In 2002, not far from Amesbury in southern Wiltshire and about a mile from Stonehenge, archaeologists were investigating the site of a new school when they discovered something remarkable. It is the grave of a man, aged 35 to 45, who died over 4,000 years ago. Wessex archeology conducted the excavations and they labeled his remains as “skeleton 1291”. But to the public he soon became known as the Amesbury Archer.
Among his bones were no less than 18 beautifully crafted flint arrowheads. The arrows had long since decayed, as had the bow. But their positioning suggested that they had been thrown into the grave after the body was placed in the wood-lined chamber. With two stone wrist guards, or armbands, they formed the largest collection of Bronze Age archery equipment ever found.
Indeed, the tomb itself contained nearly a hundred objects – including copper knives, gold objects, boar tusks, and a shale ring – making it the most richly furnished tomb in the time that has ever been discovered in Britain. Funerary objects and the broken remains of five distinctive pottery beakers with a characteristic upside-down bell shape have revealed that it was a beaker burial place. As Alice Roberts writes, the number of objects and the care with which the tomb was created show that “the archer was a very, very important person.”
The Amesbury archer is kept in the Salisbury Museum and, according to Roberts, “our visits to museums, to see such human remains, are a form of ancestor worship.” In his book, Roberts takes seven different prehistoric burials and explores who they may have been and what they reveal about their communities. It takes imagination, as well as scientific expertise, to read the “stories written in stone, pottery, metal and bone”.
Roberts takes us on an evocative and vividly described journey through a deep history, from the so-called “Red Lady” discovered in Paviland Cave, Wales, which dates back over 30,000 years (“de far the first burial found anywhere in Britain “), Orkney, and the graves of the early farmers (” the deepest revolution human societies have ever known “) dating back some 5,000 years, as well as ‘at Yorkshire’s extraordinary Iron Age chariot burials, where she warns against imposing our own gender ideas on the past:’ Perhaps the Romans were right to be wary of the great women of Great Britain – wise women, prophetesses, priestesses, ladies, queens… they seem charismatic, formidable, powerful even in death.
Isotopic analysis of the Archer’s teeth from Amesbury reveals that he may have grown up near the Alps. DNA studies from other Beaker graves in Germany show that Eurasian steppe ancestry and migration clearly played a major role in establishing the Beaker culture. Indeed, in Great Britain, the genomes are radically different after 2500 BC: “Neolithic ancestry was almost completely replaced, in the Copper Age, by genomes which shared ancestry with the central Europeans associated with the complex. by Beaker.
This is a central theme in The ancestors. Roberts is fascinated by “the endless movement and migration – the turmoil – of the past.” Over the millennia, generations of people have crossed regions and continents like water on rock: landscapes remain, like burials – fixed coordinates in the midst of the flow of time.
This is something a new research project will explore in unprecedented detail. In the spring of 2019, when Roberts started researching her book, she met a group of scientists from the Crick Institute in London who were involved in “Britain’s most ambitious archaeological genetic project”. They plan to fully sequence a thousand ancient genomes, which will hopefully reveal the connectivity, shared ancestry, of people across Britain and beyond: “Ancient DNA carries clues to forgotten journeys – memories of migrations long ago, written in genes.
The scale and detail of A thousand ancient genomes This project, which works with archaeologists from across the UK, could transform our understanding of prehistoric Britain, especially when it comes to mobility and migration. Roberts clearly hoped to include the results of this project in his book. Unfortunately, the pandemic has kicked in and the Crick Institute has suspended work on everything except coronavirus testing.
Although Roberts draws on genomic evidence to show the migration of peoples in prehistoric times, what’s so fascinating about this book is how it weaves together scientific and cultural interpretation. Detailed archeology – trowel work – as well as historical imagination are still essential to understanding the past.
At one point, Roberts memorably describes the excavation of Beaker pottery, such as that found in the tomb of the Archer in Amesbury. It was, she writes with emotion, “a magnificent object”, an object which allowed her to feel a deep connection through time with those involved in the burial: “The human experience is made of moments – and here are two, tied together through millennia. By the time I took the bowl out of the grave, my hands were earthy from digging; by the time the potter (the mourning person, the parent?) held the bowl in his hands, creating this rope pattern, their hands covered with clay.
It is a detailed and richly imagined account of the deep history of the British landscape, which brings to life those ‘who walked here before us’, and speaks forcefully of a sense of connection to place that is rooted in common humanity: “we are just the last human beings to occupy this landscape”.