Mystery Man of Stonehenge

Who was he and where did he come from? And what was his role in the making of the great monument? The discovery of a 4,300-year-old skeleton surrounded by intriguing artifacts has archaeologists abuzz

Work on Stonehenge began around 3000 B.C., with a ditch circling wood posts. (Doug Stern)
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A more significant imported skill was metalworking. Around 2300 B.C., the stone tools and weapons that had defined Britain’s Stone Age were being replaced with metal implements. The Bronze Age varies from culture to culture, but it is thought to have started in southeastern Europe about 4000 B.C. and then spread westward across the Continent before reaching Britain 4,000 years ago. The archer would have been at the vanguard of the flashy new trade, which sometimes produced items just for show: Fitzpatrick says the archer’s copper knives, for instance, which are too soft to have been used primarily as weapons, were probably for display or eating. (It would take at least another century after the archer’s arrival before the technology of alloying copper and tin to make sturdier implements reached Britain.)

The evidence that the archer not only carried metal but knew how to work it comes mainly from the cushion stones found in his grave. Researchers say it is unlikely that such a tool would have been buried with anyone but its owner. (Carbon dating, and the absence of metal objects from earlier graves, suggest the archer’s arrival roughly coincides with the arrival of metalworking to the British Isles.)

The archer’s skill would have allowed him to move freely from community to community. “The knowledge in his hands and in his head,” Fitzpatrick says, “was the key to his status. He brought a unique or exceptionally rare skill. You can think of the archer as a kind of magician. You can revere metalworkers, but you can also fear them.”

Arriving 4,300 years ago in an area we now call Wiltshire, the archer would have likely encountered a rural setting of round timber houses with conical thatched roofs. (Today, Amesbury center is graced by red brick and pastel-colored stucco buildings, and enterprises beyond the archer’s wildest fantasies: Amesbury Tandoori, for example, and Hair by Joanna.) Of course, the lure of Wiltshire then, as now, was Stonehenge. Speculation about its purpose has centered on the notion that the monument was built in part to capture the rays of the rising sun during the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. A new idea is that Stonehenge was about the winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year. “Stonehenge has been looked at the wrong way around,” says Parker Pearson, one of the winter theory’s proponents. In the past year, archaeologists have reanalyzed material excavated in the 1960s from a nearby monument built about the same time as Stonehenge. Pig remains from wooden structures found within this henge, called Durrington Walls, show that feasting rituals went on in the winter.

“What is happening around that time is a tremendous religious revival,” says Parker Pearson. “We’re dealing with more sophisticated societies than we give them credit for. Stonehenge was built for the ancestors whose funerary rites were held at Durrington Walls and along the river to Stonehenge, with the festival of the dead celebrated at midwinter.”

It is unlikely the archer set off from the Alps expressly to see Wiltshire’s massive structures, though Fitzpatrick says there may have been whisperings on the Continent about their existence. But about the same time he arrived, “something utterly unprecedented, unique in scale and vision took place,” says Pitts: the erection of the 20- and 30-ton stones. Most archaeologists believe the massive stones were hauled to the monument’s location on the Salisbury Plain from the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles to the north—a colossal distance for a society without wheels.

And it’s even possible the archer may have provided the catalyst to get the project started. “He could have brought with him the stock of imagination to conceive of something quite extraordinary,” Pitts says. Perhaps he exploited his position as a charismatic outsider, unsullied by local politics or infighting, to forge alliances among the region’s chieftains. “Building Stonehenge might seem an absolutely crazy thing to do,” says Fitzpatrick. Yet “involving lots of people in a construction project is a way of bringing people together—creating and seizing status.”


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