The People of Gibraltar

1867 - Frederick Brome - The Two Almohad Swords

George Busk and David Nicolle

During the mid 19th century Captain Frederick Brome was the governor of the Military Prison in Gibraltar.( see LINK )  He was also a keen archaeologist. From 1863 to 1869 he made use of quite a few convicts to help out in his excavations in various caves around Gibraltar. When the War Office got to know of Captain Brome's little hobby, they made their feelings known in no uncertain manner - he was dismissed not just from his post but from the service. 

Long before this, however, Capt Brome was able to accumulate perhaps one of the largest collections of archaeological treasure trove ever uncovered in Gibraltar, of which - despite a remarkable lack of enthusiasm on the part of the British authorities in Gibraltar - were recorded for posterity thanks to the efforts of his friend George Busk who just happened to be at one time or another president of both the Ethnological Society and the Anthropological Institute.

George Busk

The two men had probably met during one of Busk's visits to Gibraltar in which he famously took back to Britain the Neanderthal skull discovered by Lieutenant Flint in 1848 - eight years before the one unearthed in the Neander Valley and which rather unfairly gave the species its name. 

Busk published many of Brome's findings in an article On the Caves of Gibraltar in which Human Remains and Works of Art have been Found that appeared in the Transactions of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology of 1868. In the first chapter he quotes directly from letters received from Brome in which his friend gives an account of his findings in the Genista and Leonora's Caves as well as Martin's, Figtree, Poca Roca, St Michael's and the Judge's or Glen Rocky Caves

Genista Caves no 2, 3 and 4

It was in Martin's Cave that Brome describes his discovery of:
a two-edged sword . .  The hilt was surmounted by a globular pommel, and the whole of this portion of the sword appeared to be of silver. The scabbard had been of leather, lined (apparently) with wood; it was mounted with silver. On the silver mounting at the mouth of the scabbard there was a stamped ornament. . . . 
The day following that on which this sword was found, another was discovered, or rather the remains of one . . .The hilt is of the same form as the first, with a globular pommel ; it is of iron, and the mountings of the scabbard of copper. It was found fractured in seven places,
A short time after the discovery of the swords, Brome also found in the same cave a copper plate about one and half inches square with holes at each corner. After giving it a careful clean he wrote that:
. . . an enamelled surface was visible, having depicted on it something like a bird in the coils of a serpent, which has been identified. . . . The plate is said to be of "Limoges" work, and of the same period as the swords. The colours on this plaque are still visible, and must have been very brilliant.
Subsequently, Busk analysed Brome's findings emphasising the archaeological importance of human and other animal remains - but there is - unbelievably - no further mention of either the swords or the enamel copper plate - nor are there any illustrations. Busk presumably took most of Brome's findings back to England - including the swords and plate - which were then carefully put away in the British Museum and forgotten about for the next one hundred and thirty odd years.

 The kind of archaeological material that Busk was probably really interested in.

In 2002, Dr. David C. Nicolle a British historian specialising in the military history of the Middle Ages carried out an exhaustive - and exhausting - analysis of the two swords, the plate and the remains of the belts. His findings were published in an article in Gladius under the title of Two Swords from the Foundation of Gibraltar and it is here that we get our first glimpse of what they looked like.

The two swords in the British Museum - The top sword is the first one found by Brome is. It has a curved cross-guard and the hilt is decorated with white metal. The second one has straight quillons and no hilt decorations ( 2002 - David Nicolle )

Drawings of the hilts of the two swords and the "enamel belt plaque" - with colours added by me but as suggested by David Nicolle

Although Nicolle unfortunately attributed the finding of the swords and other artefacts to George Busk rather than Frederick Brome, his conclusions as to the origins and importance of the two swords and other artefacts are eminently quotable and a worthy finale to this article.
The plaque from Martin’s Cave in Gibraltar is generally considered to have been made in the workshop at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos and having its closest parallel in  the 12th-13th century enamelled metalwork  . . .When compared to other examples of Spanish enamel-work, the Gibraltar plaque looks more 12th than 13th century to me . . . .  
On balance the evidence presented . . . indicates that the two swords and the remains of one or two belts or baldrics found in Martin’s Cave date from the mid-12th century AD.  Both weapons, and probably all the baldric fragments including the enamelled plaque, were of Islamic origin, probably made in Andalus or Morocco.  
Why they were buried in Martin’s cave remains much more of a problem. Yet it remains possible, even perhaps likely, that they were placed there for unorthodox talismanic reasons during the foundation of the city of Madinat al-Fath, today's Gibraltar town by the. . Almohads, ( see LINK ) perhaps even during the Caliph Abd al-Mu’min’s visit to Gibraltar from November 1160 to early 1161 AD.   
If this is the case, then the long neglected swords and associated items from Martin’s Cave are amongst the most important artefacts in Gibraltar’s cultural history. Whatever the case, they remain unique examples of 12th century western Islamic military technology which deserve far more attention, far more conservation, and better display than they have yet received.