Skip to main content

CRL Reports: Composite wood / iron objects: pole arms and partisans

La Salle Shipwreck Project
Texas Historical Commission

Throughout each year, the Conservation Research Laboratory conserves material from a number of different archaeological projects. The purpose of these CRL reports is to showcase the conservation procedures used to treat some of the more interesting archaeological material. The conservation of a partisan found on the Belle is presented in this report. The Belle, one of the ships of French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur (Lord) de La Salle, was lost in Matagorda Bay, Texas in 1686. It was excavated by the Texas Historical Commission.

During any shipwreck conservation project, and the Belle is no exception, there are always artifacts classified as composite artifacts because they are comprised of disparate materials that cannot be disassembled or broken down into their component parts.  A number of pole arms found on the Belle fall into this category as they all have iron blades attached to long wooden shafts.

encrusted object recovered from the Belle


Definition of Terms

A ‘pole arm’ is an all-inclusive word for any metal pointed shaft used for military and/or status purposes. There is considerable confusion and overlapping of definitions for the numerous 15th- through 18th-century wooden shafts with metal pointed ends.  They are referred to as pikes, spontoons, partisans, and halberds to name but a few.The encrusted object to the left was recovered from the Belle.  It can be identified as a partisan, which is defined either as “a weapon used by infantry in the 16th to 17th centuries, consisting of a long-handled spear, the blade having one or more lateral cutting projections” (Oxford Universal Dictionary of Historical Principles 1955) or as “a broad-bladed pole arm usually having short, curved branches at the base of the blade; but the shapes of the blades vary greatly” (Stone 1961:484).

A partisan, Stone (1961:484) continues, is “particularly the weapon of the guards of dignitaries and many specimens are elaborately decorated.  It was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and still is used as a ceremonial weapon.”

The encrusted pole arm/partisan shown here is an excellent example of an iron/wood composite artifact.  It is presented as an interesting example of the role that casting in epoxy plays in modern conservation.  Casting is of particular importance in the conservation of the Belle‘s iron artifacts, for only a natural mold formed by the encrustation is all that remains of a significant percentage of them — especially the smaller objects.  It is important to remember that when a metal object is lost in the sea, a layer of encrustation begins to form immediately on its surfaces.  This encrustation creates a perfect impression (in many instances) and mold of the original metal object.

graphic drawn from X rays of the encrusted object

In order to properly evaluate the encrusted pole arm, it was necessary to first obtain a good set of radiographs.  Where sound metal remains on an encrusted artifact, it shows as a white area on a radiograph, for X rays do not readily penetrate through metal and thus only slightly expose the X-ray film.  Areas where metal is completely corroded are indicated by a gray shadow.

In the case of the Belle pole arm, we could determine from the radiograph (illustrated at right) that some metallic iron remained in the thick, center part of the blade.  However, no metal remained along the blade’s thin cutting edges.  In short, all that remained of the blade was a hollow mold filled with loose slush.  We decided then to make a cast of the blade from the impression it had left in the encrustation.

The figure to the right was drawn from X rays of the encrusted object.  It  can be classed as a partisan, since it is very similar to the example highlighted in the figure below.

examples of different partisans

Source: Stone 1961:483.



The highlighted partisan (left) is a 17th-century French piece.  The other examples show the range of variations found within this interesting partisan class of polearms.
Elaborate etched designs are evident on some of these examples.


See how we conserved the iron blade.


See how we conserved the wooden shaft.