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The Mystery Warrior

By Amy Roberts

By Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at the Novium Museum

The Mystery Warrior was first discovered in 2008 by Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd (TVAS).

TVAS had been commissioned to undertake excavations in advance of the construction of Berkeley Homes' new community called Bersted Park, North Bersted. These excavations had revealed interesting evidence highlighting occupation of the site from the later Bronze Age to the Roman period. The most gripping discovery at the site however was the grave of the most elaborately equipped Iron Age Warrior discovered in England, who is thought to have died at around the time of Caesar's Gallic Wars, in circa 50s BC.

The burial was not part of a larger cemetery, but was instead an isolated grave. The deceased was a mature male, aged over 45 years. The grave contained a range of artefacts including a sword, shield and a spearhead. In addition, it also contained a helmet customised with beautiful openwork crests, which make it unique worldwide. Locally made jars produced in the style of pottery from Normandy had been placed at his head, whilst broken bowls of local origin, but also modelled on bowls from the continent had been placed at his feet, possibly as part of a toast or connected to a funeral feast.

 

The sword discovered with the individual is a late La Tène weapon known as a 'ladder type'. The ladders gave strength to the scabbard. It overlay the legs of the deceased, but interestingly had been bent almost double prior to deposition. It is thought to have been a deliberate symbolic act of destruction.

 

The winged or butterfly shaped bronze shield boss had been made from one piece of bronze sheet. It has a distinctive coned point in the middle. This was not just for decoration and show, but could also make a wound that rendered someone susceptible to infection. Although there is no evidence from the grave of the structure of the shield, Iron Age shields like this one were usually either oval or slightly hour glass in form. The shield had been placed at the hip of the individual, on top of other grave items. It too shows signs of damage, suggesting the shield had been deliberately dismantled prior to burial.

 

The discovery of an Iron Age helmet in Britain is incredibly rare. It is a Coolus type. Similar helmets are found throughout Gaul, but are rarely found in the Iberian Peninsula, encompassing Spain and Portugal, where the Roman army is known to have been very active during the late Iron Age. This tells us that it is unlikely the helmet was of Roman origin. The example at North Bersted had been modified to allow the addition of two stunning openwork crests. The openwork crests are of a highly complex Celtic design using geometric shapes. It probably also originally carried an organic crest or plume.

 

Although preservation of the skeleton was poor, evidence suggests he survived a period of disease or malnutrition during childhood, as well as anaemia during his adult life. His bones show us that he led a very physical and active lifestyle. His leg bones exhibited evidence of strong muscle and ligament attachment, indicating that he may have been a horse rider. There were also marked differences in the size of the bones of his left and right forearms. His right arm was significantly larger, suggesting a preference for his right arm for repetitive or heavy exercise, such as holding and controlling a heavy sword. Most interestingly, the vertebra of his upper neck showed signs of significant wear, perhaps caused by the helmet over time.

Isotope analysis was undertaken on the individual to try to determine where he may have grown up. Oxygen and carbon isotope values were analysed and revealed that the region in which he could have grown up is quite large, encompassing eastern England and eastern France.

So, just who was this Mystery Warrior? Through archaeological and scientific analysis The Novium Museum will attempt to answer this interesting question in our brand new exhibition 'Mystery Warrior; The North Bersted Man', opening on 25th January 2020. The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the kind donation of the finds by Berkeley Homes, a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and signature sponsorship from Irwin Mitchell.

Thanks to generous funding provided by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Novium Museum has programmed a range of wonderful free activities and events in accompaniment to the exhibition. These include a fantastic programme of lectures by experts in their field, family activity days bringing the Iron Age to life at The Novium Museum, and Community Days celebrating the story of the Mystery Warrior at the heart of where the discovery was made in North Bersted. Click here to find out more.

The winged or butterfly shaped bronze shield boss had been made from one piece of bronze sheet. It has a distinctive coned point in the middle. The winged or butterfly shaped bronze shield boss had been made from one piece of bronze sheet. It has a distinctive coned point in the middle.
The sword overlay the legs of the deceased, but interestingly had been bent almost double prior to deposition.  It is thought to have been a deliberate symbolic act of destruction. The sword overlay the legs of the deceased, but interestingly had been bent almost double prior to deposition. It is thought to have been a deliberate symbolic act of destruction.
The Mystery Warrior’s grave, part was through excavation. Just visible are the shield boss and helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd The Mystery Warrior’s grave, part was through excavation. Just visible are the shield boss and helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd
Further into the excavation of the grave the human remains are now visible, as is the incredible openwork crests adorning the helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd Further into the excavation of the grave the human remains are now visible, as is the incredible openwork crests adorning the helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd
Front openwork crest and with attachment pieces. These attachment pieces which would have connected the openwork crest to the helmet. Front openwork crest and with attachment pieces. These attachment pieces which would have connected the openwork crest to the helmet.
Thumbnail image of The winged or butterfly shaped bronze shield boss had been made from one piece of bronze sheet. It has a distinctive coned point in the middle.
Thumbnail image of The sword overlay the legs of the deceased, but interestingly had been bent almost double prior to deposition.  It is thought to have been a deliberate symbolic act of destruction.
Thumbnail image of The Mystery Warrior’s grave, part was through excavation. Just visible are the shield boss and helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd
Thumbnail image of Further into the excavation of the grave the human remains are now visible, as is the incredible openwork crests adorning the helmet. Image courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd
Thumbnail image of Front openwork crest and with attachment pieces. These attachment pieces which would have connected the openwork crest to the helmet.
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