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.”
Racton Man was named for the hamlet near Chichester, where his dagger was first found by a metal detector in 1989. James Kenny, now the archaeologist for Chichester district council, was one of the team who returned to the field and recovered the well-preserved skeleton and the tiny rivets that the detector had missed. He knew it was an important find, but there was no money for post-excavation work, so he wrote a report, and the skeleton and dagger went into the museum stores.
Then two years ago he and Needham were walking in another Sussex field where a small hoard had been found, and Kenny told him of his best find, so long ago.
“A riveted dagger in Sussex – my little ears pricked up,” Needham said. “I thought I knew every dagger burial in Britain, but I’d never heard of it.”
The two went to look at the bones and the dagger in the stores, and Needham’s excitement grew. They found the funding from different sources including the local authority, and assembled a team of experts from England, Wales and Scotland.
The results startled everyone. Kenny described Racton Man as “a big man” and he was literally that. To have owned such a high-status object he must have been a leader, possibly a tribal chieftain, but he also stood six foot tall, and had lived into his late 40s, much longer than the average life expectancy.
Isotope analysis of one of his teeth showed he had not come from the chalk downland of Sussex but from the West Country or just possibly Ireland or Brittany.
The copper in the bronze was also a rare type in Britain known as arsenic-only copper, which may have been specially prized because, although they couldn’t have understood the chemistry, the higher the arsenic content the harder the eventual bronze. The copper was probably imported, but the workmanship of the dagger was British.
Although he was still a tall powerful man when he died, age and a hard life had taken their toll. He had spinal degeneration, probably arthritis, a chronic sinus infection, tooth decay and an abscess in one tooth. He may have sustained a deep cut to the armpit that could have severed an artery, a blow his raised arm may have been trying to ward off when it was cut by the sword.
Needham said the combat wounds were an interesting contribution to a debate about whether tribal leaders of the early Bronze Age were hereditary or had to be military leaders: Racton Man certainly hadn’t led a life of sheltered privilege.
There was no surviving evidence of a burial mound in the field, which has been farmed for 4,000 years, nor of a nearby settlement, but he was carefully and honourably buried.
In 1989, the prehistoric age of internet archaeology, Kenny published the find in a little annual report which the team typeset before stapling the pages together themselves. The news sank like a stone.
“I knew he was important though,” he said. “I never forgot him.”
Racton Man and his dagger are on display at the free admission Novium Museum in Chichester.