.116). This is one of Stead’s ‘Group E’ swords, a northern type generally thought to have been produced in the second and third centuries BC. Two similar examples are known from inhumation burials at Wetwang Slack, another Middle Iron Age cemetery in East Yorkshire (Stead’s no.s 173-4).

    See also:
    Stead 1991: p.66-70, 224 and colour frontispiece
    James and Rigby 1997: p.40 (pl.45) shows a diagram of how the sword was constructed.
    James 1993: p.100 illustrates a coloured reconstruction of the upper part of the sword
    Jope 2000: p.335-6 (pattern numbers PP 604, 663)


  • Bibliography

    • Stead 2006 no. 172 bibliographic details
    • James 1993 p.100 bibliographic details
    • Jope 2000 p.335-6 bibliographic details
    • James & Rigby 1997 p.40, pl.45 bibliographic details
    • Stead 1991 p.66-70, p.224: K3.1 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G50/dc16

  • Exhibition history


    2015-2016 24 Sep-31 Jan, London, BM, G30, 'Celts: Art and Identity'

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • KR/AP (find/site code)
Sword and scabbard.  The sword is made of iron and the scabbard has a decorated copper alloy front and an iron back.     Handle    The handle of the sword is made of four parts, slotted over the tang: a two-part pommel (a), a grip, (b), and a hilt guard (

Sword and scabbard. The sword is made of iron and the scabbard has a decorated copper alloy front and an iron back. Handle The handle of the sword is made of four parts, slotted over the tang: a two-part pommel (a), a grip, (b), and a hilt guard (

Image description



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Object reference number: BCB88671

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