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People of Stonehenge
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People of Stonehenge

The 1000 years before construction started at Stonehenge had seen great changes in peoples’ lives, as farming gradually replaced a life of hunting and gathering wild foods on these rolling chalk uplands. This change meant settling down and investing in land, with the consequent ideas of ownership and territory. This was the time, in the earlier part of the Neolithic era (or New Stone Age), when tools were made of wood, stone or bone and when simple pottery vessels were made and used. It was also when long barrows and causewayed enclosures were built, communal monuments whose existence suggest an organized society, the presence of leadership, and the ability to communicate with large and possibly far-flung communities. The increasing emphasis on farming would also have ensured regular food supplies, freeing up part of the labour force for these essentially nonproductive activities.

People of Stonehenge

Two copper knives from the Amesbury Archer burial, some of the earliest metal artefacts found in Britain

Stonehenge was built and presumably used over a period of at least 1400 years, huge length of time that saw considerable changes in the way prehistoric people lived their lives. The simple earthwork enclosure was started towards the end of the Neolithic era but we know little of the people who built it. We know more of the everyday lives of those who raised the stones nearly 500 years later, as their small, neatly built houses have been found at Durrington Walls. From these it is possible to learn more about their diet, and perhaps the organization of their society.

People of Stonehenge

Fine flint arrowheads buried with the Amesbury Archer

There are, however, three remarkable human burials, discovered at Stonehenge itself and nearby, which provide a fascinating insight into the great changes that were taking place at the time the stones were being raised.

In 1976 an excavation in the ditch at Stonehenge revealed a human skeleton, buried with several finely worked flint arrowheads, some with their tips broken off, and a wrist protector made of stone, likely to have been used by an archer. The arrowheads were of Early Bronze-Age style and the man, who died in about 2300 BC, soon became known as the Stonehenge Archer.

People of Stonehenge

Two stone wrist guards buried with the Amesbury Archer

Examination of the bones showed that he was a local, aged about 30 and that he had met a violent death. The missing tips of the flint arrowheads were found embedded in his bones, so the arrows were not his possessions but the cause of his death. But even though he died violently, perhaps as a sacrifice, he was given a careful burial in a place that was by that time perhaps the most sacred place in the British Isles.

The discovery in May 2002 of another burial in Amesbury, about 5 km. (3 miles) from Stonehenge, provides a stark contrast to the one from Stonehenge. The Amesbury Archer, discovered during excavations on a building site, had the richest grave ever discovered from the time of Stonehenge. The man, aged between 35 and 45 years old, had been buried in about 2400 BC with an astonishing collection of artefacts. This was the time when the first metals, copper and gold, were being introduced from continental Europe, alongside a distinctive type of decorated pottery vessel known as Beaker ware. In his grave this man had three copper knives and no fewer than five Beaker pots, two stone wrist protectors, 16 finely worked flint arrowheads and a pair of gold hair ornaments, the earliest gold to be found in Britain.

People of Stonehenge

Pots of the distinctive Beaker style, early examples of which date from the period when the first metals were used in Britain, in about 2300 BC.

He also had what appears to be a small stone anvil. Bone analysis showed that this man was not local, but was born somewhere in the Alps, most probably in what is now Switzerland. So he may have been one of the first to introduce metalworking to Britain, a skill that would have earned him enormous prestige and wealth.
In May 2003 another extraordinary grave was discovered at Boscombe, about 6 km. (4 miles) from Stonehenge. Dating from about 2300 BC, it contained at least eight Beaker pots, the most ever found in a single grave. But it also contained many skeletons: three adult males, a teenage male and three children aged between two and seven years.

People of Stonehenge

The Amesbury Archer burial, photographed during overnight excavations.

Their skulls suggest that they were all related and, strangely, some of the bones appeared worn, as if they had been buried previously in another place. Both pots and radiocarbon dates showed that this was a Beaker period grave, dating to the time of the first use of metal, but the method of burial was from much earlier: from the Stone Age. These men, dubbed the Boscombe Bowmen, were also from outside the local area. Analysis of isotopes in their teeth showed that they had most probably spent the first few years of their lives in Wales, the source of the Stonehenge bluestones.

These three burials from the Beaker period show the way that archaeological science an help us to understand the wider cultural influences at work in the building of Stonehenge, a truly international monument.

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