We have all heard of the Stonehenge, the series of prehistoric monuments that are situated north-west of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England. Close to this, near Devizes, lies the village of Amesbury. This is the place where the skeleton of the Amesbury archer was found.
The Amesbury Archer, so named for the archery equipment found with him, was an early bronze age personality that made an unexpected comeback to civilization in the spring of 2002.
On 3rd May 2002, construction workers in Amesbury were excavating an area on Boscombe Down, some 5 kms south-east of Stonehenge, in order to lay the foundations for a new school building as part of a new housing project planned by Bloor Homes and Persimmon Homes South Coast, and in the course of this came across some old Roman graves. This was interesting, but not exactly unusual―given the location and history of the place, such finds were known to routinely surface. However near to the Roman Graves there lay more graves and that surely was puzzling. There were two graves, one considerably larger than the other, and neither of these graves were Roman, but in fact much older―2500 years prior to the Romans it was soon found―the shards of pottery present in the larger of the two graves pointed to Early Bronze Age, and later radiocarbon dating zeroed onto a time period between 2400 and 2200 years B.C.
The find caused considerable excitement amongst the archaeologists who had by now joined the dig, led by Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of the archaeological consultancy, Wessex Archeology. Their enthusiasm level further soared with the discovery of a gold earring which was wrapped around the ear rather than worn in the ear lobe. More intact pottery, the remains of a timber mortuary building in the larger grave, and in all over 100 other objects. This was a most unusual find, quite beyond anything that as yet been discovered from the Early Bronze Age. From the size of the grave and from these finds that were being unearthed ―especially the gold earrings and copper weapons, which were a very rare given that these metals had not as yet become prevalent in Britain during this time. It was beginning to look like this had been a grave of someone tremendously important.
At last the body was uncovered. It belonged to a man between the age of 35 and 45 years, who had a seriously disabled left knee either from a battle confrontation or an accident. Either way, the knee-cap had been shattered and the rest of the bone was scarred with infection to such an extent that it is highly probable that, aside from having to walk with considerable difficulty, he also lived in severe pain since the moment the injury occurred till the end of his life. Forensic experts suggest that the wound must have produced a continual, smelly discharge and, as if this wasn't enough to bear, he also had a painful tooth abscess that had penetrated his jaw.
The Early Bronze age was a pretty tough time to live in. On the average people didn't generally enjoy the long lifespans they do in the present age. A person could count himself or herself lucky to be able to reach the age of 30. Given this and especially in the light of his obvious disability, the Amesbury Archer―for this, had an extraordinary run of good fortune.
He lay curled up on his left hand side facing north in the grave, in the burial position that was customary during the Early Bronze age He was surrounded by a large quantity of things that he might have used while he was still alive.
These included, a quiver of hafted arrows―not the bow though, that had probably long ago rotten away. Then there were weapons made of copper and flint―knives, barbed-and-tanged arrowheads. There was a spatula made from an antler of a deer and a black cushion stone―the first was perhaps used to chip flints and fashion or sharpen the above mentioned weapons, and the second in metal-working. Aside from this, there were pots, boars' tusks, black sandstone wrist-guards―one of which was still on his forearm, a shale belt ring, and a bone pin.
No clothing or remnant of dress remained, but the objects found alongside offered a vague idea of the fashion in those ancient times. He probably wore a cloak made of fur or leather, and this was attached to the wrist guard with the bone pin to keep it out the way while drawing the bow.
What is really amazing about these objects is that when analyzed later it was discovered that they were not all originally from Britain. The shale and sandstone were from around 50 kms away, but one of the copper knives had the same chemical composition as that of copper from Spain or France. Perhaps the gold, which was dated to as early as 2470 B.C and so the oldest found so far in Britain―too came from that part of the world.
The second, smaller grave, which is of a slightly later date, was of a younger man―around 20 or 25 years. Here too a pair of gold earrings was uncovered. This, together with certain similarities in bone structure, not to mention the proximity of burial, indicated that the two men were not only related, but probably were father and son. It is conclusive that both enjoyed a distinguished status in their community.
Archaeologists earlier had theorized that in the Early Bronze age, people lived without the modern encumbrances of social classes―given human nature and difference of abilities and personalities. Now they were proved wrong as everyone back then didn't get buried with gold earrings, so apparently some people had always managed to climb onto a higher branch than others.
But what was their social identity? Who were they to have been given such an elaborate burial? The teeth analysis of the older skeleton points to an early life spent in the Alpine region of Europe―present day Switzerland, Austria, or Germany. Had he come to Britain for trade purposes or to settle? The latter seems likely, since teeth analysis of the younger man reveals a life spent in the Stonehenge area and also in the Midlands or Scotland. Did they make frequent trips to and from the European Continent? Had they perhaps been involved in the building of Stonehenge? Was the Amesbury Archer perhaps the master-mind behind the extraordinary plan and as yet mysterious way in which the huge stones―20 ton Sarsen stones from the nearby Marlborough downs and 4 ton blue stones from 380 kms away in Preseli in West Wales were brought down to the site? We surely may have answers to all these questions someday.