According to an organic residue analysis performed on 10 copper-alloy daggers from Pragatto, a Bronze Age domestic site (1550-1250 BCE) in northern Italy, these artifacts were used for processing animal carcasses and not as non-functional symbols of identity and status, as previously thought.
Daggers are ubiquitous yet poorly understood artifacts from prehistoric Europe.
They first appeared near-simultaneously in Eastern/Central Europe, the Alps, and the Italian peninsula in the early 4th millennium BCE.
From the outset, daggers were made from either flint or copper (first alloyed with arsenic, and later with tin) depending on source proximity and cultural preferences.
By the early 2nd millennium BCE, daggers were being made, used, and exchanged from Crete in the south to Scandinavia in the north, and from the Ukrainian steppes in the east to Ireland in the west.
As daggers are often found in weapon-rich male burials, many researchers speculated that they were primarily ceremonial objects.
Others suggested that they may have been used as weapons or tools for crafts.
However, the lack of a targeted method of analysis for copper-alloy metals, like those available for ceramic, stone, and shell artifacts, left this problem unresolved.
In new research, Newcastle University scientist Isabella Caricola and her colleagues used a revolutionary new method to extract organic residues from 10 copper-alloy daggers excavated in 2017 from Pragatto, a Bronze Age settlement site in Italy.
They identified micro-residues of collagen and associated bone, muscle, and bundle tendon fibers.
Uses seem to have included the slaughtering of livestock, butchering carcasses, and carving the meat from the bone.
The authors then carried out wide-ranging experiments with replicas of the daggers that had been created by an expert bronzesmith. This showed that this type of dagger was well suited to processing animal carcasses.
The residues extracted from the experimental daggers matched those observed on the archaeological daggers.
“The research has revealed that it is possible to extract and characterize organic residues from ancient metals, extending the range of materials that can be analyzed in this way,” said Newcastle University’s Professor Andrea Dolfini.
“This is a significant breakthrough as the new method enables the analysis of a wide variety of copper-alloy tools and weapons from anywhere in the world.”
“The possibilities are endless, and so are the answers that the new method can and will provide in the future.”
The results appear in the journal Scientific Reports.
I. Caricola et al. 2022. Organic residue analysis reveals the function of bronze age metal daggers. Sci Rep 12, 6101; doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-09983-3