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Skeleton and reconstruction of the Amesbury Archer burial at The Salisbury Museum

Josh, from Stonehenge School, completes his contribution to our blog…

As part of my work experience at the Salisbury museum, it has been requested that I write a short blog or piece about a chosen artefact within the museum, some information about it, and why I have chosen it. I hope that you will find this interesting, and that maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn something.

The Amesbury archer is the skeleton of what is believed to be a late Neolithic/early Bronze Age man, estimated to have been around 35-45 years old when he died. He was found buried near the town of Amesbury, along with several fascinating and highly revealing archaeological finds, making his discovery of great importance and relevance. I will summarise these below, only looking over a few of the many finds buried with him.

The Amesbury Archer is believed to be part of what was referred to as the “bell beaker culture”, a late Neolithic social grouping of individuals who were all found to be buried with ceramic beakers, hence their name. Usually they were all buried with one, in what we now believe to have been their customary funeral rite or ceremony. However the Amesbury Archer was different. For you see, he was not buried with just one beaker. Nor two. Not even three. He was found buried with an impressive five beakers, a figure that has only been matched a few times.

This large number of pots is usually taken to indicate a particularly high social status and burial, meaning that whoever the Amesbury Archer was, he was a man of power. The other items buried with him only go to further support this theory.

Alongside the skeleton of this long dead man lay three copper daggers, and two hammered gold hair ornaments, and the importance of these finds cannot be overstated. As of the time of writing, these are the oldest man-made copper or gold items to be found in Britain, and indicate that the art of metal working was slowly coming to the island.

It was an art that many believe the Amesbury Archer had brought with him. Through in-depth isotope analysis of the Archers teeth, we are able to determine that he was not a native to this land, instead originating somewhere in the Alpine region of what is now known as southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

This suggests that over 4000 years ago, people were beginning to travel long distances and were spreading the finer arts of forging and metalworking to Britain, which had for so long been isolated from continental Europe. Indeed, it is believed from the presence of a black cushion stone and several flint tools lying amidst his grave that he was a metalworker himself, a position that would have undoubtedly given him much power and influence in the late Neolithic society. If this is true, he was one of the men who started the gradual ushering of the British Isles into the next era.

Other details can be found from his burial. His skeleton was found missing a knee cap, and the growth of the bones on one of his legs indicates that it had been used far more than the other one, suggesting that he only walked using the one leg for most his life, giving him a limp. Yet evidently he flourished, living to a great age relative to those around him.

Why did he travel all these many miles? On what sort of quest was he on? Was he seeking something, or was he fleeing troubles and dangers in his own land? These are unanswerable questions, but to me, really strike home, and are why I find this one exhibit so fascinating.

The Amesbury Archer suggests so much about the changing and evolving civilisation developing in Britain and Europe at the time, and yet gives us so little solid evidence or story that we can work from. We are left with a few fragmentary pieces, frantically trying to use them to make the full picture.

To me, this is what history is. A constant struggle to find the stories and tales of ages past, and to understand the motivations and reasonings behind the people who shaped the events that have led us up to this moment. The Amesbury Archer is one of these figures, who can tell us so much about the past, but still leaving us longing to fill in the gaps.

I have not written everything I could have about this subject, and the artefact and if you want to learn more about this fascinating character, he’s on display in the Wessex gallery today. And please, when you see him, try to fill in the gaps for me. Make a new tale. The best thing about history is that there’s always a new story, and always a new interpretation. I hope you find one that satisfies you.

Sources

  1. The Amesbury archer exhibit, in the Wessex Gallery, Salisbury museum
  2. The Amesbury Archer and the Boscombe Bowman exhibit: Early Bell Beaker burials, A.P Fitzpatrick
  3. The Flint Arrowheads of the British Isles, H Stephen Green

” The best thing about history is that there’s always a new story, and always a new interpretation.”Couldn’t agree more Josh. Thank you.

The full story of Wessex Archaeology’s discovery, excavation, etc of the Amesbury Archer can be read here.