"The Amesbury archer- Migration and Knowledge in the Copper Age"
Seminar by Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick
Report by Emily Glynn-Farrell
On the 15th of October 2015 the society Welcomed Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of the University of Leicester for a seminar on 'The Amesbury Archer-Migration and Knowledge in the Copper Age'. This seminar discussed the discovery of the Amesbury archer near Stonehenge in Wessex, the movement of Bell-beaker people throughout Europe and the characteristics of their material culture.
Dr. Fitzpatrick began by giving us an introduction to the copper age in Europe. This is the beginning of Metallurgy using mostly copper and pure gold. This is the period of the Bell-beaker people. The bell-beaker culture originated in Europe in around 4500 years ago. It was a short-lived cultural phenomenon, only lasting a couple of hundred years, and most of our evidence for Bell-beaker people comes from burials. These burials mostly consisted of males and we have very little evidence of bell-beaker settlements.
The name 'Bell-Beaker' related to the form of pottery typical of the culture. These pots are often found in a burial context alongside other materials such as amber, jet beads and button, arrowheads and gold objects. The gold is quite significant because it is in bell beaker graves that we find the first appearances of gold ornamentation. Diadems and other temple-located head ornaments were most common and most likely displayed the status of the individual.
Bell-Beaker people were widely distributed in Europe. In areas around Iberia, the earliest evidence for Bell-beaker activity is around 2600-2200 BC. In Britain, it's around 2375 BC that the culture emerges. Though there is some local variation, bell-beaker culture is classified by a number of standard finds. This gives the culture a homogeneity accross Europe and demonstrated contact despite long distances.
The graves of bell-beaker people often show regional variation, evident in both grave goods and in the type of grave itself. In Eastern Europe and the UK, single inhumation burials are most common. In Iberia, parts of France and Ireland, collective burials were favoured.
The Amesbury Archer himself was found in Wessex near to some of the most important Neolithic monuments in England. Excavation of the archer came after an accidental discovery of material during the excavation of a Roman cemetery. The first finds to hint that a grave different to Roman burials might be located in the area was a gold ornament which Dr. Fitzpatrick recognised usually came in pairs.
In total almost 100 objects were found on and around the body. The Amesbury archer was placed in a semi-foetal position on his left hand side. He was about 30-45 years old at the age of death and most likely an individual of high status. Isotopic analysis has revealed that the archer grew up in a colder place than Britain but excluding Scandinavia, as the beaker culture was no earlier than Britain in that area. Dr. Fitzpatrick believes that the man was originally a native of an Alpine region before Journeying to Britain.
There is a debate as to how Bell-beaker individuals came into England. Some scholars theorise that people would have journeyed up the Rhine and across the Channel. Dr. Fitzpatrick is sceptical of this narrative. He suggested that the line of contact went through the south and west. I.E. through France and Spain.
The burial of the Amesbury Archer was rich with goods. Some of the finds were 3 copper daggers, several gold objects, and stones relating to metalworking among other objects. This is the most elaborate bell-beaker grave in Europe to date. Dr. Fitzpatrick's research of other bell-beaker graves brought up comparable finds in Germany. In Germany, the idea of such a richness of objects associated with a high status burial also seems likely. This model correlates with the Amesbury Archer's grave.
A year later, another series of graves were found nearby. These were known as the Boscome Bowmen. The burials were of at least 7 individuals, mostly male and with unsexed children and no certain females. The remains were disrupted by road works and electricity cables which meant that whilst a pelvis and leg bones were found in a certain individual grave, the other bones were in a jumbled mess.
The skulls of the bowmen show a possible familial connection. At the very least, we can deduce that they were closely related. In terms of grave goods, these burials were not as wealthy as the Amesbury archer. There were 3 individuals that were eligible for isotopic analysis. The results show that these individuals led a nomadic life and moved from place to place over 10 years. Definitively, these people were not from Wessex. Possibly they originated in Wales, Brittany, Germany, France or Iberia but unfortunately, unlike the Amesbury Archer, it was difficult to speculate.
Dr. Fitzpatrick concluded by attempting to place these burials within a bigger picture. The burials suggest that bell-beaker peoples migrated rather than the idea transferring. The graves also fit into a wider, pan-European copper age tradition. Whilst we can see a clear difference in material culture with the coming of these people, we struggle to see in the record other changes such as settlements and temples.
Dr. Fitzpatrick stressed that bell-beaker cultures could not have thrived as they did without interacting peacefully with local cultures. They probably wouldn't have had the access to metals and other materials without help and guidance from indigenous communities. So any ideas of bell-beaker isolation are unreliable except in terms of the culture of the people themselves.
Questions of how people travelled at this time are still unanswered and may never be answered. Could they have known were they were going? Did families travel in groups? Did they intend to return? It is difficult to speculate. What we do know is that there does not seem to be one single homeland for the bell-beaker people.
In conclusion, Dr. Fitzpatrick demonstrated that the discovery of the Amesbury Archer has a much wider significance than just relating to Stonehenge, England and Britain. Whilst we still don't know how he reacted with indigenous communities or how he came to Wessex, what we do know can shed a light on bell-beaker people and their spread in Europe and inform us further of the culture's rich material heritage.