Iron – Utility or Rarity?
Ceremonial weapons are all very well. They look splendid when you ascend the throne. The goldsmith was probably the best in the land — look at all those animals on the sheath (click on the image to enlarge it).
What insights can we draw from this dagger from Tut's tomb? The blade is gold alloyed with copper to harden it, but it can't have been a practical weapon. So the boy Pharoah who carried this never had to defend himself (or didn't expect to need to after death) — that's what he had guards for. Judging from his physical remains, he may have been unfit and walked with a cane. The cause of his death at 19 is disputed.
So, this dagger defended his reign, the right of his dynasty to rule (but he had no issue, so the 18th Dynasty ended with him). It was a beautiful, treasured, symbolic weapon.
But before we jump to conclusions, there was a second dagger found in his tomb, this one with a meteoric iron blade. (Notice that the haft for the iron blade can't be the original, since it's shorter than the tang of the blade requires.) Given the similar haft and sheath treatment in gold, there is speculation that the iron blade was valued as highly as the gold one. Certainly it's more practical as a weapon, being able to take an edge.
A long discussion about this blade can be found here, but I want to focus on what (if anything) it tells us about the character of Tutenkhamun, or his royal trappings, or his dynastic expectations (or all three).
Was the iron blade valued for its rarity, or for its practicality? While other iron objects are known in this period in Egypt, they are not common — but then, what need does a pharoah have for common objects? He was buried with precious objects, the iron dagger included.
The Hard Iron (or Rubber) of the North
But in the North, centuries later, things were very different. The iron used for weapons was valued because weapons were valued. A good weapon meant life or death to a raider, a warrior, a Viking. Certainly it deserved to be decorated and honored.
I came across this image of an Anglo-Saxon axe (mislabeled “Viking Axe”) on Tumblr and similar sites, without attribution. I didn't remember having seen it in archaeology books, but then new things are discovered all the time. It's lovely, but it puzzled me. First, the edge looked… odd, and the surfaces looked remarkably uncorroded (see a genuine Merovingian axe here). And of course the hafts never survive, so seeing it with one was strange for an archaeological artifact. Before using it here to make a point about weapons of utility vs weapons of rarity, I was determined to pin the source down.
And I found it. It's a prop, from the Lord of the Rings movies by Peter Jackson, called the Rohan Soldier's Axe. The blade is made of hard rubber (ouch!) and the haft isn't even wood, but painted resin.
So what can we learn from this (other than don't believe everything you find on the internet)? This weapon (if it were real) matches the heroic ideals we have of the warrior North, those sturdy, manly virtues. Tolkien used the Anglo-Saxon culture and language as a direct steal in Lord of the Rings, and this prop is a sort of hyperbolic rendering of the concept.
My expectations led me to see what I wanted to, until I looked more closely.
Oh, and don't believe everything you see on the internet.