Novium Museum exhibition opened in January to reveal secrets of an Iron Age grave
In June 2008, while assessing farmland due for development in North Bersted, a team from Thames Valley Archaeological Services made a stunning discovery.
Alongside the ditches, pits, and potholes dating back to the Bronze Age, which are common finds, archaeologists uncovered a rectangular pit containing several ceramic pots.
Further excavation revealed the elaborate grave of an Iron Age warrior; the skeleton, laid flat on his back, was buried with an trove of artefacts including a spearhead, a bronze shield boss, a sword, and a helmet accompanied with decorative lattice work.
The sword and shield boss had been deliberately damaged before burial, in what is thought to be an example of the ritual ‘killing’ of weaponry found in other ancient graves, a practice that ensured the life of the weapon would end alongside that of the warrior.
After the site was fully excavated, teams from West Sussex and beyond set about carefully restoring the delicate artefacts.
The metalwork was cleaned and stabilised by Wiltshire Conservation Services; the clay pots reconstructed by the ceramics department at West Dean School of Arts and Conservation; and the human remains studied by osteologists.
More than a decade later, scientists and field experts have answered some of the questions surrounding North Bersted’s ‘Mystery Warrior’ – though the exhibition at the Novium Museum in Chichester suggests there are still plenty mysteries left to solve.
Berkeley Homes, the property developer originally commissioned to develop the land where Bersted Man was found, donated the finds to the Novium Museum. Thanks to a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery and a signature sponsorship from law firm Irwin Mitchell, the museum has been able to put on this fascinating exhibition, explaining its context within the history of West Sussex.
Paleolithic remains of another key find, the Boxgrove Man, show that Sussex has been inhabited for at least 500,000 years, and the county is rich in Bronze Age and Iron Age finds. Prior to Roman invasions, the West Sussex Coastal Plain was dominated by Iron Age tribes – communities with their own minted coins and a sophisticated economy based largely on agriculture. These tribes had trade links with tribes in Northern Gaul (now mainly France and Belgium).
Settlements are still visible at places like Cissbury Ring, where a raised mound is the site of an Iron Age hill fort, thought to been built in around 400BC.
Clues suggest Bersted Man was a French refugee
What confused experts about the ‘Mystery Warrior’ is that Iron Age people in Britain rarely buried their dead in the ground, preferring open-air ceremonies where the life force of the decaying body could be returned to the earth.
Bersted Man’s elaborate underground burial suggests he was being honoured by funeral rites more common in France and Belgium at the time.
This led experts to one theory of Bersted Man’s origin: that he was a real-life Asterix resistance fighter, a refugee French Gallic warrior fleeing Julius Caesar’s Roman army as it swept across continental Europe around 50BC.
“This find is important to the people of West Sussex as it is a brilliant way of connecting residents to their fascinating local heritage,” Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at Novium Museum, told Caring4Sussex.
“It is an important part of our understanding of who we are and where we have come from. What I find fascinating is the way each of his objects come together to tell a bigger story.
“Individually they all have their own story to tell, but when pieced together, and when combined with the evidence we have from his bones, you begin to build up a fascinating picture of the Mystery Warrior’s life.”
Experts in human DNA from the University of York and Harvard Medical School are working to extract ancient DNA from the bones of the Mystery Warrior to determine his ancestry.
Even under the best preservation conditions it is difficult to extract sufficient DNA for sequencing, although the technology itself – recently used to identify Neanderthal ancestry in Africans for the first time –gives hope that ancient questions can be answered.
Work is also continuing at West Dean School of Arts and Conservation, where students are using X-ray fluorescence to analyse the composition of the metal artefacts.
Previous findings determined that the decorative lattices are bronze, and through future investigations students hope to support the theory that the helmet is Roman.
Supporting the exhibition is a range of other Iron Age artefacts donated by the British Museum and the Hampshire Cultural Trust, and funding by The National Lottery Heritage Fund has provided a range of family-friendly crafts, activities and events, including opportunities to handle replica weaponry and have a go at weaving on a loom.
“We are able to offer a really exciting programme of free activities and events to accompany the exhibition, including a lecture series, Family Days (on the last Saturday of the month) and Community Days, in North Bersted,” said Portia Tremlett, Public Programme Engagement Officer. “The exhibition also includes hands-on activities and a newly commissioned children’s story by author and illustrator Tom Tinn-Disbury.”
Mystery Warrior is open at the Novium Museum from the 25 January to the 26 September 2020.
Admission is free, though donations are always welcome.