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Editor Mike Pitts
Was Stonehenge really built by welshmen?
On midsummer day Wessex Archaeology and the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff launched news of a Beaker grave (they have exhibitions to promote). It contained, said the Times, men who ‘helped to transport giant bluestones from the Preseli mountains in West Wales to build Stonehenge’. British Archaeology asked AP Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology and Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery of the British Geological Survey to explain
The story begins in May 2002 on the outskirts of Amesbury, 4.5 km south-east of Stonehenge. Routine archaeological work before construction of new housing and a school revealed a grave containing the skeleton of a man and around 100 artefacts: the ‘Amesbury Archer’ with his copper knives, gold hair ornaments, five Beaker pots and other items such as a small stone that may have been used in copper or gold smithing.
The artefacts (the quantity is unique for a Beaker grave) indicate a central European connection. The skeleton has been provisionally radiocarbon dated to 2,400-2,200 bc, meaning the man could have seen – or ordered – Stonehenge built.
As the bones from a nearby grave were cleaned, we discovered a second man had been buried with similar gold ornaments to the first. A unique variation in their feet (pseudo facets between the navicular and calcaneum bones, present in both of the Archer’s feet and one of his companion’s) points to a close family link. The second man was also dated to 2,400-2,200 bc.
Then in May last year a third grave turned up. QinetiQ, who run the airfield at Boscombe Down, were installing new water mains. They have two keen archaeologists, Colin Kirby and Bob Clarke. Colin saw human bone and Beaker sherds and called Wessex Archaeology: a team was on site that afternoon.
Early Bronze Age graves in southern England are usually thought of as containing one, or occasionally two, skeletons. Better recording and analysis have now shown greater variability. In a few cases burials were deliberately disturbed or rearranged. Sometimes not all the bones from a body were buried. Some graves contain Beaker pots, others do not. But whatever their condition, the remains of separate individuals were kept together.
Boscombe was different. A man aged 30-45 (all ages approximate) lay on his left side with legs tucked up and head to the north (his left thighbone had been broken badly enough to give him a limp). By his head were three children: one aged 2-4 had been cremated; few bones survived of a child aged 5-6; a third, aged 6-7, lay at a higher level, apparently inserted at a later date. The bones of a teenager, aged 15-18, and two men aged 25-30 lay around the man’s legs, both below and on top of his body, their skulls towards his feet.
Jackie McKinley says the surfaces of the disarticulated bones were more worn, suggesting the remains had been exposed or re-interred. This would not be out of place in a much older Neolithic chambered tomb.
Artefacts once again have European links, and close parallels with some of the Archer’s; we await radiocarbon dates, but suspect they will be similar. There is nothing as distinctive among the new bones as the Archer’s feet, but Jackie says the men’s skulls were very similar in shape, with small extra bones called Wormian bones. It seems highly likely they were all related.
Separately these three graves are special: as a group they are astonishing. Given the signs of family relationships, the central European style artefacts and the old controversy about ‘Beaker people’ – a mass immigration that is today rarely countenanced – this seemed a perfect case for a relatively new analytical technique applied to teeth enamel. Could we say where these men had been born?
Confirming the artefact assessment, the Archer’s teeth showed he had been born in central Europe, the first real demonstration of an immigrant into prehistoric Britain. His companion was born in southern England – perhaps to his then settled immigrant father?
The new data from the Boscombe men show a remarkable co-incidence in the strontium isotope composition of their premolars and third molars, indicating that all three spent their early childhood in one place and moved elsewhere in early adolescence, but not to Wiltshire, which must represent at least a third move. When oxygen isotopes are also considered, their origin is restricted to areas of pre-Mesozoic rocks on the western side of Britain. Wales provides the nearest, most extensive, and archeologically most likely place for their childhood, although the Lake District and parts of Scotland cannot be ruled out.
Strontium is an element similar to calcium, and follows calcium into teeth and bones. Along with oxygen it is fixed into tooth enamel when teeth mineralise during childhood. The two elements preserve an environmental fingerprint in the form of an isotope signature. The 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratio of strontium in soil varies, predominantly, according to the nature of the underlying rocks weathering to create the soil. Older rocks such as the slates, sandstones schists and gneisses of the British pre-Mesozoic will generate relatively high 87Sr/86Sr values, above 0.711, whereas the younger and rubidium-poor lithologies such as Chalk release strontium with a lower isotope ratio around 0.708. These differences may seem small, but as we can measure the ratios precisely to the sixth decimal place, they are in fact large and significant.
The pattern of data in the teeth is remarkable. These three men each followed the same pathway/career. In early childhood, during the mineralisation of their premolars, they lived in a place with a radiogenic signature of about 0.7135, typical of UK Palaeozoic slates and shales. They must have moved to another, less radiogenic area during the mineralisation of their third molars, probably during early adolescence. We know that they ended up together in Wiltshire and so the shortest distance they are likely to have travelled (from the Palaeozoic rocks of Wales to Wiltshire) is around 200 km.
The Preseli Hills, source of the Stonehenge bluestones, lie within one of the highly radiogenic areas in which the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ were born. This may be a coincidence, but it seems highly probable that the men and their families were involved in the movement or migrations associated with or established by the movement of the bluestones. It was – and is – an epic story.
Objects from the Boscombe grave can be seen at the Changing Places exhibition, celebrating 25 years of Wessex Archaeology, at Salisbury Museum till 30 August. The Archer is in the travelling Buried Treasure exhibition, at Cardiff till 5 September
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005