Reconstructing the life and times of an Iron Age warrior

Why was an Iron Age warrior buried in West Sussex 2,000 years ago, equipped with a sword, shield, and spectacular helmet? With a new exhibition in Chichester exploring these finds, Carly Hilts found out more about this unique grave and its enigmatic occupant from Amy Roberts and Portia Tremlett.

A reconstruction of the dual crested helmet, it's gold with red plumage, and a woman in white gloves is holding it and looking at it
This striking reconstruction depicts a dual-crested helmet that was found in an Iron Age grave at North Bersted, West Sussex. Created for an exhibition centred on the burial – currently running at the Novium Museum in Chichester – it imagines how this unique object, found in pieces, may have looked when complete. [Image: Chichester District Council]

Over 2,000 years ago, in what today is West Sussex but at the time lay within the territory of the Iron Age Regni tribe, an elaborate funeral was taking place. The man being laid to rest was an important and seemingly well-respected individual, with his mourners sending him to the grave accompanied by an extraordinary array of warrior regalia – a rare honour in a region where, at this time, cremation was the norm.

Who was this man who had seemingly commanded such high regard in life? After his burial was rediscovered two millennia later, analysis of his physical remains and his unique grave goods has yielded intriguing clues. His is a story of Continental connections and migrants fleeing conflict across the Channel. Today, thanks to a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this story is being explored in Mystery Warrior: the North Bersted Man, an exhibition currently running at the Novium Museum in Chichester (see ‘Further information’ box), but the discovery of his grave takes us back more than two decades earlier.

In June 2008, Thames Valley Archaeological Services had been excavating at North Bersted, near Bognor Regis, for six months. The field that they were investigating was destined for development into a new community called Bersted Park, and the project had unearthed extensive evidence of much earlier domestic activity: thousands of ditches, pits, and postholes spanning the Bronze Age to the Roman period. None of this was unexpected – but rather more surprising was the discovery of a large rectangular feature filled with darker soil. At the time, Senior Project Officer Andrew Taylor joked that it was ‘probably a grave’ – little knowing that he would shortly be proven to be right.

As the team excavated the rectangular shadow, they first came across a number of corroded metal straps, followed by three tall, ceramic jars standing in a neat row at one end of the cut. The vessels were completely intact, as if they had only just been placed in the ground. Further into the dark shape lay pieces of metalwork gleaming bright green – copper-alloy or bronze oxidised by centuries beneath the soil. There were further metal objects to come, including the corroded remains of a sword and a spearhead. And as a poorly-preserved human skeleton emerged in the middle of these objects, it was clear that the team had discovered an exceptional Iron Age warrior burial.

Plan of the North Bersted warrior's grave
Discovered in 2008, the North Bersted warrior’s grave was excavated by Thames Valley Archaeological services. This plan highlights the unique collection of grave goods that were discovered. [Image: Thames Valley Archaeological Services]

Its occupant was a mature adult male, aged 45 or older at the time of his death in the mid-1st century BC. He had not been exceptionally tall, at 5ft 7in (1.72m), but he was robustly built, testifying to a very physically active life – and to his martial grave goods being more than symbolic objects. His leg bones preserved the marks of strong muscle and ligament attachments, possibly pointing to considerable time spent on horseback, while his upper arms were even more distinctive. His right humerus was markedly bigger than his left, suggesting that he had regularly used that arm in repetitive heavy tasks – perhaps wielding a sword like the hefty blade that had been placed by his knees.

Photo showing the grave with the green helmet in the centre
In this photograph (which views the grave from the opposite angle to that shown in the plan above), the green dome of the helmet, initially interpreted as a copper-alloy bowl, can be seen towards the centre. [Image: Thames Valley Archaeological Services]
AN ELITE ARMOURY
The sword, bent almost in half
Shown with the two metal rings that would have been used to secure its scabbard to a belt, this La Tène-style sword had been violently bent almost in half before it was placed in the grave. [Image: Chichester District Council]

Sheathed in a scabbard, with a long blade suited to fighting on horseback, this weapon was no everyday fighting tool; it was a prestigious, finely crafted (in Continental La Tène style), and expensive piece of equipment that only high-ranking warriors would have possessed. The fact that such a valuable item had been buried with this individual rather than being passed on hints at the esteem in which he was held by his mourners. Iron Age sword burials are very rare in Sussex, though at the time of writing this feature the discovery of another (albeit less extravagant) example was announced at Walberton, located around seven miles from North Bersted (see the news article in this issue for more on this find). A small number of examples are also known from elsewhere along the south coast, such as at Owlesbury in Hampshire (which also contained a spearhead and a strikingly similar shield boss, of which more below) and Whitcomb in Dorset. This scarcity suggests that there was something distinctive about the individuals who were laid to rest accompanied by such a weapon – and further clues to the man’s identity were soon forthcoming.

