Bronze finds put prehistoric leather-workers on map called chisels, as they often still are. But as long ago as the 1940s some archaeologists questioned this attribution, saying the blades were too thin for working wood – from as little as 2mm to a tenth of a millimetre. The blades are always worn from use and resharpening, and often damaged.
Boughton says their identification as leather-working knives “makes a lot of sense” when they are compared with medieval heraldic symbols. Such a knife, for example, was the centrepiece of Aberdeen’s 17th century shoemakers’ guild (see illustration), and a similar single-edged tool – known as a Sattlermesser or Halbmondmesser – was in the coat of arms of the medieval German equivalent. Modern leatherworking knives, known as “head knives” or “saddler’s knives” (see photo below), are also comparable.
Left: Bronze leather-working knives from Penrith, Cumbria (top) and Fincham, Norfolk Below: Two of four bronze knives from the Leckwith hoard, Cardiff, found in 1928 (lengths 6cm)
Last year two metal detectorists searching 230 miles apart from each other, found two similar but rare objects. Made over 2,500 years ago from copper alloy or bronze, with a hollow socket for a wooden or bone handle and curved, triangular-shaped blades, they are thought to be leatherworking tools of a type that is still in use today.
One was found near Penrith, Cumbria, and the other near Fincham, Norfolk. They were reported to the local finds liaison officers (FLOs), who recognised them as knives dating from the earliest iron age (800–600bc). As with much of the material shown to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, says Dot Boughton (FLO for Cumbria), identification was not immediately obvious. Just ten specimens are now known from the UK – none from Scotland or Ireland – and they are rare too on the continent.
The earlier finds include one each from Staffordshire and Mildenhall, Suffolk, and a total of six from early iron age hoards (four from Leckwith Moors, Cardiff, and one each from Netherhampton, Wiltshire and Ferring, West Sussex). Similar-looking tools from the preceding late bronze age are far commoner, across Britain, Ireland and much of France. These have a solid tang for hafting instead of a socket, and it is assumed the one evolved into the other. Once the iron age began, however, the manufacture of bronze tools decreased rapidly, wrought ironwork displacing the cast alloys.
These knives were traditionally
Boughton suggests the early iron age knives were a key piece of kit for saddlers and whipmakers – professions connected to horses, horse-drawn carts and carriages or chariots. Other bronze artefacts clearly related to the use of horses and carts are very common in some early iron age hoards
The knives from Cumbria and Norfolk were returned to their finders after recording.
Above: Modern leather-working tools, including a saddler’s knife with a blade similar to the prehistoric examples Left: Detail from a 17th century crest for a shoemakers’ guild in Aberdeen, with a leather knife under a crown
British Archaeology|May June 2012|7