Archaeological Analyses

Beakers: form, decoration, fabric, style and condition

Ros Cleal
(National Trust) Curator, Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, Wiltshire
The five Beaker pots from the grave are an exceptional group, both in terms of number of vessels and quality. No other single burial has so many Beaker pots as grave goods, the most common number of Beakers in a grave being one.

The pots

The pair of pots in front of the Archer’s face are almost identical. Both pots are decorated with horizontal lines of ver fine plaited cord, pressed into the clay when damp. This is an unusual form of cord decoration in both Britain and Europe.
Neither of these pots seems to be complete. This may be because the pots were not well-fired, which in turn may be because the potter was aiming to produce a darker finish than the orange-red colour that is usual on Beakers. Producing a darker colour is more difficult than going for a full oxidising firing and may have led to under-firing. If that is so the pots are unlikely to have stood up to much use before they were put in the grave, and so it is likely they were made for the funeral and burial.
Two of the other vessels may also be a pair, made by the same potter or potters working closely together. These are a Beaker with all over comb decoration and a Beaker of very similar form and fabric which is decorated with horizontal lines of comb impression with attached ‘fringes’ of triangles pendant or upstanding from the groups of horizontal lines. This ‘fringe’ motif is a very Scottish phenomenon which makes its appearance in Wiltshire unusual.
The remaining Beaker carries all-over single cord impressions as horizontal lines. The vessel seems slightly more worn than the others and it may be an older pot used by the Archer or his family and not made specifically for burial.

Oxygen isotope analysis

Oxygen isotope map of Europe.Oxygen isotope map of Europe.

Carol Chenery, British Geological Survey
Oxygen isotope analysis of dental enamel can assist in determining a persons place of origin.
Tooth enamel stores a chemical record of their owners’ childhood living environment, such as local climate and geology. Each tooth opens a window of information covering the short time of tooth enamel formation. The mineral apatite that makes up the structure of our teeth and bones is the main component of tooth enamel. Its chemical composition is primarily calcium, phosphorous and oxygen with trace amounts of other elements including strontium and lead. Of these elements the isotopes of oxygen and strontium are the strongest independent indicators we have of the local natural environment.
Nearly all of the oxygen that goes into the formation of tooth and bone comes from the water we drink and virtually all the water we drink is ultimately derived from precipitation as rain or snow.
The element oxygen has 3 different forms called isotopes, which are chemically the same, but have slightly different physical properties due to a small difference in their weight.
Carolyn Chenery using a Laser to extract oxygen from dental enamel for oxygen isotope analysis (taken by T Cullen): IPR/38-32CW British Geological Survey. © NERC. All Rights Reserved.Carolyn Chenery using a Laser to extract oxygen from dental enamel for oxygen isotope analysis (taken by T Cullen): IPR/38-32CW British Geological Survey. © NERC. All Rights Reserved.
The oxygen isotopes ratio of the water you drink depends on the source of the water in precipitation, the distance from the coast, latitude and altitude and the local temperature of precipitation. For our purposes we are interested in the ratio of heavy (oxygen 18) to light (oxygen 16) isotopes. Drinking water in warm climates has more heavy isotopes (higher ratio) and in cold climates has more light isotopes (lower ratio). We can compare the oxygen isotopes ratio in teeth with that of drinking water from different regions and determine where a person might have lived, at the time their teeth formed.
Oxygen isotope analysis of dental enamel from the two burials at Amesbury indicate that the “Archer” came from a colder climate region than we find in Britain today, possibly from some where in central Europe - the dark blue-green area in the oxygen isotope map. An early formed tooth from the younger man has an oxygen isotope value that is compatible with living in southern England or Ireland but the value obtained from his wisdom tooth suggest that he may have spent his late teens in the Midlands (yellow area on the map) or north-east Scotland (mid green area on the map). However these results for the younger man do not rule out a European origin.
Visitors to this website are granted permission to access this BGS material and reproduce it for the purposes of academic research, private study and educational or instructive use only.

Prehistoric archery and its accessories

Dr Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland
What kind of a bow did the Amesbury Archer use, and how powerful was it? Only a very few prehistoric bows have been found in Britain and Ireland. The earliest one dates to around 4000 BC and was found at Rotten Bottom, in the Moffat hills in south-west Scotland. This was a single-piece yew flatbow, which had probably broken during a deer hunt in the hills. The Amesbury Archer's bow may well have been of a different kind - shorter, curved, and possibly made of more than one material. Such bows were adopted from Europe around 2500 BC, and used alongside the older type. Other novelties adopted from Europe were a new kind of arrowhead, with a tang (for attachment to the arrowshaft) and barbs (to help the arrow stick in the target), and fancy stone wristguards. These protected the wrist from the bowstring as it snapped back after a shot.
The Amesbury bow need not have been particularly powerful. If used for hunting, or even for combat, the archer would have tried to get as close to his prey/enemy as possible, to ensure that the arrows struck their target.
Also of interest is the shale ring, which might have been from a belt or strap - perhaps even the strap for his quiver.

Radiocarbon Dating

Dr Tom Higham

Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit
Dating the Amesbury Archer was an important part of the overall archaeological research programme. Samples of bone from both the Archer and his companion were AMS radiocarbon dated at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, University of Oxford. In addition, another burial found nearby was also dated to determine whether it was the same age as the Archer, or whether it represented a later phase of burial activity at the site.
The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit has recently installed a new state-of-the-art AMS machine.The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit has recently installed a new state-of-the-art AMS machine.
The first stage in the process of radiocarbon dating using AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) is to drill a small sample of bone powder from the bone itself. This is achieved in the laboratory using an electric drill. Before drilling the exterior of the bone is carefully cleaned and then about 500 milligrams is drilled. The bone powder is pretreated and cleaned over about 4 days. First, a dilute acid is used to remove the carbonate fraction of the bone, which accounts for about 75% of its entire mass. Studies have shown this material is unreliable for radiocarbon dating. Then, the collagen fraction is isolated and purified using filters. The purified collagen extracted from the Archer weighed about 30 milligrams. This collagen is then converted into carbon dioxide in a combustion furnace, and finally converted into graphite, before being radiocarbon dated.
The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit has recently installed a new state-of-the-art AMS machine. This machine was used to date these bones, which were amongst the first samples to be analysed using it. AMS enables each carbon-14 atom in the sample to be counted directly, so the measurement process only takes an hour or so. A radiocarbon age is calculated by comparing the sample activity with that measured on standards of known-age.
Both the Archer and his companion were dated twice, to add greater confidence to the final date. The results were consistent and in good agreement, and suggested that both individuals date to the middle part of the second millennium BC (2400-2200 BC). The third burial produced a much later result of 1700 years before present. Further dating work is being conducted in an attempt to determine whether or not the Archer and his companion were in fact direct contemporaries or separated by a period of time.
Dr Tom HighamDr Tom Higham

Tom Higham

Dr Tom Higham works at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. He administers the Unit's archaeological dating programmes, and is the secretary to the NERC Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Dating Service advisory panel. His research interests revolve around archaeological dating using AMS, including colonisation and settlement in the Pacific Islands, the application of Bayesian calibration methods to archaeological dating, sample pre-treatment chemistry and dating novel sample types.