The Bersted Sword

on Tuesday, 07 June 2022. Posted in Archaeology, Conservation, History Centre

A truly fascinating and very significant object has returned to our studio for conservation work, and I have been the lucky conservator to work on it, on behalf of the Novium Museum.

The Bersted sword is over 2000 years old, discovered during excavations for a new housing estate in Bersted, West Sussex. It was found with the remains of a man, since dubbed the ‘mystery warrior’, alongside his helmet and a very elaborate and unusual headdress. Archaeologists believe he was a refugee French Gallic fighter who fled Julius Caesar's Roman Army in Europe around 50BC.

The sword itself is bent into a v-shape, understood to be a ritual ‘killing’ of the weapon at the time of burial with its deceased owner.

A bent metal object lying on top of soft packaging covered in corrosion
Figure 1- The Bersted sword in 2010, before investigative cleaning

X-rays and investigative cleaning were undertaken by CMAS in 2010, which were able to expose parts of the sword beneath the thick corrosion products, revealing that it is fused to a ribbed iron scabbard, complete with intact suspension loop and two copper alloy rings for attaching the scabbard to a belt. Remarkably, remains of horn, which is a material frequently lost due to decomposition on burial, are still present on the hilt. The tip of the sword was missing, but discovered separately during the excavation.

Metal sword bent into V shape is laid on white background and has its tips cleaned of attached corrosion
Figure 2- After investigative cleaning, exposing hilt with horn remains and ribbed scabbard

Following further funding, the sword has returned to CMAS to be fully cleaned and reconstructed. It was broken in several pieces beneath the corrosion, and the tip also needed to be reunited with the rest of the sword.

A seated conservator in white lab coat and green gloves is  painstakingly cleaning the repaired sword
Figure 3- Cleaning adhesive residue from a repaired section of the sword

Some very interesting, and not yet completely understood findings, have come to light, including a very blistered and ‘lumpy’ appearance to parts of the iron, and what appear to be remains of nails or studs set at an angle at regular intervals along the scabbard. Possible remains of bone and tin appear to exist on the rounded heads of two of the nails/studs.

Three images showing cleaned sword with regular raised perpendicular lines, x-ray of sword showing some brighter white areas, and profile of metal 'stud' showing variance of colour paler in the centre.
Figures 4- 6 Top left- possible stud/nail locations, marked with arrows. Note the stud circled on both the photograph and X-ray, bottom left. The brightness on the x-ray suggests the presence of a dense material such as tin. Bottom right- magnified image of the top of the circled ‘stud’- the whiteish material may be remains of tin.

It is possible that the sword needed to be exposed to very high temperatures to be ritually bent, which might explain the blistered and lumpy appearance of the iron. The studs may be decorative, and/or part of the suspension system, used to attach the scabbard to a belt or harness. Tin is known to have been used in a thin layer on iron objects as a form of decoration or protective coating.

Conservation continues, with the adhesion of the pieces nearly complete. The sword will then need to be carefully packed for its return journey to the Novium Museum.

Fully cleaned metal sword bent into a V shape on white background showing thin section at one end and rounded tip at the other
Figure 7- Sword as it appears today, with sections, including the tip, re-adhered

Alison Foster, Senior Conservator
Conservation and Museums Advisory Service

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