The background

On May 3rd 2002, archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology found the grave of a man dating back to around 2,300BC, the Early Bronze Age in Britain, at Amesbury in Wiltshire, England. This lies three miles south-east of Stonehenge.
 
The grave contained the richest array of items ever found from this period.
 
In the grave were:
  • the complete skeleton of a man
  • three copper knives
  • two small gold hair tresses
  • a cushion stone used for metal working
  • two sandstone wristguards to protect his wrists from the bow string
  • 16 barbed and tanged flint arrowheads (tang is the protrusion which fixed the arrowhead to the arrow itself)
  • a bone pin which would have been used to hold a piece of clothing such as a leather cloak
  • five Beaker pots
  • a red deer spatula used for working flints
  • four boars’ tusks
  • many flint tools and flakes
  • The grave was probably lined with timber which has not survived. Any organic objects such as leather and human flesh have rotted away.
With around 100 objects, this makes the grave the richest Bronze Age find in Britain – there are ten times the usual number of finds from other graves. The gold dated to as early as 2,470BC and is the earliest found in Britain. It seems likely that the objects were buried with the man, dubbed the Amesbury Archer, or the King of Stonehenge, for his use in the next life. It may be that the grave was covered by a mound, or barrow which was subsequently flattened.
 
The archaeologists were excavating in advance of a scheme to build houses and a school at Amesbury for Bloor Homes and Persimmon Homes South Coast. It is a requirement under planning regulations that developers have the land they are building on surveyed for archaeological remains and have these excavated.
 
The archaeologists were expected remains from Roman times from a cemetery at the site, but were surprised to find Beaker pottery – a style from the Early Bronze Age. On Friday May 3rd they began work in the morning and by mid-afternoon they found a gold hair tress. Excitement grew and the archaeologists pressed on, knowing they could not leave the site unattended over the weekend in case it was interfered with. They finally finished the excavation by car headlights at just before 2am. The Amesbury Archer had made another appearance.
 
Tests on the bones showed that the Archer was a man aged between 35 and 45. He was strongly built, but he had an abscess on his jaw and had suffered an accident a few years before his death that had ripped his left knee cap off. As a result of this he walked with a straight left which swung out to the side of him, and suffered from an infection in his bones which would have caused him constant pain.
 
Other tests on the enamel found on the Archer’s teeth revealed that he grew up in central Europe. They could not reveal how long he had lived in Britain, only that he must have lived in the Alps region while a child. He was probably from what is now Switzerland, Germany or Austria.
 
It is likely that the Archer wore animal skins fashioned into a cloak and was buried with pottery made locally, perhaps specially for his funeral.
 
Also found close to the Archer’s burial was a second skeleton of a younger man, aged 20 to 25. Two gold hair tresses were found lodged in mud in his jaw. Bone analysis showed he and the Archer were related and it is likely they were father and son. Analysis of his teeth show he grew up in southern England but may have spent his late teens in the Midlands or north-east Scotland.
 
The tests were carried out by Wessex Archaeology’s own staff, the British Museum, the National Museums of Wales and Scotland, the British Geological Survey, the National Trust Museum at Avebury and the Universities of Durham, Exeter, Oxford and Southampton.
 
The Archer is important because he is the first example of a powerful elite who may well have organised the erection of Stonehenge. Stonehenge was begun in the late Stone Age, around 3,000BC, as a ditch and a bank enclosing an open space, but in about 2,300BC the world-famous stones were erected, the large 20-tonne Sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs nearby and the smaller four-tonne Bluestones from Preseli in west Wales. How the Bluestones were transported 240 miles (380 kilometres) is not yet known.
 
The Archer is an example of people from abroad bringing the Beaker culture – with its distinctive pottery and the first copper and gold objects – from the continent to Britain. The enormous wealth of the goods in his grave reveals to archaeologists the growing differences in wealth in society at this time.
 
Wessex Archaeology is a practice of commercial archaeologists based near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England. It provides a wide variety of archaeological services for clients including housing developers and heritage organisations. The services include excavation, evaluation, assessments of existing records, marine archaeology and building surveys. It is also a registered charity with a remit to educated the public in archaeology. It began in 1979 and employs more than 150 archaeologists.