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21 June 2004
Stonehenge: the Welsh connection

As thousands were on their way to celebrate the summer solstice, scientists announced that three of the seven occupants of an Early Bronze Age burial close to Stonehenge (England) were from West Wales, source of the monument's bluestones. Given the dating and proximity of the burial it would be a “phenomenal coincidence” if the origins of the three adult males and the Stonehenge bluestones were not linked, according to Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology. The intriguing possibility is that the burials were related to the transportation of the bluestones and the megalithic construction phases of Stonehenge.
     The 80 bluestones formed the first stone circles at Stonehenge, erected towards the end of the third millennium BCE. They appear to be have been aligned to the sunrise on the longest day and sunset on the shortest day. Erected on the site of a much older ritual monument, they were later removed and rearranged to make place for the familiar trilithons of the last construction phase - sarsen stones from nearby Marlborough Down. Some 80 years ago the bluestones were traced to the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, itself a region rich in megalithic sites. But from the very first there has been heated debate over how the bluestones made the 150-mile journey from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain. The burial adds strength to the argument that the bluestones were moved from the Preselis by human effort rather than glacial action.
     The burial of the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ was first discovered on Boscombe Down in 2003 by archaeologist Colin Kirby, who noticed human remains in a water pipe trench while overseeing road improvement works. Subsequent excavations by Wessex Archaeology revealed three adult males, a teenager, two children between 5 and 7 and a younger, cremated, child aged between 2 and 3. A 30-40 year old male showed clear evidence of a badly broken leg, giving rise to speculation that he may have been injured while moving the stones. The children were buried near his head and may have been his own. The bones of the teenager and the two other adults had been rearranged and may have been interred some time after the original burials. The bones were in varying stages of preservation but reconstruction of the skulls and other evidence shows that they were probably related. The multiple burial contained grave goods including eight decorated beaker-style pots, five flint arrowheads, a boar’s tusk and a bone toggle.
     Archaeologists have dated the bones to around 2,300 BCE. Oxygen isotope and strontium isotope analyses have been used to place the region of origin of the adults. Oxygen isotopes are embedded in teeth enamel from drinking water and can indicate a person’s distance away from the sea, his elevation above sea level and the type of climate at the time of tooth development. Similarly, strontium isotopes indicate the degree of ambient radioactivity. “Strontium isotope analysis is used in conjunction with other lines of evidence to constrain possible areas where an individual could have spent his childhood and/or rule out areas where the tooth data does not match environmental values,” says Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey. The high proportion of strontium in the tooth enamel has narrowed down the source region to Wales or the much more distant English Lake District.
     The Boscombe Bowmen add to the picture of prehistoric migration provided by the nearby discovery of the Amesbury Archer in 2002. The occupant of this rich beaker burial was thought to be one of the earliest metalworkers in Britain and is known to have come from the western alpine region of Europe. A second burial, possibly the Archer’s son, was of a man who had been brought up in southern England and had spent his late teens in the Midlands or north east Scotland.
     The Archer burials are dated to the same period as the Boscombe Bowmen and were similarly associated by archaeologists to the later construction phases of Stonehenge. Dr. Fitzpatrick said: “There are bound to be more of these people buried nearby. It is likely that many people took part because it was a very public display and those in charge would want to involve as many as possible.” And once again the question is raised as to the significance of West Wales for the builders of Stonehenge. “Stonehenge, save for its initial wooden monument, was not remarkable until the stones arrived, so we believe that the site in Wales must have been of some importance to the people of the time,” says Fitzpatrick, who points to the theory that the bluestone circle was moved from Wales and reconstructed at Stonehenge. A similar, if smaller, monument exists in the Preseli Hills, but a direct link between the two megalithic circles has yet to be discovered.
     The finds will be on display at Salisbury Museum from 3 July to 30 August.

Sources: BBC News, Daily Record, Discovery Channel, The Scotsman, Timesonline, Article by David Prudames for 24 Hour Museum, Wessex Archaeology (21 June 2004)

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