Museums and exhibitions Reviews

The Bersted Mystery Warrior

King Arthur, the last historically attested(?) Celtic ruler of the whole of Britain never died. Rather he disappeared to the Isle of Avalon with a promise that he would return at the hour of his Kingdom’s greatest need.

Discovered about 12 years ago in Bersted Park, the mysterious Celtic warrior on display at the Novium Museum in Chichester has come forth in his glory at an hour of extended national crisis. 

Burial of the Mystery Warrior

Buried with great honour in the late Iron Age, the Bersted Mystery Warrior reveals an insight into the society and culture of Western Europe before the Romans.

The Novium have brought together other examples of Celtic art to display alongside the warrior’s remains and the high status objects buried with him. The most splendid object on display is the helmet.

Replica helmet of the Mystery Warrior

The helmet crest display a Celtic openwork also found on contemporary brooches. Openwork is made by embossing, engraving and cutting shapes out of a flat metal sheet into complex geometric patterns which was a main stay of Celtic art. The artistic style seen on the helmet is sometimes called La Tène culture. Although generally used for high status objects only, artefacts made in this style have been found from the Black Sea coasts to The Atlantic coast. Stylised and abstract images of animals and plants are common. Many scholars hold that these images had religious meaning.

The helmet is similar to designs from pre-Roman Gaul and although it would have had a practical use  was more about display.

Armour would have both signified the Mystery Warrior’s high position (within society and amongst his comrades) but also offered him a psychological advantage by creating a sense of height and power. The visual display of power was part of the ritual of Celtic war. It would also contrasted with the warriors who displayed their bravery by fighting naked.

Swords and spears were both weapons and “ritual” objects. Swords were high status objects and could last a person’s life time and beyond. They may have had origin tales themselves. The names of swords, from a later period, have survived to the modern day. Excalibur being the most famous.

Spears could also be used as standards in battle. They were different to swords, used at a distance.

Other objects on display reveal the communal culture. Bone weaving combs show the importance of clothes to the Celtic tribes in Britain

Who was he?

Questions remain about who was the Mystery Warrior. DNA and skeletal evidence suggest he was a horse rider, who carried a heavy sword in his right hand, from across the channel. The burial is dated to 50 BCE.

Due to the acidic soil in which he was buried, his bones have only partly survived making it hard to identify a cause of death. However, he was an active man, who died at an older age.

It seems likely that he arrived in Britain during Caesar’s invasion of Gaul (modern day Belgium and France). Was he a conflict migrant, a rebel or even a ruler?

At his funeral, his weapons were carefully taken apart and placed in his coffin, perhaps as a ritual “killing”. His long sword, a fine example of La Tène iron work from the continent, was bent in half whilst still in the scabbard. His spear shaft was snapped; the tip placed by his head and the butt by his field. His shield carefully broken. He may also have been buried with a chariot, broken down and placed upside down in a box on top of him.

He was also buried with pots of food. The pots were made locally, copying designs from the continent.

Cremation was the common burial practice in the area in which the warrior was found, although some other examples are known. The practice is more common in Gaul.

It is not known who buried him, but they knew the funeral rites common to the place the warrior likely came from. Could the Mystery Warrior have been followed by a retinue of followers? Were they other elite male warriors or a family group? The answers to these questions are allusive.

The Mystery Warrior was not alone in fleeing to Britain. Other high status individuals did as well. We know that in 40 BCE, a Gallic King Commius, who initially fought with Caesar fled to Britain through numismatic (coin) evidence.

More tantalisingly, bronze coins made near Chichester show a headdress with a fighting cock which bears a striking resemblance to the openwork on the Mystery Warrior’s helmet. These are copies of coins made by the Bellovaci tribe froum Normandy, who practiced similar funeral rites.

Caesar mentions that the Bellovaci were leaders of the war of resistance against him because of their courage, authority and the number of warriors they could command. Once the war ended, they fled to Britain. Could the Bersted Mystery Warrior be a chieftain of this group?

The remains of the Mystery Warrior’s helmet

Summary of the Mystery Warrior Exhibition

The parallels to Arthur are strong. The scabbard and the sword, the horsemanship and the international links (according to Mallory his major act before subsuming to a supporting role in the narrative was a successful invasion of France). Yet, the elephant in the room, never mentioned in the exhibition, is the intrepid Gaulish warrior Asterix.

An intriguing and moving exhibition of the close ties and shared histories of Europe and the long history of welcoming people to these islands, Mystery Warrior at the Novium is worth a trip.


This post is sponsored by Shippams Meat and Fish Paste.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics