What Were Bronze Age Daggers Used For? To Kill Animals, Study Finds. And Maybe Other Humans

Far from being solely symbolic in purpose, use-wear analysis shows residue of animals on Italian Bronze Age blades. But humans don’t generally confine butchery to the beasts

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Dagger and arrowheads, Late Bronze Age. The City of Prague Museum
Dagger and arrowheads, Late Bronze Age. The City of Prague MuseumCredit: Zde
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the beginning there was copper, hammered out of ore-bearing rocks as much as 10,000 years ago. Copper is one of the few metals that can occur in nature in native form – meaning, ready-usable as metal. But it was helpful to humanity that annealing and smelting emerged perhaps 7,000 years ago.

Then came the Bronze Age, in which the soft, malleable copper was mixed with small amounts of arsenic and then tin (or both), creating a stiffer, more utile metal. The Bronze Age began around 5,700 years ago in southeastern Europe, and about 2,500 years ago north of that.

The peoples of both the Chalcolithic (the Copper Age) and the Bronze Age made, among other things, a lot of metal daggers, archaeologists have discovered over the years. The knives were relatively widespread for millennia: “By the early second millennium B.C.E., daggers were being made, used, and exchanged from Crete in the south to Scandinavia in the north, and from the Russian steppes in the east to Ireland in the west,” says the new analysis published in Nature last month.

The question bedeviling inquiring minds is what purpose copper and bronze daggers served. Copper and bronze are not particularly tough, at least when compared with iron (which would emerge later). Were these weak early copper daggers, and even the slightly stronger but still feeble bronze daggers, functional? If so, to achieve what? Were they tools, weapons, or more the stuff of ceremony, identity and status? Or all the above?

In Bronze Age Italy, the jury is back. Early metal daggers there were functional, according to Isabella Caricola of Newcastle University, Andrea Dolfini and colleagues.

An archaeologist with a bladeCredit: Isabella Caricola / Newcastle University
Bronze dagger with a hilt-sheath made of cutout gold sheet from Malia (1800-1700 B.C.E.).Credit: Bernard Gagnon

Using a breakthrough analytical process, the researchers studied residues remaining on eight bronze blades hailing from Pragatto, northern Italy, 3,500 to 3,250 years ago. The residue derives from animals, they report. The Pragattoians were using their bronze daggers to butcher and/or process animals. (Interestingly though irrelevantly, Otzi the Iceman, Early Bronze Age mummy of the Alps, had a dagger but it was made of stone.)

The functional role does not rule out other uses, symbolic or status or other, but it makes sense.

To the layperson, it beggars belief that peoples over the ages would trouble to produce super-precious metal and manufacture that many daggers (since they were, researchers assure us, widespread) just to wave them about and symbolically pound one’s chest. But then, many things people do beggar belief and it seems even Neanderthals made jewelry, so evidently investing effort in appearances goes back.

Yet previous studies had indeed indicated functional intentions, including because many Early Bronze Age daggers show signs of having been sharpened and/or repaired. Yet before use-wear analysis, their functionality couldn’t be proven.

“There are a few purely nonfunctional daggers in Bronze Age Europe (and perhaps beyond), but they are a bit of a rarity,” Dolfini explains. “Most daggers were certainly functional and indeed used. This is confirmed by use-wear analysis of prehistoric metal daggers from a broader geographic and chronological sample. … Daggers were kept sharp and some were greatly reduced through sharpening. That surely shows they were used repeatedly.”

A dagger from the Early Bronze Age.Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / Locutus Borg

Oh the inhumanity

One reason why a chiefly symbolic role had been suspected is that daggers, usually corroded by the ages but identifiable, were often found in warrior graves – burials of men (or, it turns out, women) together with weapons, the team explains. In some cases, the weapons buried with the dearly departed seem to have been ceremoniously broken; in other cases, they are considered to have been nonfunctional.

Burials with copper or bronze daggers have also been found in Bronze Age Israel. Taking into context other grave goods and the rarity, preciousness and expensiveness (and weakness) of copper and then of bronze, and that most people continued to use stone tools throughout the Iron Age, it has been postulated that daggers of weak metal mainly signified the elite status of the dead – i.e., they were rich men.

Again, that doesn’t rule out that the fat cats didn’t use them for other purposes – loftily ceremonial or hostile – but shiny metal blades were not the stuff of the hoi polloi. Similar symbolic intent has been postulated for European Bronze Age dagger-rich male burials, or “warrior graves.” Now, though, it has been proven how bronze blades were really used in the case of eight prehistoric specimens at Pragatto.

How broadly can the use of daggers at one site be taken? It can’t, until more research is done, but Dolfini surmises that it’s a test case that could have broader implications.

An archaeologist cutting cereals with a blade.Credit: Isabella Caricola / Newcastle University

There is one snag. The technique involved applying Picro-Sirius red solution to stain organic residues on the daggers. The residues were then observed under several types of optical, digital and scanning electron microscopes, the team explains. And thusly they identified micro-residues of collagen and associated bone, muscle and bundle tendon fibers, which were neither plant material nor symbolic. So, they concluded, the daggers had come into contact with animal tissues: slaughtering, butchering, carving.

The snag is that their study couldn’t distinguish Bessie the Cow from Boris the Neighbor. Asked if the “animal tissues” could be human, Dolfini explains: “As we could not discriminate species, that’s theoretically possible – but extremely unlikely considering the domestic context the daggers are from.”

It would be interesting to analyze daggers from warrior graves in the future, Dolfini adds: “We might hit on some human tissue there.”

We might. Neither the humans of today nor the humans from the very start of civilization as we know it have been known for their bonhomie. Archaeologists have identified a site in Sudan that they postulate hosted the world’s earliest known race war, and a shockingly brutal one it was. There is a theory that the residents of one of the earliest known proper villages in the world, Çatalhöyük, couldn’t stand each other and violence raged in the town. Nor did we become more affable in historic times, going by sources such as Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews” or Livy’s hair-raising “History of Rome,” which is replete with violence (notably between the patres and the plebes).

Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, who was not involved in this research, is unsurprised that the blades were functional. He points out that even though wool was among the materials identified on them, it doesn’t mean they were only used for sheep, for instance.

An archaeologist demonstrating butchering a carcass with a dagger.Credit: Isabella Caricola / Newcastle University

Stone tools go back as much as 3.3 million years – those were crude hammers, but still. Used to break long megafauna bones for marrow, or the skull of that annoying ape-person next door? Or all the above?

Anyway, back to the blades of Pragatto: the archaeologists could also discern residues on blade faces and hafting plates, or tangs, which they interpreted as remnants of handles and sheaths. Yes, the prehistoric people of Pragatto would sensibly cart their knife about sheathed, using wood fibers (bast) or processed hide and fur.

Whatever they were using their bronze daggers for, the Terramare culture of northern Italy, including Pragatto and the environs, collapsed in about 1200 B.C.E. So did civilizations all around the Mediterranean: the great Bronze Age Collapse had Egypt abandoning its Levantine empire and fleeing back to base by the Nile, the Hittites imploding and so much more. In the void, the Sea Peoples arose and so did the early Israelites, it seems.

What caused the great collapse and whether the ripples reached northern Italy are not known.

“It’s at the same time so possibly loosely related to that, but it’s in a different part of the world,” Dolfini says. “The collapse of the Terramare civilization is still hotly debated, with no definitive answer yet.”

But collapse it did. Nearly all the settlements were abandoned within a few generations, and the landscape and water management system collapsed and disappeared, leaving behind ruin, desolation, and bronze daggers.

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