The use of curved single-edged swords – μαχαιρα/machaira* (and variants thereof) – developed during the Bronze Age in south-eastern Europe, with both the Iapodic and Liburian groups on the eastern Adriatic coast using variants of the machaira during this period (Batović 1983: 314; Dreschler-Bižić 1983:383-384). Machaira type swords also appear in the area of the Besarabi culture in the 8th c. BC (Guštin 1974: 78-79, 81-83; Tomedi 2002:112-113), and the use of this form of weapon can be traced on the Balkans throughout the Iron Age (Gaspari, Mlinar 2005).
That machaira, like the curved daggers (see ‘Curved Daggers’ article), were also adopted by the Balkan Celts has been confirmed by recent archaeological discoveries from sites in the western and Central Balkans (Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria), where such weapons have been found in Celtic warrior burials. A good example is that from burial #25 at Most na Soči in Slovenia where a late La Têne cremation burial yielded the burnt remains of a warrior accompanied by a spearhead, a bronze La Têne fibula, and a curved sword of the machaira type. Both the weapons and the fibula from the burial had been ritually ‘killed’ (i.e. deliberately deformed) in the typical Celtic fashion (see ‘Killing the Objects’).
Celtic Machaira and other Grave Goods from burial # 25 at Most na Soči
(after Gaspari, Mlinar 2005)
The sword from Most na Soči is a machaira of the Ljubljanica type, further examples of which have been found in this region at Šmihel, in Carniola, 2 from the Ljubljana moor, and a Celtic machaira with a decorated hilt discovered in the Ljubljanica river (loc cit).
Machairai of the Ljubljanica type
(1. Šmihel 2. Carniola 3. Most na Soči 4. Ljubljana moor 5. Ljubljanica river)
(after Gaspari , Mlinar 2005)
Further east, machairai were also used by the Scordisci and such have been found in Celtic warrior burials in Serbia (Todorović 1968, sl. 24, 28-31) and in northern Bulgaria at Kamburovo (Targovischte region) (Wozniak 1974, App. 1 #79; Domaradski 1984, obr. 35), and Kopanata Tumulus (Pavolche, Vratza region) (Megaw 2004). The Kamburovo and Pavolche machairai were associated with La Têne swords, shields (umbos) of the Novo Mesto type, spearheads, spurs, and a scabbard of the ‘Hungarian Sword type’ respectively (loc cit; see also ‘Curved Daggers’ article). In both cases Celtic H-shaped horse bits, similar to those found at Celtic burials such as that from Montana in n.w. Bulgaria were also discovered, logically indicating that the burials were those of horsemen.
Material, including a H-shaped horse bit, spurs, and a curved dagger, from the burial of a Scordisci Cavalry officer at Montana (N.W. Bulgaria)
(see ‘Curved Daggers’ article)
The use of mounted military units by the Scordisci in Thrace during the conflict with Rome in the 2nd/ 1st c. BC (see ‘Scordisci Wars’) is recorded in classical sources, notably the victory over the Roman forces of Lucullus at the Battle of Heraclea Sintica (today’s Rupite in s.w. Bulgaria) in 114 BC when the Roman commander and 800 of his men, who had been tricked into leaving their defences, were cut to pieces by a Celtic cavalry charge (Front. Strat. 3.19:7). The traditional straight Celtic sword would logically have been unsuited to such mounted warfare, and thus the machaira was adopted as a sabre by Celtic cavalry officers in this region, due to its intrinsic balance and manageable nature.
*Although the term Machaira is today most frequently used in connection with curved single-edged swords, Xenophon’s treatise on cavalry (Xen. De. re Eq. XII, 11) is the only source which clearly distinguishes between the terms machaira or single edged sabre, and xiphous, signifying a a short straight sword.
Batović Š. (1983) Kasno brončano doba na istočnom Jadranskom primorju. In: Praist. jug. zem. 4. Bronzano doba, 271 – 374.
Dreschler-Bižić R. (1983) Japodska kulturna grupa. In: Praist. jug. zem. 4. Bronzano doba, 374 – 389.
Domaradski M. (1984) Keltite na Balkanskia Poluostrov. Sofia.
Gaspari A., Mlinar M. (2005) Grave with a Machaira from Most na Soči. Last versions of single-edged swords with a bent hilt. In: Archeolški vestnik 56, 2005. Str. 169-186.
Guštin M. (1974) Mahaire. Doprinos k povezavam Picena. Slovenije in Srednjega Podonavja v 7. stol. pr. n. š. – Situla 14-15, 77-94.
Megaw V. (2004) In the footsteps of Brennos? Further archaeological evidence for Celts in the Balkans. – In: Hänsel B., Studenikova E., (eds.) Zwischen Karpaten und Ägäis. Neolithikum und ältere Bronzezeit. Gedenkschrift für Viera Nemejcova-Pavukova. Rahden / Westf. 93-107.
Todorović J. (1968) Kelti u jugoistočnoj Evropi. Dissertationes 7 (Beograd 1968)
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Woźniak Z. (1974) Wschodnie pogranicze kultury Latenskiej. Wroclaw-Warszava-Krakow-Gdansk