Twenty-three years after Racton Man was found, archaeologists realised his dagger was oldest bronze object ever found in UK
For more than 4,000 years a man lay buried in a corner of a Sussex field, far from the land of his childhood, holding a rare and precious object. Then for another 23 years he lay in a museum store until a chance conversation between two archaeologists led to the piecing together of his story: a man who died of a slashing sword wound and was buried holding his dagger, the oldest bronze object ever found in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe.
He was buried lying on his left side, with his hands clasping the dagger in front of his face. The dagger is an exceptionally rare type: the wooden hilt, long since rotted away, was ornamented with tiny studs, each a little masterpiece of ancient metalwork that when new would have gleamed like gold.
Its owner was a fighter: apart from the unhealed sword slash near his elbow which probably caused him to bleed to death – the soil clinging to the bone proved that it was a raw gaping wound when he was buried – he had another old sword injury near the shoulder. The blade of his beautiful dagger had been sharpened, proving it was no mere ceremonial object.
The results of scientific tests on his bones and teeth, just announced at the museum in Chichester where his remains are now on display, dated his dagger to 4,200 years ago, the earliest securely dated bronze object ever found in Britain.
The dagger was made in the dawn of bronze-working techniques, when metalsmiths in Britain learned from the continent how to alloy their copper with West Country tin and make a far harder and more beautiful metal. Within a few decades bronze had almost wiped out copper work, used for vessels and ornaments as well as weapons, which could be sharpened to a murderous edge.
“Dagger burials of any kind are rare, and these daggers are hens’ teeth rare, it was a very short-lived fashion, certainly no more than a few generations,” Stuart Needham, formerly of the British Museum and an internationally renowned expert on bronze age metalwork, said. “To find one with the skeleton, giving it a secure and such an early date, makes it a find of national and indeed European importance.”