Archaeologists have unearthed the millennia-old bones of two men—one of whom who could be a Bronze Age chieftan—beneath a skateboard park near Lechlade in southwest England.
Artifacts buried alongside the likely leader suggest he was a high-status member of the Beaker culture, reports the Independent’s David Keys. An older man estimated to be in his 50s or 60s was buried in a seated position nearby, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. Researchers discovered the skeletons, dated back to 2200 B.C., in 2017 while excavating a circular burial mound ahead of the park’s construction.
The Beakers—named for their bell-shaped ceramics, according to Encyclopedia Britannica—were typically buried with the same kit of funerary items: a beaker pot, a copper dagger, a stone wrist guard used in archery, fire-starting materials and amber beads.
Highly regarded members of Beaker society were often buried alongside a single cowhide. Interestingly, the man discovered in Lechlade boasted four such cowhide “rugs.”
As the Independent explains, “Each ‘rug’ would have been an impressive and valued possession—an entire cowhide complete with the animal’s hooves at its four corners and its skull.”
Other lavish artifacts laid to rest with the man include a nearly eight-inch copper dagger adorned with a whale bone pommel, or rounded knob at the end of its handle, and a wrist guard made of rare green stone.
“It’s quite a significant investment of wealth to go into the ground,” Andy Hood of Foundations Archaeology, the consulting company tasked with excavating the site, tells Live Science. “There’s a chance that these animals were slaughtered as part of a ceremony related to the burial.”
The suspected chief’s grave lacked his culture’s signature beaker pot—an omission Hood speculates speaks to the man’s unique place in Beaker society; perhaps his role stood apart from the symbolic meaning of the telltale pottery, the archaeologist notes.
The Beaker culture spread across Europe around 4,500 years ago, replacing the Neolithic culture responsible for Stonehenge, according to the London National History Museum. Since its members may have been some of the first to use copper and bronze in what is now Great Britain, their arrival from mainland Europe represents a significant historical waypoint, Hood tells Live Science.
The older man’s seated position and sparse grave goods (he was interred with just one cowhide rug, according to the Independent) suggest he may have been a priest or shaman. Siberian shamans, for one, were typically buried partially sitting up during the Bronze Age.
“One of the mysteries is, what was the relationship between those two men?” says Hood to Live Science.
Being buried so close to each other implies some special bond, he adds, but precisely what that dynamic was remains unclear.
As Hood notes, the archaeologists found no evidence clearly identifying the older man as a shaman, nor suggesting that he was sacrificed to ensure the chieftain’s safe passage into the afterlife.
“The idea of him being a ‘shaman’ was postulated by some British newspapers,” Hood tells Live Science, “[but] there is no evidence that he was sacrificed.”
Still, Hood says to the Times’ Mark Bridge, the theory remains a “distinct possibility.” Unfortunately, he explains, “It’s not provable because the upper half of the remains has been chopped away by [a] plough.”
The burial site itself appears to have been significant for at least 1,000 years prior to the elite Beakers’ interment, according to the Independent. Situated a few hundred feet from a Neolithic “cursus” monument—an elongated earthwork stretching roughly half a mile long—the grave’s location indicates that these Bronze Age men may have been buried in the area due to its ancient significance.
The Independent further reports that successive cultures used the same site to bury their dead. Cremated remains from the late Bronze Age, bones dating to the Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon skeletons have all been unearthed in the so-called Lechlade complex. To date, the three-year excavation has revealed more than 5,000 years of ancient history, endowing the site with one of the longest burial histories in Britain.