The enigmatic Stonehenge.
Over the last week an article in the Times Newspaper reported that a recent academic, genetic study had revealed that the British Isles appears to have been "overrun" by an invading group of people from the Eastern European steppe around 4300 years ago. Interestingly, this period coincides very nicely with the emergence of the "Beaker people" who appear all over Europe at about this time. The Beaker People had very different ways of burying their dead, but much more importantly, it is this group that introduces metal working to the British Isles. They first introduced copper tools and then leapt forward to bronze metal working. The new study appears to suggest that this change was as the result of a concerted invasion rather than the gradual spread of technological knowhow and new ideas about life and death.
The article provided an example of an individual who might have been a pioneering member of this invading group. He was discovered in 2002, during the construction of a new school at the village of Amesbury, just down the road from Stonehenge. He had been buried with a number of bell shaped beakers and several objects associated with archery, for example arrowheads and armguards. He has been known ever since as the Amesbury Archer. The article also led to a couple of letters being published on the subject, one of which is reproduced below.
New visitors to Stonehenge tend to ask similar questions. Who built it? How did they build it? When did they build it? Archaeology has been able to get us at least partway along the road to answering those questions. But the question that remains fully unanswered and has produced countless discussions and academic research is, why did they build it? A multitude of hypotheses have been put forward some more plausible than others. From the rational argument that it was an enormous celestial calendar to the outlandish idea that the stones were a landing ground for aliens. But as with all good study, what we really need to do is have a good look at the evidence.
The Amesbury Archer, provides a few clues that might have a bearing on Stonehenge's purpose. Arguments about whether he was part of an "invading force" or was part of a much smaller band of late Neolithic travelling companions will have to wait for further scientific study and analysis. But what we know so far about the Archer is intriguing and for me, provides a very rational explanation for at least a part of the function of the monument. And I think the Amesbury Archer is one of the most fascinating pieces of the wider Stonehenge jigsaw puzzle.
Isotope analysis of the Archer's teeth revealed that he was not local to the area of Salisbury Plain and had in fact spent his early life in the Alpine region of Europe, perhaps modern day Switzerland or Southern Germany. He died around 2300 BCE. His grave was rich in artefacts. In addition to the beakers and archery related objects, he was also interred with what have been described as metalworking tools and it has been suggested that he might have been proficient in metalworking. He was evidently a man of some importance and wealth as he was also buried with two beautiful tiny gold decorative pieces that he might have worn in his hair.
All of this is fascinating and tells us much about this early visitor to the Stonehenge area. But it raises an obvious question as to why he made the very arduous and dangerous journey across continental Europe to this particular corner of the British Isles? Post dig analyses revealed some other fascinating information about the Archer. He had suffered from a very serious leg injury that had resulted in the loss of his kneecap. He would also have suffered greatly with an infection in this area and the wound appears not to have healed fully. This wasn't the only ailment from which the Archer was suffering. He also had an extremely unpleasant abcess on his jaw that would have caused him excruciating pain. The combination of both of these conditions would have made moving around and eating, incredibly difficult.
Yet this man travelled perhaps six or seven hundred miles across Europe. He endured a potentially very hazardous voyage across the English Channel in a primitive craft and ended up in the Stonehenge vicinity. There must have been a very strong pull factor for the Archer to have put up with all the pain and discomfort that he must have suffered on his journey. Is it possible that the Archer believed there might be a remedy for his illness and injury to be found at Stonehenge? This to me seems wholly plausible. If you were suffering from extreme pain, I'm confident that you would give anything a try in order to alleviate the condition. Was Stonehenge a Neolithic healing centre? The evidence is building and I'm sure that more evidence will come to light as future archaeology unearths more of Stonehenge secrets.
In the meantime, should you find yourself in Salisbury, go and see the Amesbury Archer who is beautifully displayed in the excellent Salisbury Museum. Better still, take one of my tours and learn more about the Archer and the ancient landscape around Stonehenge.
Copyright Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.