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The Real Thing

A bronze sword that experts thought was fairly new is actually very old.
Two gloved hands hold a bronze sword with a lot of wear and tear
© Field Museum
This bronze sword dates back 3,000 years.

A sword that has been in storage at a museum for about 100 years and thought to be a replica (copy) of an ancient weapon is actually the real thing. Experts at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, say the sword dates back 3,000 years to the Bronze Age.

The Field Museum purchased the 3-foot (0.9 meter) sword from the Hungarian National Museum in the 1920s. The sword had been discovered in the Danube River in Hungary in 1920. In that part of the world, at the time the sword was used, weapons and armor were often thrown into rivers. According to William Parkinson, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum, this was most likely done after a battle to symbolize that the two sides had made a peace agreement.

The sword was made during the Bronze Age, which lasted from before 3000 BCE to about 1000 BCE in that region. (The start and end dates of the Bronze Age were different in different parts of the world.) The Bronze Age is when humans figured out how to make metal tools. Before the Bronze Age, tools had been made of stone. 

Despite the sword’s importance, the Field Museum believed it was a fake until recently. The mistake wasn’t discovered until the museum started preparing for a new exhibit called “First Kings of Europe.” Hungarian archaeologists who were visiting to help with the preparations asked to see the sword and then decided to verify whether it truly was a replica. Along with a chemist who works at the museum, the archaeologists looked at the chemical makeup of the sword and compared it to other Bronze Age swords. There was very little difference. Archaeologists concluded that the sword is real.

Experts use X-ray equipment to determine the sword’s chemical makeup and determine its age.
© Field Museum
Experts use X-ray equipment to determine the sword’s chemical makeup.

What made museum officials think the sword was a replica in the first place? Parkinson says whoever kept records for the Field Museum in the 1920s mislabeled the object.

“I think there was a clerical error when it got here,” Parkinson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Someone just wrote it down wrong.”


Black History Month

A GIF that scrolls through the portraits of many well known and influential Black Americans

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-08978, LC-USW3-001546-D, LC-USZ62-127236, LC-USZ62-27663); Addison N. Scurlock—Michael Ochs Archives, Kean Collection—Archive Photos, © Michael Ochs Archives, Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. (object no. 2009.50.2); PRNewsFoto/XM Satellite Radio/AP Images; AP Images;  NASA; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (2803441); Pete Souza—Official White House Photo; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

February is Black History Month in the United States. Want to read more? Check out the January 31 edition of In the News!

Did You Know?

On left, a figure of a bearded man in fur pants holding a weapon and on right, an ax in a display case.
Martin Shields/Alamy, © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/; Composite photo Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
The figure on the left shows what scientists think Otzi might have looked like.
The photo on the right shows Otzi’s ax.

In 1991, a German tourist discovered a well-preserved mummy frozen in a glacier high in the Alps mountain range. The mummy, which scientists named Otzi, was the remains of a man who had lived around 3300 BCE. Otzi was found with an ax made partly of copper. 

Otzi lived during the Copper Age, which took place before the Bronze Age. At the dawn of the Copper Age, around 7,000 years ago, people learned to extract copper from rocks by heating them to the melting point. Later, they found they could turn copper to super-tough bronze by combining it with tin. Today we still use copper, an element vital for the wiring in our phones and computers.

Battles of the Bronze Age

Two people wearing face shields and holding metal shields fight with bronze swords.

Hermann, R., Dolfini, A., Crellin, R.J. et al. Bronze Age Swordsmanship: New Insights from Experiments and Wear Analysis. J Archaeol Method Theory 27, 1040–1083 (2020). (CC BY 4.0)

 Scientists did an interesting experiment to find out whether ancient people used bronze swords.

A sword made of bronze isn’t an ideal weapon. That’s because bronze is a soft metal—easily scratched and scuffed. In fact, people stopped using bronze weapons when they discovered how to make weapons from a stronger metal: iron.  (Later, iron was replaced by steel.)

Since bronze is soft, historians have long wondered whether people actually fought with bronze weapons. They thought maybe the ancient bronze swords they discovered were just for show. In 2020, a team of archaeologists conducted a study to see if this theory was correct.

The archaeologists had some bronze swords made especially for the study. They asked some sword-combat experts to duel with these replica swords. Then they took note of the patterns of scratches and dents left on the blades. 

Next, it was time to compare the scratches on the replica swords with scratches on real Bronze Age swords. The archaeologists found a lot of similarities. This suggests that Bronze Age warriors fought using specific techniques they would have had to learn. Archaeologists concluded that Bronze Age swords were used in battles—and that Bronze Age warriors were skilled sword fighters.

Brains of the Bronze Age

Illustration of ancient people making weapons out of bronze.
© benoitb—DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

This engraving shows people making armor during the Bronze Age.

All through human history, there have been eras defined by amazing and life-changing technological advancements. We’re living in one of those eras now: the Information Age. Life was very different before computers and the Internet.

We’re still benefiting from the advancements made during the Bronze Age. You can learn more about this era at Britannica School!



: to prove that something is real, true, or genuine : to prove that something is authentic
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