Remains of Iron Age warrior to go on display

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The Bersted warrior’s helmet, with headdress in the background.
The Bersted warrior’s helmet, with headdress in the background.

The spectacular remains of an Iron Age warrior, discovered 12 years ago in Chichester, England, will soon be put on public display for the first time at the Novium Museum, Chichester. Mystery Warrior: The North Bersted Man exhibition will open on 25 January 2020 and will explore the life, health, and death of the unknown warrior buried in the grounds of south-east England millenia ago.

Thought to date from 50BC, the warrior’s skeleton was discovered buried alongside a series of ornate weapons and artefacts. An elaborately decorated headdress, a bronze helmet adorned with skilful lattice work, and a sword bent curiously out of shape were included amongst the objects buried with the warrior.

The sword was bent out of shape in symbolic ‘death’ accompanying the owner to the afterlife. Such rituals were only reserved for men of the highest status, and the quality of the other artefacts indicates that the occupant of this grave was an important figure in local society during the Roman invasion.

The warrior’s sword, bent into ‘death’ alongside its owner.
The warrior’s sword, bent into ‘death’ alongside its owner.

It is thought that the warrior may have fought alongside King Commius, a client king of Julius Caesar, during Julius Caesar’s wars with the Gauls and attempted occupation of the British Isles.

James Kenny, Chichester District Council’s archaeologist, was one of the first people to view the grave when it was discovered in North Bersted:

In more than thirty years of archaeology this is the most spectacular discovery that I have witnessed … Due to the richness of the finds within the grave, we believe that the mystery warrior held one of the most prestigious roles in the country … His physique, the strength of his legs, comes from habitual exercise — most likely horse riding … And he had a particularly robust right arm which can only come from battle exercise.

Such discoveries are extremely rare in Britain, and the burial is distinguished by the fine quality and craftsmanship of the artefacts as well as the sheer range of possessions unearthed in the grave.

The warrior had a full suite of weapons, including a sword in a decorated scabbard, a spear, a shield with large bronze boss, and a breathtaking headdress to accompany the warrior’s helmet. This is decorated with an exquisitely designed bronze openwork crest.

The Bersted warrior being excavated.
The Bersted warrior being excavated.

A team of experts has been working with the Novium Museum, to analyse and interpret the finds to tell the story of the mystery warrior in the new exhibition. The exhibition will attempt to explain some of the questions that have been raised by the circumstances of his burial and illuminate a critical point in Britain’s history — the years immediately preceding the Roman invasion, when the south coast was at the heart of the great events that ultimately shaped Britain as a nation.

This news article will appear in issue 109 of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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