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5 minutes with… A Bronze Age ceremonial dirk

Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi admires this rare, museum-quality weapon discovered in Holland a century ago. Well over 3,000 years old and one of only five of its kind known to exist, it is offered in London on 5 July

A dirk is a dagger. The word came into use in Scotland in the 17th century, probably from the Dutch, Swedish and Danish dolk, and German dolch. This dirk, offered in the Antiquities  sale in London on 5 July, is from the Middle Bronze Age in Europe, between 1500 and 1350 BC. There is one problem, however. 

‘The first thing that strikes one is that it’s too big to be a dirk,’ says Claudio Corsi, a specialist in Antiquities at Christie’s London. ‘It was ceremonial.’ What kind of ceremony, or what the significance of the dirk might have been, is unknown.

Besides its unwieldy size, a further indication that the dirk had no practical use is that there are no holes at the base, where rivets would have held the blade to the hilt. ‘It is almost a symbolic representation of a dirk, which would have been used as an emblem of power,’ suggests Corsi. An item of this size and expense would have belonged to a noble, wealthy and powerful person.

‘The production of bronze was a major cultural innovation of the period,’ says Corsi. The technology had spread from the Middle East into Europe around 2100 BC, and smiths with the knowledge to make such pieces were revered for ‘what appeared almost as alchemy’. This particular dirk is of the highest quality, with no casting faults or imperfections, and a decorative design made by a highly-skilled bronzesmith.

A ceremonial bronze dirk of the plougrescant-ommerschans type. Middle Bronze Age, circa 1500-1350 BC. 26¾ in (68.3 cm) high. Estimate £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 5 July at Christie’s London

A ceremonial bronze dirk of the 'plougrescant-ommerschans' type. Middle Bronze Age, circa 1500-1350 BC. 26¾ in (68.3 cm) high. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 5 July at Christie’s London

Found between 1894 and 1900 in the Ommerschans district of the Netherlands, this dirk was originally buried together with a number of smaller bronze and stone items. Remarkably, one of the items is a small razor known to have come from Sicily. This find, according to Corsi, ‘gives us an idea of how wide the network of commerce was’.

All of these items were discovered by the forester of the area, who mounted them on board and hung them on the wall of his home. It was not until 1927 that the director of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden — the national archaeological museum of the Netherlands — was made aware of the haul and had them cast in plaster before returning them to the family.

This is a very rare piece, and only five such ceremonial dirks are known to exist. Two have been found in the Netherlands; two were discovered in France; and one, known as the Oxborough Dirk, was found in Norfolk, England, in 1988. The decoration and execution of this group of dirks is strikingly similar, making it likely that they were made in the same workshop.

On 6 July 1994 the Oxborough Dirk, pictured below, sold for £51,000 at Christie’s in London, and it can now be seen at the British Museum.

A ceremonial bronze dirk of the plougrescant-ommerschans type, The Oxborough Dirk, Middle Bronze Age, c. 1500–1350 BC, from Oxborough, Norfolk. 27⅞ in (70.9 cm) long. Estimate £9,000-12,000. Sold for £51,000 on 6 July 1994 at Christie’s London

A ceremonial bronze dirk of the 'plougrescant-ommerschans' type, The Oxborough Dirk, Middle Bronze Age, c. 1500–1350 BC, from Oxborough, Norfolk. 27⅞ in (70.9 cm) long. Estimate: £9,000-12,000. Sold for £51,000 on 6 July 1994 at Christie’s London

The ceremonial dirk offered in our 5 July sale is also of museum quality — indeed it is superior to the Oxborough Dirk. ‘It’s pristine,’ says Corsi. ‘You rarely get such a massive blade with this beautiful decoration, in such perfect condition. You won’t find anything like it elsewhere. This is a one-off opportunity.’