Let’s invent an imaginary world in which half the men have spears.

Pretending for the moment that nothing else in this imaginary world matters but those spears, what else do we need to give our world to make it possible for those spears to exist?

Some answers immediately jump to mind. If our world has spears, it has to have iron (for the spearheads), charcoal (to forge the iron), and smiths (to do the forging).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

If we have iron, it has to come from somewhere. So we also need ore and smelting furnaces, or else a good trade partnership with someone else in this world who has those things. Let’s say our society smelts its own iron. That takes much more charcoal than blacksmithing, so much more that we’ll need our own charcoal industry – and a forest to support it. Let’s say we manage that forest by coppicing it, so it produces wood faster: it now attracts deer, who want to eat the saplings before they grow large enough to turn into fuel. So we need to hunt the deer. That takes time, dogs, and – you bet – more spears! And that’s just if we make the iron ourselves. If we trade for it, we’ll need a surplus of something to give in exchange, armies (carrying lots of spears) to protect our traders, boats, etc – a whole economic system.

You see where this is going, right?

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And this is the cool thing about studying archaeological artifacts: you can never study them in isolation. If you find a person buried with spearhead, you can deduce a lot about the society she came from, because the spearhead’s existence demands the existence of a deep background of other materials, resources, processes, and – most importantly – human choices to get there. Ian Hodder calls this network of background connections that lies behind every archaeological artifact ‘entanglement’: all the physical ‘things’ people make and use are tied together with a thick web of inseparable interconnections and dependencies that, taken together, form the tapestry of human society. And we can start to figure out how that tapestry works if we tug on the right thread.

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Hodder, Ian. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Wiley-Blackwell.

This is one of the ways archaeologists get from artifacts to societies. Although we lack evidence for many aspects of early medieval life (for example, little survives from ephemeral activities like charcoal burning), the things that do survive often help us understand the ones that don’t. Spears require iron and charcoal, and as a consequence any warlord whose social position requires him or her to produce weapons to arm a warband depended on maintaining a secure supply of these materials. Depended: Hodder uses that word, and the word ‘dependency’, like he’s talking about an addict. He stresses that societies do not merely want to have some resources, they absolutely must have them; otherwise, if deprived, there will be painful shocks as the social systems try to find a way to adapt.

But supply lines do shift and societies are forced to adapt. These moments are the best for historians like me, because when things change and people are forced to adapt, we get to see a historian’s favorite thing: people making choices. Archaeology can often be a lot of statistics and long processes, so the moments when people have to scramble because a thing they need to have to keep society going is suddenly gone are a precious chance to glimpse into lives, decisions, and thought processes that are otherwise mostly invisible.

So: that exercise we started with wasn’t just a thought experiment. It’s an outline of the preconditions that a person wishing to outfit a warband with spears has to satisfy; and it’s a description of early Anglo-Saxon society, because half the men in that real society – just like in our thought experiment – had a spear with them in their grave. And that fact, put into conversation with the other fragments of knowledge we’ve recovered from the period, allows us to begin to re-weave the rich tapestry of early medieval daily life.


Here’s a short list of some of the other things I came up with that our imaginary spear society – which is actually a simplified model of Anglo-Saxon England – would need to make their spears. I’m sure it’s not complete; what other things would be necessary to build a society in which at least half the men were armed with a spear?

  • managed woodlands to produce charcoal
  • hunting to control deer
  • a dry place in which to cure timber for spear shafts
  • smiths to make tools (and the spearheads!)
  • supply lines to move around iron ore, charcoal, etc, if they aren’t all locally produced (ships, ponies, etc)
  • land that you’ll stay on or near for four or five years (to grow coppiced spear shafts); 20 years if you’re managing timber for fuel.
  • a network for transmitting knowledge: how did smiths share their knowledge and learn their trade? How did they learn to make spears (ie, why do all soears follow similar styles; who shares the recipe, and how?)
  • a reason to manufacture new spears (what happened to the old ones?)

(Cover photo: illustration from De Re Metallica (16th century), showing the many steps involved in making metal.)

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