Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Death By Combat (Needham et al, 2017)

Racton Man died in a dagger fight, possibly from a knife to the armpit or from a slash to the elbow.  And what a dagger he had, one of a kind, the earliest detected bronze in Britain.

He was a big ole dude for his day.  If not a local king or village chief, some kind of honcho that made a few enemies along the way.  His opponent wielded a razor-sharp, metal knife, probably a rival Beaker.

PA via Daily Mail UK
The authors consider, buried in this Pay-per-no-view, that leadership was contested through combat trials, which brings to mind the locations in which dagger representations occur in abundance, such as  Stone Henge and Mont Bego.  The supplement is free and contains quite a bit of technical data.  Supplement1

"Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft superman" Dailymail

"Revealed:  Racton Man was a Bronze Age Warrior chief"  HistoryExtra

Needham, Kenny, Cole, Montgomery, Jay, Davis, Marshall (2017) The Antiquities Journal, Cambridge [Link]

"A previously unresearched Early Bronze Age dagger-grave found in 1989 at Racton, West Sussex, is profiled here through a range of studies. The dagger, the only grave accompaniment, is of the ‘transitional’ Ferry Fryston type, this example being of bronze rather than copper. Bayesian analysis of relevant radiocarbon dates is used to refine the chronology of the earliest bronze in Britain. While the Ferry Fryston type was current in the earlier half of the twenty-second century bc, the first butt-riveted bronze daggers did not emerge until the second half. The Racton dagger is also distinguished by its elaborate rivet-studded hilt, an insular innovation with few parallels.
The excavated skeleton was that of a senior male, buried according to the appropriate rites of the time. Isotopic profiling shows an animal-protein rich diet that is typical for the period, but also the likelihood that he was brought up in a region of older silicate sedimentary rocks well to the west or north west of Racton. He had suffered injury at or close to the time of death; a slice through the distal end of his left humerus would have been caused by a fine-edged blade, probably a dagger. Death as a result of combat-contested leadership is explored in the light of other injuries documented among Early Bronze Age burials. Codified elite-level combat could help to explain the apparent incongruity between the limited efficacy of early dagger forms and their evident weapon-status."


  1. "Injuries
    Perhaps the most important evidence to emerge fromthe skeletal study was of trauma that the individual had suffered during his life. There is a well-healed rib fracture to one of themid ribs on the individual’s right-hand side. When soil mass found loosely adhering to the posterior surface of the medial epicondyle of the right humerus was separated from the bone, evidence was revealed for sharp-force trauma (fig 8). No corresponding evidence
    was found on the proximal end of the ulna at the olecranon process. When the two are in
    normal articulation, it is possible to cut the humerus in this manner without affecting the ulna when the elbow is flexed at about 100 degrees. This is consistent with a cut made by a sharp thin-bladed weapon while the arm was raised in a manner to protect the face or the head. The wound showed no signs of healing so it was clearly sustained peri-mortem (that is, at about the time of death). The detached fragment of bone was not present in the recovered remains.
    A similar mark was observed on the surviving fragment of right scapula. This appears
    to have truncated the inferior margin of the glenoid and cut into the blade of the scapula.
    This may again be the result of a thin sharp-bladed weapon stabbing or slicing into the left axilla (armpit), but is less conclusive than the sharp-force trauma at the elbow because there was no sign of the other fragment of scapula. Moreover, stabbing a blade into the axilla with arm raised would possibly be expected also to leave a cut mark on the head of the humerus.
    Finally, the proximal shaft of the right ulna has several unusual scalloped notches through the interosseous margin (fig 9). They were covered by soil deposits so they are clearly perimortem, made while the bone was still fresh. The marks are not consistent with gnawing by rodents or carnivores. There are no corresponding marks on the proximal radius. Postdeposition modification seems unlikely, given the humerus, ulna and radius were found in correct anatomical position during excavation, but they remain unexplained"

    1. Thanks for pasting that. From the description of the ulna, it sounds like repeated stabbing or slashing. I would imagine that Racton Man was already on the ground defending his body with his right arm.

  2. Crazy to think after being forgotten for 4,000 years, the story of this guy's murder has come back to light.

    1. Sounds more like a duel than a murder to me.

  3. I have the full paper now. Will update tomorrow.

  4. " Death as a result of combat-contested leadership is explored..."

    Good God. These people are the kings of Just So Stories. It could have been You pissed me off. It could have been You bonked my wife. And it could have been too much mead. The one thing we know for sure is that we don't know, and we never can know. When reviewing manuscripts for publication, the first rule should be If you can't support it with evidence, take it out. What happened can be determined with a reasonable degree of confidence - sometimes. Why it happened belongs in after-seminar cookies-and-coffee discussions.