For decades, it’s been thought bronze age daggers were used as symbols of identity and status for people living as long as 6,000 years ago.
Now, a new study led by the Newcastle University shows that they were in fact used for butchering and carving animal carcasses.
By analysing Bronze Age daggers previously recovered from Pragatto, Italy, they found traces of animal residue suggestive of cutting ‘bone, muscle and tendons’.
First appearing in the early 4th millennium BC, copper-alloy daggers were widespread in Bronze Age Europe including Britain and Ireland, but archaeologists have long debated what they were used for.
Analysis of Bronze Age daggers has shown that they were used for processing animal carcasses and not as non-functional symbols of identity and status, as previously thought. Pictured, one of the experimental daggers
Researchers studied organic residues from copper-alloy daggers excavated in 2017 (pictured here are five)
WHAT WAS THE BRONZE AGE?
The Bronze Age is the third phase in the development of material culture among people of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
The date at which the age began varied with regions; in Greece and China the Bronze Age began before 3000 BC, whereas in Britain it did not start until about 1900 BC.
The Bronze Age, which marked the first time humans started to work with metal generally, came after the Stone Age and before the Iron Age.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
‘Metal daggers are widespread in Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Europe, yet their social and practical roles are still hotly debated,’ researchers at Newcastle University say in their paper.
‘[Our] method has proved successful in extracting and identifying animal residues located on cutting edges including bone, muscle, and tendons.
‘These are interpreted as evidence of prehistoric carcass butchering and carving.’
As daggers are often found in weapon-rich male burials, or ‘warrior graves’, many researchers had speculated that they were primarily ceremonial objects used in prehistoric funerals to mark out the identity and status of the deceased.
Early metal daggers were long thought to be ‘non-functional insignia of male identity and power’ due to perceived weaknesses in their design and composition, previous studies have suggested.
Other academics had said that the objects may have been used as weapons or tools for crafts, based on the fact they show evidence of being sharpened.
However, previous studies in the last 50 years have been inconclusive due to a lack of a targeted method of analysis for copper-alloy metals, according to the Newcastle experts.
The daggers were excavated from Pragatto, a Bronze Age domestic site in northern Italy excavated in 2016-2017
ANCIENT STONE BOARD GAME FOUND AT BRONZE AGE SETTLEMENT IN OMAN
Archaeologists working in the deserts of Oman uncovered an ancient stone board game in a Bronze Age settlement that was likely played some 4,000 years ago.
Completed in December, the digs around Ayn Bani Sa’dah in the Qumayrah Valley were led by the University of Warsaw and Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Tourism.
The game board, found buried within the remains of a room, sports at least thirteen marked squares, each with a central indentation.
While its rules have been lost to time, if the Ayn Bani Sa’dah game was played like the Royal Game of Ur, its closest modern equivalent would be backgammon.
Read more: Ancient stone board game found at Bronze Age settlement
The new method performed what researchers say is the world’s first extraction of organic residues from 10 excavated copper-alloy daggers.
The daggers were excavated between 2016-2017 from Pragatto, a Bronze Age settlement site in northern Italy.
The project team, led by Dr Andrea Dolfini and Isabella Caricola, developed a technique that used picrosirius red (PSR) staining solution to stain organic residues on the daggers.
Biologists commonly use PSR to make collagen appear in various in tissue sections under cross-polarized light.
The residues were then observed under several types of optical, digital, and scanning electron microscopes.
This allowed the team to identify micro-residues of collagen and associated bone, muscle and bundle tendon fibres, as well as animal fur residues.
The Pragatto daggers had come into contact with multiple animal tissues and were used to process various types of animal carcasses, the team found.
Uses seem to have included the slaughtering of livestock, butchering carcasses and carving the meat from the bone.
The team then carried out wide-ranging experiments with replicas of the daggers that had been created by an expert bronzesmith.
This showed that this type of dagger was well suited to processing animal carcasses.
Pictured are archaeological residues observed in transmitted and cross-polarized light with staining compound picrosirius red (PSR)
Pictured are digital microscope shots of the copper-alloy daggers from Pragatto showing plant fibres and animal fur residues
Residues extracted from the experimental daggers were also analysed as part of the research and matched those observed on the archaeological daggers.
‘The research has revealed that it is possible to extract and characterise organic residues from ancient metals, extending the range of materials that can be analysed in this way,’ said Professor Andrea Dolfini at Newcastle University.
‘This is a significant breakthrough as the new method enables the analysis of a wide variety of copper-alloy tools and weapons from anywhere in the world.
‘The possibilities are endless, and so are the answers that the new method can and will provide in the future.’
The fact people were buried with their daggers suggests they were important symbolically too. They were likely ‘multi-functional implements’.
‘Back in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age, when daggers were placed in graves as a matter of course, I think they were also used as weapons and also as symbols of identity, e.g., gender, age, and perhaps status. But this cannot be demonstrated experimentally,’ Professor Dolfini told MailOnline.
‘By the later Bronze Age, swords would be the main weapons; daggers might perhaps have retained an ancillary function for close up combat (as they are sometimes still found in warrior graves), but I think we hit on the main non-martial use with our research.’
The study has been published in Scientific Reports.
BRONZE AGE BRITAIN: A PERIOD OF TOOLS, POTS AND WEAPONS LASTING NEARLY 1,500 YEARS
The Bronze Age in Britain began around 2,500 BC and lasted for nearly 1,500 years.
It was a time when sophisticated bronze tools, pots and weapons were brought over from continental Europe.
Skulls uncovered from this period are vastly different from Stone Age skulls, which suggests this period of migration brought new ideas and new blood from overseas.
Bronze is made from 10 per cent tin and 90 per cent copper, both of which were in abundance at the time.
Crete appears to be a centre of expansion for the bronze trade in Europe and weapons first came over from the Mycenaeans in southern Russia.
It is widely believed bronze first came to Britain with the Beaker people who lived about 4,500 years ago in the temperate zones of Europe.
They received their name from their distinctive bell-shaped beakers, decorated in horizontal zones by finely toothed stamps.
The decorated pots are almost ubiquitous across Europe, and could have been used as drinking vessels or ceremonious urns.
Believed to be originally from Spain, the Beaker folk soon spread into central and western Europe in their search for metals.
Textile production was also under way at the time and people wore wrap-around skirts, tunics and cloaks. Men were generally clean-shaven and had long hair.
The dead were cremated or buried in small cemeteries near settlements.
This period was followed by the Iron Age which started around 650 BC and finished around 43 AD.