Death of the Stonehenge Archer: A discussion by Keith Rodger
The skeleton of a Neolithic or early Bronze Age man, dated to about 2300 BC, of about 25 years of age, was found buried in the ditch surrounding Stonehenge. He is known as the “Stonehenge Archer” because of where he was buried and he was buried with a stone bracer. His grave had been significantly disturbed by animals; neither one fibula (the lesser shinbone), nor his feet were found. Otherwise, the skeleton was in good condition.
He had been shot to death with arrows; three stone arrowheads were found in the region of his chest and witness marks on his bones testify to a fourth arrow. It is possible that he was hit by more arrows that have not left marks on the bones. None of his wounds was to his front.
Of the four arrows, two did not penetrate his ribs. This is consistent with them being shot at long range and may have been the first hits. Although not immediately mortal, these wounds are likely to have reduced his mobility, which may have permitted his assailants to close the range. A third arrow passed between two ribs but the depth of penetration is not known. The fourth and presumably final arrow entered the victim’s back and passed through the top of the heart or its major blood vessels; this would have been quickly fatal.
In the following I discuss reasons for his killing, which is by no means unique, and choice of burial site, which is. Five possible reasons have been proposed for his killing: viz sacrifice, ritual murder, execution, warfare and fracas. The discussion will be guided by “Occam’s razor” that one should not elaborate assumption beyond necessity.
The first three are, in their own ways, rituals and should therefore have been repeated. However, this case seems to be unique in that only one such burial has been found in the ditch around Stonehenge. Of course, there may be or have been others that are undiscovered but, using the ‘razor’, we should not assume evidence that we do not have. On that basis, these will be discussed no further.
Warfare also seems unlikely. If he had been an attacker, surely he would have been left to rot on the plain or even mutilated. Had he been a defender, he would have been among the glorious dead and given a more elaborate funeral. Of course, it is possible that burial in the ditch was some kind of ritual that was appropriate for a killed enemy on the one hand or a gallant defender on the other. (See note 1 below) Once again, the ‘razor’ suggest that we should discount both since they need additional assumptions.
This leaves fracas. Assuming a fight between local men, there may have been good reason for hiding the corpse and burial is an obvious choice. However, Salisbury plain consists of a thin covering of turf on chalk and a newly dug grave would leave an obvious white patch. The ditch around Stonehenge at that time however would have been white and a newly dug grave less obvious. Perhaps that is why he was put there. His missing feet and fibula seem to have disappeared after burial rather than removed as part of the burial rites, eg to stop his corpse walking and haunting his killers. These losses might be due to animals, in which case birds removing partly fleshed bones from the surface would seem to be the most likely since mammals would have dug for more, or they could have been lost by erosion. Either explanation would suggest a rather shallow grave so that the bones became exposed, consistent with the hypothesis of fracas. Otherwise, they may have been broken up during the grave’s disturbance by animals and decayed. The distribution of his known injuries is consistent with an ambush and pursuit.
As Sherlock Holmes should have said, “Eliminate the possible and what is left ought to be the most plausible.”. Five possible scenari have been considered and four rejected via Occam’s razor, leaving the fifth, fracas, as the most plausible but not necessarily correct scenario: readers and visitors should make up their own explanation. I hope mine will provoke thought, provide other ‘Engagement Volunteers” with useful ideas and that William of Occam has not become giddy rotating in his grave.
Note 1 It has been suggested that he did receive an elaborate funeral, gave goods consisting of the arrow heads that killed him and the bracer that he was (presumably) wearing do not suggest an elaborate funeral to me; rather more a disposal with minimum fuss.
Note 2 It is interesting to point out how technology has improved. Initially carbon dating of the corpse required the whole of his left femur (thighbone) was destroyed to yield sufficient carbon for analysis. Later a small hole was drilled in the right femur to provide sufficient material for a more precise date. The left femur is a replica, as can be seen from the difference in colour.