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Iron Mask Swords

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The great majority of daggers, dirks, and swords that were produced in Luristan and its environs during the Iron Age I and II (about three thousand years ago) were made of bronze. An exception to the rule is a rare but well-known variety known as “iron mask swords.” There are estimated to be only about 90 or 100 extant examples. Due to their construction, Oscar White Muscarella (in Bronze and Iron: Ancient Near Eastern Artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) referred to these swords as “one of the most complex weapon types known from antiquity.” All of them were originally “purchased by museums and collectors in the 1920s and 1930s when graveyards in Luristan were being plundered en masse.” [Khorasani (2006) paraphrasing Pigott (2004)] Museum specimens tend to be relatively high-end with little corrosion. The few that show up on the market (on very rare occasions) tend to be in poor shape.


I am pleased to own two of these swords. Here they are posing together, followed by collages of each one seen from different views.




From what I can tell, iron mask swords usually measure less than 50 cm (about 19 ½”), which is, technically, the measurement that serves as the division between the classification of a dirk and a sword. However, they are nonetheless popularly referred to as swords rather than dirks in the references. Perhaps this naming convention has something to do with the fact that so many of the remaining examples (like mine) have severely corroded blades, making their original lengths difficult to precisely determine.


On his webpage called “The Enigma of the Luristan Iron Swords” Helmut Föll discusses this variety of Luristani weapon, writing “They are unlike any other sword ever found and have no obvious relation to older (Luristani) bronze swords (of which there are thousands).”



Most of the authors specializing in ancient Iranian weaponry date iron mask swords to around the ninth to eighth centuries BC. Muscarella speculates that, “The homogeneity of all the swords of this class suggests that they must have been made within a relatively short period of time and by a limited number of craftsmen.” In Ancient Bronzes from Luristan, P. R. S. Moorey states that iron mask swords must have been made by “a closely associated group of workshops.” In discussing the complexity of their manufacture, Muscarella writes: “Technologically, swords of this class represent a remarkable accomplishment of the ancient craftsman…On macroscopic examination alone one has the impression that they were made in one piece, the intent, no doubt, of the craftsmen. However, both X-ray and careful laboratory examination of many examples have demonstrated that all the swords were in fact constructed from a number of units, varying in quantity from sword to sword.” (See examples from the Web below.) Some swords have as many as 15 separate pieces! 






Iron mask swords all have disc-shaped pommels that are decorated with human* heads (protomes) – that hang over the edge of the disc and that seem to morph into frogs(?) on top of the pommel, grips with two molded cords, ending in guards adorned with couchant predators (lions?), and blades curiously set at a 90-degree angle to the handle. The blade and handle were usually made of different iron parts, cast and forged together.

* Having said this, it seems to me that only one of the two heads on the first of my swords (the first collage I present above) is clearly human. The other head (on the right in that collage) might be an animal of some sort.


It seems likely that iron mask swords were created for ceremonial purposes. Certainly, their unique form must have had some special significance. But their purpose – and the meaning of their iconography – are lost to time.


Here are some impressive examples from various museums.



Details of the NY (Metropolitan) sword above:


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