New study reveals the true function of Bronze Age daggers

(ORDO NEWS) — A new study led by Newcastle University has found that analysis of Bronze Age daggers has shown they were used to carve animal carcasses and not as non-functional symbols of identity and status as previously thought.

First appearing at the beginning of the 4th millennium BC, copper alloy daggers were widespread in Bronze Age Europe, including Britain and Ireland. However, archaeologists have long argued about what these objects were used for.

Because daggers are often found in weapon-rich male burials, or “warrior graves,” many researchers have suggested that they were primarily ceremonial items used at prehistoric funerals to signify the identity and status of the deceased. Others have suggested that they may have been used as weapons or crafting tools.

However, the lack of a targeted method for the analysis of copper metal alloys, similar to those that exist for ceramic, stone and shell artifacts, has left this problem unresolved.

New study reveals the true function of Bronze Age daggers
(A) Site location, (B) Aerial view of the excavation site showing excavation sites A, B, and C (source: Google Earth), (C) Copper alloy daggers examined as part of the study

A revolutionary new method pioneered by an international research team led by the University of Newcastle (UK) has made it possible to extract the world’s first organic remains from ten copper alloy daggers excavated in 2017 at Pragatto, a Bronze Age settlement site in Italy. The new method shows for the first time how these objects were used, for what tasks and on what materials.

The project team, led by Dr. Andrea Dolfini and Isabella Caricola, developed a method that used a solution of Picro-Sirius Red (PSR) to stain organic debris on daggers. The remains were then examined under several types of optical, digital and scanning electron microscopes.

This allowed the team to identify micro-remains of collagen and associated fibers in bones, muscles and tendons, suggesting that the daggers were in contact with various animal tissues and were used to treat different types of animal carcasses. Apparently, they were used for slaughtering cattle, butchering carcasses and carving meat from bones.

The EU-funded project team then carried out extensive experiments with replica daggers that had been created by an expert bronzer.

This showed that this type of dagger is well suited for processing animal carcasses. The remains recovered from the experimental daggers were also analyzed as part of the study and matched the remains found on the archaeological daggers.

Professor Andrea Dolfini, head of the Department of Archeology at Newcastle University, said: “The study showed that it is possible to extract and characterize organic remains from ancient metals, expanding the range of materials that can be analyzed in this way.

This is a significant breakthrough as the new method allows the analysis of a wide range of copper alloy tools and weapons from anywhere in the world. The possibilities are endless, as are the answers that the new method can and will give in the future.”

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