The Amesbury Archer And His World

Photograph © Mike Fuller, Topical Television

The recent discovery of the Amesbury Archer burial (dated to 2,300BC) by Wessex Archaeology has turned the spotlight on the early Bronze Age more than any other burial in recent years. The discovery was made close to the river Avon, at Amesbury, Wiltshire England.

The Archer's grave contained the largest number of grave goods ever seen in a beaker burial, with some 190 artefacts, and the earliest copper and gold working found in Britain. Scientific tests show that he and his copper tools come from Europe and it was most probably his son in the grave next to him.

The close proximity to Stonehenge has brought this grave to the attention of the popular media, who unfortunately use the term "King of Stonehenge". If this grave, although the richest discovered to date, had been located far from Stonehenge, it would have been seen as one of many beaker graves. Of the many authors of books on prehistory, for me only Dr. Aubrey Burl can piece all the information together to create a realistic picture of the past. I am very grateful to Dr. Aubrey Burl for writing the following article for me.

Beaker Folk, Beaker Pottery
By Dr. Aubrey Burl

Of all the pottery styles in prehistoric Britain, beaker vessels and the people who made them are the most controversial. Archaeologists argue.

Perhaps the potters were military aggressors from overseas. Maybe they were peaceful farmers. They were once believed to have built the stone circles in Britain, including Stonehenge. They were certainly the first metalworkers in these islands.

Possibly they were not a society at all, just a coincidental blend of native customs, native pottery and native physical types. Even more ghostlike they were not people at all, just pots used by a drug-using cult from overseas.

Beakers were without doubt the most attractive, finely burnished, skilfully fired of all British wares wherever they were found. Unromantically but helpfully archaeologists gave various styles acronyms: geographically; W/MR, for Wessex where the pots

were found, MR for Middle Rhine, the region from which the people came; or ornamentally, B/W for 'barbed-wire' to describe the impressed decoration.

Beaker from Radley , Oxfordshire

Beaker Folk, as they were once called, are chronological chameleons. Over fifty years ago in "Prehistoric Britain", 1949, Jacquetta and Christopher Hawkes wrote that 'the first wave of Beaker Folk sailed for Britain. Making their main landings round the mouth of the Avon and the Stour, they quickly overran the good lands of the Wessex chalk…. Once arrived, these several waves of energetic conquerors soon occupied the greater part of Britain, ruthlessly dispossessing the Neolithic communities of their best pastures, and also no doubt of their herds, and sometimes of their women'.

Today the picture is less dramatic. Now it is believed that the people were immigrants rather than invaders, and farmers rather than followers of some trance-inducing mystique. In his "Bronze Age Britain" of 1993 Mike Parker Pearson claimed that 'the cord used to decorate beakers was hemp or cannabis, which was combined with alcohol to produce a strong cocktail'. Maybe. When sediment from beakers has been analysed it has proved to be the remains of a beer like mead but not hallucinogenic.

The old idea of an actual infiltration of Beaker people in the mid-3rd millennium BC remains likely. Beakers are widespread over Europe and it must have been continental people who brought them across the North Sea into these islands, people whose way of life was somewhat different from that of the natives and who, at first, kept themselves apart. Yet within a few generations they assumed a dominant role in regions as far apart as eastern Scotland, Yorkshire and Wessex.

They were no healthier or longer-lived than people of earlier centuries. Only half the men lived beyond 36 years of age and no fewer than 85 per cent of the women died before 25 through inferior diet and childbirth. Many children must have grown up motherless in a male-dominated society. Fracture, osteo-arthritis and spodoloysis were also detected, but the plague of those communities was toothache and septicaemia.

Ill health was commonplace. On Overton Down near Avebury, the bones of four adults and seven young children contained signs of hardship and disease. Several of the men and women were arthritic, and three had suffered from malnutrition. An even more extreme form of physical distress was discovered in 1915 when a flat grave was accidentally bulldozed eight miles north of Stonehenge. From it bits of a well-fired, cord-decorated W/MR beaker were recovered together with the bones of a heavy-jowelled old man. There were abscesses in many of his teeth and his back was deformed, 'for he had severe rheumatoid disease of the spine'. There was no Golden Age in our prehistoric past.

From the tools near his beaker the man in the central grave was a leatherworker and such an occupation shows that not all his ancestors had come to Britain as arrogant, aristocratic warriors. More probably there was an influx of small farming groups around 2500 BC, penetrating the country down the great rivers of the east coast, the Humber into Yorkshire, the Thames into the heart of Wessex. The earliest of these incursions may have come from the Low Countries, bringing with them squat, flared-mouth beakers known as All-Over-Corded (AOC) vessels from the impressions of cord or animal gut that had been twisted round and round the wet clay before being burned away during the firing.

Such families may warily have settled on Salisbury Plain well away from the newly erected sarsens of Stonehenge, existing in an uneasy co-existence with the natives. There were probably not enough newcomers to offer a threat, but presumably they were well enough armed to defend themselves.

Caving found in a Beaker cist from Sion Swedon.

A vital part of a Beaker man's equipment was the bow. He may also have had a horse, but any picture of braves riding tall in the saddle would be misleading. The horses were not thundering stallions. They were the size of Exmoor ponies and even if they had been ridden it would have been with the rider's legs dangling to the ground.

