Lost metal detectorist finds Bronze Age rapier

A metal detectorist who got separated from his group and walked to higher ground in the hope of finding them found a Middle Bronze Age hoard instead. John Belgrove paid £20 to join 50 people on this metal detecting rally in Dorset, but when he lost the people he gained the find of a lifetime valued at £17,000 but archaeologically priceless. His detector signaled as he was trudging to high ground, and just eight inches under the surface, he dug up what turned out to be the hilt of a rapier caked in clay. Then he found the blade broken in two sections. Then he found an axe head. Then he found a bangle.

The two-foot long rapier was buried with a palstave axe head and a decorated bracelet in a grave, a unique combination of valuable objects buried as a funerary offering for what must have been a wealthy individual. All three objects date to the Taunton phase (c.1400-1275 B.C.) of the Middle Bronze Age.

The rapier is cast bronze with a copper alloy hilt designed to imitate the wooden hilts of the period. It was broken in three pieces: the end of the blade snapped off and where the blade meets the c-shaped guard broken off in a jagged line. It was deliberately broken before burial. Only two similar examples have been found in Britain, and they are incomplete.

The palstave axe head is made of cast copper alloy and high side flanges and concave edges that flare into a rounded cutting edge. There are marks on the blade that may have been caused by use or in the finishing process.

The bracelet or arm-ring is copper alloy and decorated with a complex incised geometric pattern of transverse bands, herringbone bands and cable-style bands. It is a rare find on its own, and there is no known comparable example of a rapier, palstave and bracelet from the Taunton phase buried together.

The Dorset Museum and Art Gallery was keen to acquire this exceptional grouping and in November of last year, launched a crowdfunding campaign. With donations from the public and grants from non-profit trusts, it was able to raise the £17,000 valuation cost to acquire the Stalbridge Hoard. The hoard arrived at the museum on May 31st, and will undergo conservation and study before going on display.

Elizabeth Selby, director of collections at Dorset Museum, said: “This hoard is incredibly special. The rapier sword is really unusual because of the cast bronze handle. The bracelet decoration was quite unusual as well.

“There aren’t really any comparable objects like the rapier, so to be able to acquire these items is really important for us.

“Finds like this tell us about how people were travelling, meeting and exchanging ideas with others on the continent in the centuries before the Roman invasion.

“There was a farming community there and these people generated enough wealth to be able to barter for or exchange objects that others had made.”

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