This is a 40cm fragment of a Han era sword blade. This is from a single edged dao that had the distinctive ring pommel which was a feature of the period. The intact sword was likely to be around 60-70cm long but the hilt is lost.
The Osprey text shows examples of the bronze dao being carried by West Han warriors, however the use of bronze went into a quite steady decline and by East Han there is little evidence for real blades being made in bronze.
Improvements to both the scale and quality of the steel (low carbon steel) production meant that bronze could no longer compete either economically or functionally. By the time of Wudi bronze weapons are much more scare as a number of changes in the military date from this time.
Bronze was then only commonly used for casting crossbow bolt points or arrow heads, due to the fine detail required and the ease at which bronze was cast by then skilled Chinese bronzesmiths.
R. Wagner in "Iron and Steel in Ancient China" is much more clear about the emerging steel industry than the earlier confusions that arose from quoted sections of his internet articles. No iron/steel swords were cast. Initially the qulaity of the low carbon steel baldes was not better than a good bronze. Iron sword were however made longer than bronze and this in turn leads to longer bronze swords. By the Han when quenching of blade edges and the art of folding and work annealing had been perfected bronze could no longer compete and was steadily abandoned.
Yang Hong is in agreement with these comments and notes steady improvement from the East Zhou to Han and the elaborate folding and reforging (by hand) that Han steel artisans had developed. He also names Han steel at this time as a low carbon steel which is work hardened.
In this way bronze weapons of Han are the last stages in the long Chinese bronze age, and are fascinating to me. They occur in unique forms (ji halberds and dao) which supplanted the archic weapons of the Zhou.
Iron blades are around for study but are often in a very corroded condition. Such iron blades can come from weapons closer to 1m long but as bronze survives much better than iron I find bronze pieces useful for detailed study.
One very unusual feature of this blade that I have pondered for some time now was a shallow channel or narrowing of the blade along the central 'spine'. This forms a subtle groove which was first only clear when viewed on the cross sections at the breaks. (see below)
My first impression is of a blood groove, such a bayonets have, which prevents the blade sticking in the wound from a thrust entry. Earlier Chinese weapons do have some features thought to be for 'drawing the blood'.
After discussing this which others it appears to me it is more likely a feature to conserve expensive bronze in what would be a burial weapon or a tomb object instead of a combat sword.
My friend in Taiwan has handled a number of larger bronze dao up to 80cm long and he hasn't noted such grooves. He makes the reasonable point that the dao by defintion is a slashing weapon and needs no groove. As the cross sections on dao battle blade blades are wedge shaped for strength (a broad back narrows to the blade as per Yang Hong etc.)
I now believe this is an item not intended for fighting. That other bronze dao were made for combat is quite clear, but this blade fragment like other such tomb objects is made to accompany the spirit only.
Another clue was the lack of a clear sharpened edge. A bronze preserves subtle features well the polish and sharpening marks from human hands 2,000 or more years ago are sometimes visible. While some cutting edges show signs of sharpening this blade shows polish but in fact suggests a deliberate dulling of the blade by having a flat blade edge when viewed under magnification. The polising would have been to reveal the lustre of the golden bronze, but not to make the edge ready for cutting.
R. Wagner questions whether long bronze swords were functional or only symbolic and the answer is clearly both. That the Qin long swords were the battlefield examples (commonly accepted) and the earlier Han blades/ge/mao were too seems clearly logical when the iron/steel industry was still expanding and had not yet replaced bronze. Wagner also notes that a good bronze can match a low carbon steel from later East Zhou for toughness.
In this way bronze for a time could face iron in an intermediate period.
This section of the blade (above) has traces of wood that show the sword was buried in a scabbard. Under magnification of 70x the fibres can be seen at the top right corner. To the naked eye it is more like a fine banding but still visible.
It is apparently a wood of the same type as attached to another earlier sword blade of mine. Such Chinese scabbards were made from light wood like cedar and under good magnification the traces left in the cemented soil on this blade shows the same grain and pithy structures in the wood.
The second blade edge is from an earlier Jian, a hollowed hilt East ZHou blade. The blade is double edged and sharpened equally all the way to the cross gaurd. Shown here is a small portion of unpatinated bronze showing the sharpening angle. Just above it is a damaged portion of the blade which may be from use, as the parrying with a blade tends to be closer to the grip this area looks more like a strike flaking than a loss from corrosion or tin oxide. The remainer of the blade is in very good condition. Also visible are traces of scabbard wood preserved in small patches.
(CLICK TO ENLARGE ANY OF THE PICTURES)
Edited by Kenneth, 11 January 2006 - 10:49 PM.