In May 2002, a bronze age grave site was discovered three miles (five kilometres) from Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. The main burial was of a man in early middle age - probably a little over 40 - and became known as the Amesbury Archer, after the town where the discovery was made. Evidence shows that the man was buried about 2470 BCE, at exactly the time that the great stones were being raised at the pre-existing ceremonial site now known as Stonehenge. The 'archer' had a phenomenal quantity of grave goods, which led to the adoption of the now more popular name 'the King of Stonehenge'. 100 distinct artefacts were found in the grave, ten times more than from any other burial of the period. These include at least fifteen beautifully carved flint arrowheads, two gold 'basket earrings' - the oldest gold found in Britain - and no fewer than three metal knives. The 'earrings', which are simply decorated gold pegs, are also referred to as 'hair tresses', and it is not clear exactly how they would have been worn, although archaeologists agree they were head ornaments of some sort. This quantity of metal objects is otherwise unknown in a burial of this date, and it seems that the copper for the knives came from Spain or France. When buried, he would have been wearing a complete set of formal hunting gear, of which only the bone and inorganic parts remain. Especially notable is a slate wristguard or bracer, designed to protect the wearer from the recoil of a longbow. Another, smaller wristguard and a number of other items related to hunting wear were found elsewhere in the grave, showing that the man was buried with at least one change of clothes. Also remarkable is the number of beakers found in the grave. These pottery jars are very common in burials of the period, and have led to the people of this era and region being known as 'beaker people'. But most burials feature one or at most two beakers, while the 'King' had five.

The richness of the hoard has led to speculation that the man was a great tribal chief, and the political mastermind behind the establishment of the stones at Stonehenge. However, in February 2003 it was announced that oxygen isotope analysis of the man's teeth had shown that he had not grown up in Britain at all, but in a colder climate, thought to be modern-day Switzerland or southern Germany. Another body found at the same site is thought to have been the son of the 'King'. They appear to have died at about the same time, and the younger man seems to have been fifteen to twenty years younger. Both suffered from a deformity of the bones in the foot, and at some stage the elder man lost his left kneecap in an accident, which would have given him great pain and a pronounced limp. Oxygen isotope analysis of the younger man's teeth shows that he grew up in Britain, probably visiting the Midlands or Scotland during his later childhood. The discovery that the 'King' was an immigrant has led to half-serious speculation that he was 'the inventor of the Swiss Army Knife' - a device which is in fact at least 2000 years old, as the Roman army carried it. More probable, though, is that he was a great trader and innovator, whose involvement with the development of the stone circle was as much economic and technological as political. The beakers used in burials also begin appearing in Britain at about this time, and it may well be that the 'King' was an importer of these vital ritual artefacts. His possession of copper knives and gold jewellery at such an early period also suggests that his activities were in some sense commercial.

Whatever the man's precise role, it is clear that he would have been familiar with the developing sanctuary at Stonehenge, and the other great monuments of the area, such as Avebury, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls. He also seems to have been a person who was greatly respected by the communities who built and maintained the great complex of ceremonial sites in Wiltshire, which was one of the greatest centres of quasi-religious activity in northern Europe at the time. The beakers, once thought to have been introduced by invaders, are now believed to have been brought to the British Isles by traders, and the prominence of beakers in the grave of the 'King', a central European, backs this theory strongly. The copper knives would have been too soft for practical use, and the presence of flints and flint-shaping tools in the grave serves as a reminder that stone would still have been employed for heavy-duty purposes at the dawn of the metal-using era. Indeed, the man's power and status might well relate to his use and ownership of metal, a substance which a few generations earlier had been entirely unknown, much like plastic in the modern era. The overall image is thus not of a king in the medieval or modern sense, or even the sense of the tribal kings in Mesopotamia at the same period, but rather of a prehistoric engineering tycoon, able to associate himself with places of spiritual and political power in a new country through his mastery of previously unseen technologies and precious ritual artefacts. We will probably never know whether he organised, or even witnessed, the creation of Stonehenge as it is today. But it does not seem unlikely that so dramatic a character had some hand in one of the prehistoric world's most famous constructions.


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