Anthropology scholar to give talk about prehistoric swords at URI, April 22

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URI graduate Kristina Golubiewski-Davis uses 3-D machine to examine swords

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 14, 2015 – Kristina Golubiewski-Davis is hooked on swords, but not the kind carried by swashbucklers on pirate ships. She studies blades from 3,000 years ago, most of which are in Europe.

She’s on the cutting edge of sword research, using a 3-D machine that she lugs to different countries to examine the blades’ form and decoration. Her goal is to find out more about the craftsmen who made them – and how they communicated with each other.

Golubiewski-Davis will discuss her studies at a talk on Wednesday, April 22 at 5 p.m. in the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston Campus. The talk is free and open to the public.

It will also be a homecoming for Golubiewski-Davis, who received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and classics from URI in 2008 and is pursuing her doctorate in anthropology from the University of Minnesota.

URI Marketing and Communications spoke with Golubiewski-Davis about her fascination with Bronze Age swords, integrating technology and archaeology in research, and even old swords in New England.

How on earth did you get interested in swords?

That’s actually quite a long story with many twists and turns, but the short of it is that once I learned about their existence in a Prehistoric European history course, I was hooked. You see, there are thousands of bronze swords across Central Europe from the Bronze Age, and the ones that are decorated are all decorated differently, with no two exactly alike. I think it’s fascinating that in a time before even writing exists in this area we see such an importance being placed on individuality in artistic expression.

Your specialty is Central Europe during the Late Bronze Age, 1200 to 800 B.C. What was life like back then?

During this time most people lived in small villages of a few hundred people at most. People lived in one-room rectangular buildings made with a technique called wattle and daub, where small branches and mud were woven between supporting posts. While there was certainly some long-distance trade for things like special jewelry, beads and metals, most of the day-to-day items, such as clay pots, clothing, stone and metal tools and food were produced in the village. It was a very hands-on way of living with lots of hard work.

Walk us through how people made swords during that time. Lots of sweat, I presume.

Probably! First, you would need to get your hands on some copper and tin ore. There is a lot of work behind that! Then, you’d dig a hole in the ground, fill it with charcoal and place a small bowl containing copper and tin on the charcoal. There are a few tricks to the trade, but essentially you set the charcoal to smolder, blow some air to keep the heat up and wait till the metal melts. This is the point where the copper and tin combine to create the alloy known as bronze, which you would pour into a clay or stone mold that you had previously made. After about 30 seconds, the molten metal has cooled to solid, but you still have to wait a bit before you can remove the mold and finish the blade by hammering, sanding, sharpening and adding a hilt of leather, wood or metal. Unlike iron or steel swords, bronze swords are cast and not forged.

Tell us about the 3-D scanner you carry to examine swords. Didn’t you get a prestigious research grant to fund the project?

I did, in fact! I was lucky enough to receive a Wenner-Gren Dissertation grant, which is given to “support significant and innovated anthropological research.” I spent 10 weeks traveling through Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia to study blades in their collection. During my travels, I brought a 3-D scanner that uses structured white light to capture scans of the blades I examined. Structured light sounds fancy, but it just means that it projects known patterns of light on the object and then interpolates the way that light warps on the objects to extract measurement data.

Thanks to this 21st century technology, you can get information about not only the craftsmanship of a sword, but also its ornamentation and form. Why is this groundbreaking?

Three-dimensional scanning allows me to capture large amounts of data in a relatively short amount of time that I can bring with me anywhere. There are a wide variety of questions that I can ask based on that same set of data, which I would not otherwise be able to ask. The scanner I use has an accuracy of up to .06 millimeters, depending on the size of the scale I set. With this information, I can look at cross sections of the blade, surface details and placement of decoration and take accurate measurements of these that would otherwise not be possible. If someone else wanted to ask questions based on different measurements, they could contact the museums for the data and be able to use the same dataset as I do. It’s really a question of quantity and detail on these objects that was previously either not available or so difficult to obtain that for all intents and purposes it might as well not have been available.

What can you tell us about the geometric shapes on a sword?

There are a variety of patterns you see inscribed on the hilts (and sometimes blades) of the sword. These are mostly combinations of chevrons, hashes, concentric circles and waves. They appear in different types of groupings and provide a decorative motif to an otherwise deadly weapon. There is some debate in the literature as to whether the swords were more important for symbolism purposes (that is, I’m powerful enough to own a sword; you should be afraid of me) or for actual combat, which there is evidence for.

You work with renowned scholar Peter S. Wells, an expert in European pre-historic archaeology. That must be thrilling.

Peter Wells is a fantastic advisor, and I count myself lucky to be able to learn from him. He’s a very down to earth person, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that his name is as big as it is. I think the most impressive thing for me is how often and prolifically he publishes. He’s a writing machine!

One last question: Any famous swords in Rhode Island?

Sadly, I don’t think so. Of course, I study European blades from about 3,000 years ago, most of which are still in Europe. It’s entirely possible that there are some blades from another period that I don’t know of! There were a few Bronze Age swords in the Higgins Armory collection, which are now housed at the Worcester Museum of Art, to my knowledge. They’re really cool.

Pictured above: URI graduate Kristina Golubiewski-Davis, who will talk about Late Bronze Age swords at the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday, April 22. The talk is sponsored by URI’s Department of Art and Art History. Photo courtesy of Kristina Golubiewski-Davis. (Download image from our site.)