Field Museum scientists and archeologists used an X-ray fluorescence detector to identify the sword as a Bronze Age original. (all photos © Field Museum)

At Chicago’s Field Museum, what was thought to be a modern replica of a Bronze Age sword turned out to be the real deal. The artifact actually dates back 3,000 years, the museum announced last week.

Over the summer, János Gábor Tarbay, an archaeologist at the Hungarian National Museum, made the finding as the Field Museum was preparing for First Kings of Europe, a special exhibition opening in March 2023 exploring how egalitarian farming communities in southeastern Europe developed into ancient monarchies. Tarbay asked co-curator Bill Parkinson to see the sword when the Hungarian National Museum’s artifacts were brought over for the spring show. 

The sword was acquired by the Field Museum close to 100 years ago and had been labeled as a replica on the accession card. Parkinson told Hyperallergic that Tarbay thought the label was peculiar, since he had seen drawings of the sword in various journals that were published around the 1920s and ’30s when the object was found at the bottom of the Danube River in Budapest.

Tarbay, whose expertise is in Bronze Age metal artifacts, took a look at the sword and felt confident that it was not a copy. To verify this, the sword was tested for percentages of tin and copper that would show up in a weapon from that time period. Using an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) detector, which analyzes chemical components within an artifact to create an “elemental fingerprint,” Tarbay and Field Museum scientists compared the “replica’s” components to known Bronze Age swords and found that theirs had an identical bronze and copper makeup. 

Installation of a Bronze Age Era sword (1080-900 BCE) in the Field Museum’s main hall as a preview for First Kings of Europe

Three millennia ago, the sword may have been thrown down the river along with chest armor to honor someone who died in battle. “It’s a very specific ritual tradition from this time period that speaks to the evolution of a ruling warrior class that was starting to emerge at that point in time,” Parkinson said.

The funeral rite was a custom developed in the period when the discovery of smelting bronze from tin and copper was producing various trade routes across the continent, carrying tin, gold, and horses, among other goods. As those with access to tin from places like modern-day Britain, Afghanistan, or Uzbekistan became wealthier compared to communities who could not acquire it, class-stratified societies emerged. By the Iron Age, around 1200–1000 BCE, these elite groups would go on to become kingdoms that the Ancient Greeks would write about during the Classical Period.

The sword was not found in enough time to be added to the forthcoming exhibition’s showing of Bronze Age era weapons, like another sword dating to 1700–1600 BCE from Hajdúsámson, Hungary, that may have been a part of a burial hoard and is on loan from the Déri Museum. However, the Field Museum’s sword will be installed in the museum’s main hall as a preview of the First Kings of Europe show, which opens March 31.

Parkinson marveled at the new finding. “Usually this story goes the opposite way,” he said. “You think something is real and it turns out to be a fake.”

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...