As well as a sword for hand-to-hand fighting, he had been equipped with a distance weapon: a spear that could be thrown or used to keep an adversary at arm’s length. The wooden shaft had long since decayed, but the position of its iron head – a willow-leaf shape commonly seen in examples of this period – suggests that the spear had been snapped in half before it was placed in the grave: perhaps a ritual gesture ‘killing’ the object to mark its owner’s death and preventing it from being recovered or reused. The sword had also been deliberately damaged beyond repair, with both blade and scabbard violently bent at a sharp angle.

The spearhead from the burial after cleaning
The head of a spear that had also been buried with the North Bersted warrior. [Image: Thames Valley Archaeological Services]
The corroded boss of the shield
This winged piece of bronze sheet is all that remains of a large shield made of ash wood (which has long since decayed but left telltale traces in corrosion on the metal); the pointed cone at the heart of the boss suggests that as well as being a defensive object, the shield could also be used as an additional weapon. [Image: Chichester District Council]

The North Bersted warrior had also been buried with a shield, and although all that had survived was its boss – a large, winged shape made from thin bronze sheet – traces of wood preserved in corrosion on the metal suggests that its main board had been made of ash. The boss had a distinctive butterfly shape, with a pointed cone in its centre – it is thought that as well as being its owner’s main form of defence, the shield could also have been used as an additional weapon at close quarters – and it too appears to have been deliberately dismantled before burial, bending one of its wings in the process.

CROWNING GLORY

Among these martial grave goods, however, the most remarkable was an object that had initially been interpreted as a large copper-alloy or bronze bowl nestled close to the man’s left hip. On closer inspection it was revealed to be a helmet that had originally been adorned with a magnificent crest. Such headgear is extremely rare in Britain, with only three other Iron Age examples found to-date. They vary widely in style and ornateness, from a relatively simple domed helmet discovered a few years ago near Canterbury (see CA 275) to the famous horned silhouette of the Waterloo Helmet, which was dredged from the Thames in the 19th century. The third previously known example is another antiquarian find, the Meyrick Helmet, which is currently held by the British Museum and has a simple, slightly conical cap with a large decorative neck guard. Meanwhile, numerous depictions of elaborate helmets of this period are known from European pictorial sources, such as the decorations on Denmark’s late Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron.

The mystery warrior’s domed helmet is decorated with a hatched and punched motif around its rim. [Image: Chichester District Council]

The North Bersted find is unique: while its cap is a simple dome of the ‘coolus’ style known from across Gaul (what is now northern France and Belgium), with a rim decorated with a hatched and punched motif, it was found with two incredibly ornate curved metal sheets, which are thought to have fitted onto its surface (raised on five cylindrical mounts that were also recovered from the grave) to form an elaborate crest. One crescent-shaped sheet is believed to have run laterally across the top of the head, from ear to ear, while the other, asymmetric piece sat at a right angle to this, running down the back of the helmet. Both pieces were topped with a U-shaped mount that may have held some kind of plume or other adornment, though if that was the case its material – perhaps horsehair, boar bristles, or feathers – is unknown.

The most eye-catching adornment of the helmet was the pair of crests that once ran across its top and down its back. Two bones from the warrior’s hand have adhered to the metal of the crest that ran from ear-to-ear. [Image: Chichester District Council]

The crest sheets are adorned with intricate openwork decoration. This technique, where interlocking shapes are cut into flat metal to create intricate lace-like patterns, is known from Iron Age Continental Europe, though it is much rarer in Britain. The North Bersted helmet would have been a glittering spectacle, eloquently testifying to the wearer’s status and authority, providing a highly visible rallying point on the battlefield, and no doubt proving extremely intimidating to enemy observers.

Image of the skeleton and the helmet in the ground during excavation
Analysis of the skeleton of the ‘mystery warrior’ suggested that he had led a very physically active life, and that his weapons were not symbolic grave goods but had been wielded by this individual. One of the intricate openwork crests that had adorned his helmet can be seen in this photograph, oxidised by centuries spent underground. [Image: Thames Valley Archaeological Services]

A pair of chin-strap connectors riveted to either side of the cap suggests that the helmet was held in place with some kind of (possibly leather) strap, but it would nonetheless have been cumbersome to wear for any significant period of time. During preparations for the exhibition centred on the warrior burial, the Novium Museum commissioned a fibreglass replica with the crest fashioned from brass; and although this was nowhere near as heavy as the original would have been, it was nonetheless quite an effort to handle, Collections Officer Amy Roberts told CA during our visit. It has been suggested that the signs of significant wear on the vertebrae of the man’s upper neck may be related to the burden of the extravagant headdress.


This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 361. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

One Comment

  1. Cristiano
    May 19, 2020 @ 2:39 pm

    Really a great find but I wonder didn’t he wear any Torc? Usually Celtic warriors used to wear it…

    Reply

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