By Nick Gough
In 2002, workers preparing the site for a housing development near Amesbury, Salisbury, discovered human remains. Wessex archaeology investigated and what emerged into the light of day after over 4,000 years underground, was one of the most significant archaeological finds in Western Europe.
The grave was of the late Neolithic period, around 2,300 B.C. and contained the full skeleton of an adult male and around 100 grave goods buried with him, to take into the afterlife. Originally interred in a wood lined chamber under a mound, the find is significant for various reasons. He was obviously a high status individual, as indicated by the artefacts buried with him and his was one of the earliest graves of the Bell Beaker culture found in Britain.
He was given the nickname ‘the archer’ because he wore on his left wrist an archers ‘bracer’ or wrist guard to protect the bow arm from the bowstring on release. This was a high status object of the time, made from a polished piece of black coloured sandstone. At his knees was another wrist guard made of red sandstone and eighteen barbed flint arrow heads, as if the arrows had been scattered from the quiver which, along with the bow and arrow shafts, has long since rotted away.
The archer was approximately 35 to 45 years old when he died and although the skeleton indicated a strong individual, he would have been in much pain and discomfort in life due to his missing left kneecap. This was probably the result of an injury and had led to an infection of his leg bone. He also had suffered from a tooth abscess which had penetrated the jawbone. Isotope analysis revealed that he was not a native of the British Isles and had originated from the Alpine region of central Europe, probably Switzerland.
His grave goods
His burial site was three miles from Stonehenge and was of the time when Stonehenge was under construction. His burial was typical of the period, with him being placed on his side in a slightly curled position as if asleep and with the grave goods placed beside him. Among the objects were two gold ‘earrings’ or hair tresses. Chemical analysis of the gold revealed that it had originated in Europe and they were the oldest known dated gold objects found in Britain. The grave also contained five ‘beaker’ pots, four boars’ tusks, an antler spatula for working flint and 122 flint tools, all in excellent condition. A bone pin suggested that he wore a cloak and at his waist was a shale belt ring. The source of his sandstone wrist guards was 50 kilometres away and the shale belt ring had travelled a similar distance from a different direction. Although he was named ‘the archer’, his trade was probably in metal working as his grave contained three copper knives and a ‘cushion stone’- a kind of portable anvil used for metal working which was in its infancy in Britain at that time. Interestingly, the analysis of the copper indicates that it had come from Spain and western France.
His high status and connections to the continent are evidenced by the richness of the grave objects, and the origins of the metals present would suggest well established trade routes and the emergence of a dominant elite. How and why he travelled from his home in the Alps to live in southern Britain is a mystery, but he was obviously revered by his people who took the time and trouble for the funeral arrangements and lavished such prized and luxurious gifts upon him.
The Archer’s companion
Another grave from a slightly later date was discovered nearby. This was the grave of a male in his twenties who was almost certainly related to the Amesbury Archer. He was interred in a similar grave and also possessed a pair of gold ‘earrings’ or hair tresses. They were both found to have had a very rare condition that they would not have known about – some of the bones at the top of the instep that are not normally articulated, are articulated in this case. This rare trait suggests that they may have been father and son, brothers or cousins, but certainly both important people locally.
The Bell Beaker Culture
The Bell Beaker people derive their name from the distinctive type of pottery that was often found buried with them. Around 4,400 years ago, a people who had adopted this culture moved into Britain from central Europe and within a few hundred years had almost replaced the indigenous Neolithic people. DNA evidence shows that these new people had a different appearance to the people they replaced, who had olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes. The Bell Beaker people by contrast had lighter skin tones, blonde hair and blue eyes, which became common in the population. Within a few hundred years, the indigenous Neolithic people who had built monuments like Stonehenge, came to represent a mere 10 per cent of the population.
In summary, the mass movement of people of the Bell Beaker culture, represented by The Amesbury Archer, introduced new ideas and technologies such as metal working into the British Isles.
- Great Archaeology
- Salisbury Museum
- BBC Ancient History
- Natural History Museum
- Amesbury Archer image- Creative Commons licence/Toby Editor