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The Bronze Warrior’s Last Fight

In 1989, a 4,000-year-old skeleton was unearthed near the village of 

Racton in Sussex. Swinging into action, British archaeologists promptly left it in storage for 23 years. Then, a chance comment led to an examination by Bronze Age metalwork expert Stuart Needham, who realized that the corpse had been buried with perhaps the oldest bronze object ever found in Britain—a magnificent dagger. With research funding secured, we now know a great deal more about the dagger and the dramatic death of its owner.

“Racton Man,” as he was soon dubbed, was around 1.8 meters (6 ft) tall, making him a giant for his time. He also lived a long life for the period, reaching the ripe old age of 45. He was clearly a fighter (he had an old sword injury to one shoulder) and must have been a powerful figure to own a beautiful weapon like the dagger. A significant improvement over the copper weapons common in Britain at the time, it was sharpened to a deadly edge and would have gleamed in the sunlight when new.

Interestingly, analysis of Racton Man’s teeth indicate that he wasn’t raised near Racton but probably came from further west, toward the West Country or even Ireland. But he seems to have been buried with respect and care, suggesting that he wasn’t a raider or a stranger to the area. We know so little about Bronze Age Britain that it’s impossible to say why Racton Man might have traveled from his home or what adventures he might have had along the way. Certainly, his age was beginning to catch up with him. His bones show signs of spinal degeneration and arthritis, and he seems to have had a chronic back problem.

Perhaps his age betrayed the old fighter when faced with a younger opponent. In any case, Racton Man seems to have died in combat. There are clear signs of a brutal cut to his upper right arm, probably sustained when he raised his hand to try to deflect a blade. This wound shows no signs of healing, indicating that it happened immediately before his death. The same blow might have severed an artery in his armpit, although it’s hard to be sure from the surviving remains. He was buried shortly afterward, holding his precious dagger clasped in front of his face.