In the spring of 2002, archaeologists were nearly finished excavating the site of a planned housing development in Amesbury, a town in southwestern England. It had been a “routine excavation—bread and butter, as it were,” says archaeologist Andrew Fitzpatrick, leader of the team from Wessex Archaeology conducting the dig. The team had uncovered a small Roman cemetery, a fairly common finding. Now all that was left to check out were two rough patches of ground—“blobs,” Fitzpatrick calls them—in a far corner of the site.
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Early on that Friday in May, the crew went to work on the blobs with their trowels. By midmorning, they had determined that the blobs were graves. By lunchtime, they’d realized the graves predated the Roman cemetery by more than 2,500 years; in one, they uncovered the first of five clay funerary pots, having a “beaker” style associated with Britain’s Bronze Age (2300-700 B.C.). Then a worker found “something shiny,” as the crew leader reported that afternoon in a phone call to Fitzpatrick, who hurried to the site. The shiny “something” was a piece of gold.
Fitzpatrick ordered the workers to collect all the earth from the graves so that his staff back in the lab could sift through it and recover any fragments of relics or remains. With no way to hire guards for the site on the eve of a three day holiday weekend, the team had to complete the job right away. After the sun went down, they illuminated the area with car headlights, finishing at 1:42 a.m. that Saturday. Later, when the sifting was done, 100 artifacts had been retrieved—the richest Bronze Age grave ever discovered in Britain.
There were two male skeletons, the most important of which was interred in a timber-lined grave on its left side, facing north. The legs were curled in a fetal position, common in Bronze Age burials. An eroded hole in the jawbone indicated that he’d had an abscess; a missing left kneecap was evidence that he’d sustained some horrific injury that’d left him with a heavy limp and an excruciating bone infection. A man between 35 and 45 years of age, he was buried with a black stone wrist guard on his forearm of the kind used to protect archers from the snap of a bowstring. Scattered across his lower body were 16 barbed flint arrowheads (the shafts to which they presumably had been attached had long since rotted away) and almost 100 other artifacts. The archaeologists started calling him the Amesbury Archer, and they assumed he had something to do with Stonehenge because the massive stone monument was just a few miles away. Because of his apparent wealth, the press soon dubbed him the “King of Stonehenge.”
Begun about 3000 B.C., Stonehenge was built in stages over 1,400 years. The structure, whose purpose remains a mystery, started out as a huge earthen ditch with wooden posts and walls. The familiar 4-, 20- and 30-ton standing stones were erected between 2400 and 2200 B.C.—about the time the archer was buried nearby. Because radiocarbon dating has about a 200-year margin of error, however, not everyone is ready to call the archer a king. Mike Parker Pearson, archaeology professor at the University of Sheffield in England, points out that the archer may have come on the scene several decades after the stones were erected.
Compared with the glittering tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, who reigned some 1,000 years after the mysterious Stonehenge figure, the archer’s possessions may not seem like much: in addition to the arrowheads and wrist guards, the grave held five pots, three tiny copper knives (one barely an inch long), a cache of flint- and metalworking tools, including a cushion stone—a hand-size piece of rock shaped like a sofa cushion that served as an anvil—and a clutch of boars’ tusks. The grave also held a pair of gold hair ornaments—the earliest gold objects found in Britain. Other graves in the area, on the other hand, typically contain little more than a clay pot; by comparison, the archer died a very rich man indeed. “Most people would not have had the ability to take such wealth with them into their graves,” says Mike Pitts, author of Hengeworld, who calls the find “dynamite.”
The concepts of individual wealth and status were just taking root in Europe during the Bronze Age, when most trade was still conducted by barter. The preceding Stone Age is marked by what appears to have been relative economic equality, with no grave appreciably richer than any other. Archaeologists long thought this egalitarianism extended into the Bronze Age. The Amesbury Archer has overturned that idea.
The archer’s mourners had undoubtedly wished him well, says Fitzpatrick. But what did his grave goods signify? Did his stone wrist guard mean that he was an archer in life, or was it conferred on him posthumously to honor his high status? Were the bow and arrows intended to help him hunt, or to protect him in the next world? Nobody knows. “How the archer acquired his wealth and what it signified are questions that are impossible to answer,” Pitts says.
But forensic archaeology has revealed some telling details. One of the most sensational came straight from the archer’s mouth. To scientists, a person’s tooth enamel is like a GPS for pinpointing his childhood home. The main ingredient of tooth enamel, apatite, is composed of calcium, phosphorous, oxygen and other elements. The composition of the oxygen molecules in apatite depends on the water a person drank as a child, and that, in turn, can reveal a great deal about where he grew up—from the temperature of rain or snow to the distance from a coast and the area’s altitude. Using a laser scan to determine the makeup of the oxygen in the archer’s tooth enamel, a team at the British Geological Survey led by geoscientist Carolyn Chenery concluded that he grew up in a cool region of Central Europe, most likely somewhere close to the Alps or present-day southern Germany.
The notion that he hailed from the Continent has farreaching implications. For decades, scientists believed that beaker pottery, like the pots found in the archer’s grave, was brought by invaders across continental Europe to the British Isles. But most archaeologists now say the pottery—and the knowledge needed to create it—diffused peacefully, through trade or through travelers who were skilled craftsmen.