Nearly 4 millennia ago, an experienced warrior thrust a dagger through the stomach of the so-called “prince of Helmsdorf.” The weapon, measuring some 6 inches long, traveled through to the victim’s spine with such ferocity that it severed multiple arteries. A second blow dealt to the prince’s collarbone split his left shoulder blade and likely punctured his lung, ensuring he suffered a bloody, brutal demise.
As Deutsche Welle reports, a group of archaeologists and forensic researchers based in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt presented their detailed portrait of the prince’s last moments earlier this month. The team's findings suggest the attack may be the world’s oldest-known political murder.
The report is the latest chapter in a roughly 3,846-year-old saga: As Matthias Schulz writes for Der Spiegel, the prince—who was buried alongside a trove of valuable weapons and tools, as well as a 10-year-old child perhaps sacrificed as a companion, at the Leubingen archaeological site in what is now Germany’s Thuringia region—remained unknown to the public until 1877, when art historian Friedrich Klopfleisch chanced upon his elaborate grave.
Subsequent excavations revealed a sunken civilization complete with a 5,057-square-foot Bronze Age building, a collection of bronze artifacts and a cemetery containing the remains of 44 farmers.
In 1999, treasure-hunters exploring the area surrounding the Leubingen archaeological site discovered a 3,600-year-old bronze disc adorned with gold renderings of celestial bodies. Dubbed the Nebra Sky Disc, the circular tool is considered to be the oldest realistic representation of the cosmos found to date. As Brian Haughton explains for Ancient History Encyclopedia, the disc may have served as an astronomical calculation tool used to determine planting and harvest times, or perhaps as an advanced astronomical clock.
Regardless of the Nebra Sky Disc’s true nature, its connection with Leubingen and the Bronze Age Unetice culture believed to have produced both disc and prince (albeit at slightly separate points in history) triggered a resurgence of interest in the archaeological site. In fact, the co-authors of a recent book on the enigmatic disc—Kai Michel and Saxony-Anhalt State Archaeologist Harald Meller—are the ones who encouraged researchers to revisit the prince’s bones after a 2012 examination yielded inconclusive results.
The results of the latest forensic examination suggest that the prince was surprised by his killer, who Michel tells DW was likely a trusted subject. The injury to his upper arm suggests he attempted to fend off the attack. “Perhaps [it was] a relative, friend or bodyguard," Michel says. "It could well be that he, like Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, was the victim of a conspiracy."
Although the new analysis offers a thorough recounting of the prince’s long-ago murder, the exact circumstances leading to his death are impossible to know today. Still, Thomas Schöne of the Deutsche Presse-Agentur says, the care with which the prince—who was roughly 30 to 50 years old—was buried suggests he was respected by his subjects. And, as DW points out, the fact that the Unetice people survived—and thrived, if their creation of the Nebra Sky Disc is any indication—well beyond this influential leader’s death serves as a testament to the culture’s resilience, which may further come to light as researchers continue to explore the archaeological site.