Even men on horseback is unproved. Although horse-bones have been found on beaker sites across Europe and although it is possible to explain 'the wide and rapid spread of beakers as being linked to the spread of domesticated horses' not one piece of riding tackle has been discovered.

Yet the absence of riding equipment may mean that it was made of perishable organic material. It does not follow that Beaker people never rode horses. Absence of evidence of horse gear is not evidence that it never existed.

There is an actual hint of horse riding from a short-cist burial in Scotland. 'The only female in which a healed fracture was noted had a broken clavicle or collarbone some considerable time before her death. This type of injury commonly occurs when the weight of the body is taken on the outstretched hand, and often happens when a rider is thrown from a horse'.

Even so, rather than the horse it was probably the bow that safeguarded Beaker communities. Unfortunately, unlike the Neolithic longbow, none of these weapons has been recovered. Proof however, that there really were bows comes from the numerous flint arrowheads with Beaker burials. Beaker bows seem to have been a short, composite variety, about three feet long, thick and crescent-shaped, a wood stiffened with antler or bone and backed with sinew. With a finger-hole at their centre and notched at both ends for the bow strings, they could be fired rapidly just as Scythians, using the same kind of weapon, were able to fire five arrows before the first one hit the ground. Such bows could comfortably be slung across the chest. That it was such a bow that Beaker archers used is likely because many graves with arrowheads were not big enough to hold a longbow unless it was broken. Moreover, wrist guards like those in Beaker graves were part of the equipment of continental shortbow warriors but never discovered with longbows.

In Britain, at Thwing near Bridlington, a beaker barrow contained an adult skeleton, very probably male as it lay with its head to the east, a custom for men in Yorkshire. In the curled fingers of the man's left hand was 'a small article, so much decayed that nothing could be made out regarding it beyond the fact that wood had entered into its composition', maybe a fragment of bow like the traces of sinew, wood and leather discovered with a Beaker burial at Borrowston in Aberdeenshire. By coincidence, hardly twenty miles east of Thwing, at Callis Wold in 1864, John Mortimer, the Yorkshire archaeologist, came upon another possible bow.

In a round barrow lacking any burial there were five flint arrowheads and a dark, curved streak in the ground which, as it was 'little more than three feet in length, and was close to the arrowheads, it was thought it might mark the remains of a longbow'.

Very few burials were accompanied by a complete quiver of arrows or a bracer and it was even rarer for arrows and bracers to be buried together. The rarity in Britain of any collection of five arrows is also a surprise, for five could have been expected to have been a popular number in those days or a simple counting system.

What seems to be the relic of a quiverful of arrows have been found in Germany in groups of 5, 10 and 15, indicating elementary numeracy. In the Thwing grave three fine, flint arrowheads lay under the skeleton, their bases neatly chipped to leave a central tang for the arrow-shaft and a viciously sharp barb on either side of it to prevent a hunted animal- or human target- from shaking the missile loose. Such barbed-and-tanged arrowheads are the hallmark of Beaker weaponry.

Barbed-and-tangedflint arrowheads.

An archer's equipment consisted of the bow, a quiver of arrows and a 'bracer' of stone, clay or bone, perforated at its ends for thronging and to be worn as a wrist guard for protection against the lash of the bowstring. These bracers, rectangular, waisted, even elliptical, have been interpreted as bracelets but a function as wrist guards is equally plausible.

Something of a fetish accompanied the deposition of this armament. In unscientific times when reality and imagination blended in the belief of a powerful Other-World of spirits, superstition was a religion. The symbol was the substance.

It was almost unknown for bow, arrows and wrist-guard to be placed together with a burial in Britain. Of forty Beaker graves with archers' gear, 16 contained only a single arrowhead, no more than a token that the dead man had been a bowman. Of the fourteen graves with bracers, only five had arrowheads. It was symbolism. Sometimes it was a single article that represented the group. Sometimes the burial was given specially made objects that would have been unusable in life.

Thirteen flint arrowheads were found in a barrow at Breach Farm in Glamorgan. Seven were a translucent grey-black, five were a pellucid pale yellow and one was opaquely golden. All of them had delicately serrated edges and were so uniformly thin and fragile that they could never have been projectiles. They were made for the Other-World like the single arrowheads and the weaponless bracers. They were images, ghosts of reality that the dead would recognise.

Basket Earrings from Chilbolton

The sudden accumulation of distinctive traits at the very end of the late Neolithic in Britain makes it difficult to believe that the Beaker 'package' was a chance convergence of native traditions. Various articles of the assemblage might have accumulated by coincidence but it is improbable that so many should have merged fortuitously. To the beaker itself, a form of pottery and decoration previously unknown in Britain, and fired by a skilful technique without precedent, has to be added the novel barbed-and-tanged arrowheads, the bracer, copper knives and small articles of gold, the emergence of round-headed people, a preference for single burials in flat graves or under very low round barrows, the deposition of the grave goods, the brewing of beer, a knowledge of metalworking, and the domestication of the horse, and the herding of a small breed of cattle, Bos longifrons, unlike the bigger indigenous Bos frontosus of the British Neolithic.

'Beaker Folk' were real people who made fine beaker vessels.

© Dr. Aubrey Burl 2003

Amended and updated from "The Stonehenge People", Date, 1987.

 

Mould Reinforcement Stick Clay Outer Jacket Impression Layer Fragment of Sword Mould from Ireland.