Less than a year after it was recovered from an archeological site in Germany looking like little more than a rusty lump, an ornate 13-inch Roman dagger has been returned to its former glory.

The spectacular weapon and its accompanying belt, which lay buried for an estimated 2,000 years, was discovered in a trench in the Roman burial ground of Haltern am See. The region, once the site of a massive military camp, bore witness to several devastating battles between the Romans and Germanic tribes.

"This combination of a completely preserved blade, sheath and belt, together with the important information about precisely where they were found, is without parallel," Michael Rind, director of archaeology at the Westphalia-Lippe Landscape Association (LWL), told the Times.

The dagger as it appeared after being excavated in Germany in April 2019.
The dagger as it appeared after being excavated in Germany in April 2019. (Photo: LWL / Josef Mühlenbrock)

The mud-encrusted dagger, still wedged tightly in its sheath, was uncovered in April 2019 by archaeology intern Nico Calman, who found it embedded in an earthen block. According to archaeologist Bettina Tremmel, its discovery made jaws drop.

"We were lost for words," she told Live Science. "Imagine: Though thousands of Roman soldiers were stationed in Haltern over almost 15 years or more, there are only a few finds of weapons, especially complete and intact ones."

Finder Nico Calmund and fiber restorer Eugen Müsch are proud of their work.
Finder Nico Calmund and fiber restorer Eugen Müsch are proud of their work. (Photo: LWL / C. Steimer)

Over the next nine months, the artifact was stripped of mud and rust by restorers at LWL to reveal intricate artistry, including patterns of diamonds, crescents, and leaves, as well as inlays of red enamel and red glass. For the first time in two millennia, the dagger was also pulled free from its scabbard. A CT scan revealed that it's composed of different steels welded together in a forge.

"Of course, we cannot make a 2,000-year-old object appear as new," LWL restorer Eugen Müsch said in a statement. "However, the multicolor of black, silver, red and gold largely corresponds to the former look."

Fortunately, fiber optic restorer Eugen Müsch managed to take the dagger out of its sheath.
Fortunately, fiber optic restorer Eugen Müsch managed to take the dagger out of its sheath. (Photo: LWL / Eugen Müsch)

As for the weapon's belt, its leather was found to be covered in bronze or brass plates that were coated in tin as to "give the impression of expensive silver." Two hooks allowed the dagger to be hung using leather loops.

The dagger was attached to the belt's hook with leather straps.
The dagger was attached to the belt's hook with leather straps. (Photo: LWL / Eugen Müsch)

The archaeologists aren't exactly sure how a prized weapon such as this one ended up outside the burial mound.

"This site is very unusual for a classic grave addition," Tremmel added. "An accidental loss of the precious weapon and belt at this point seems unlikely."

The dagger and its weapon belt will be exhibited at the LWL Roman Museum in Haltern starting in March 2022.

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.