September 29, 2010

Stonehenge Visited By Bronze Age Mediterraneans

Chemical tests on teeth from an ancient burial site containing the 3,550-year-old remains of a teenage boy wearing a unique necklace unearthed near Stonehenge indicate that the person buried there grew up around the Mediterranean Sea.

The conclusions come from analysis of different forms of oxygen and strontium in the tooth enamel of the remains.

A previous skeleton unearthed near Stonehenge was analyzed and was found to also be a migrant to the area.

The "Boy with the Amber Necklace," as he is known to archaeologists, was discovered in 2005, about 3 miles southeast of Stonehenge on Boscombe Down. The remains were found next to a Bronze Age burial mound, during construction of a road for military housing.

The boy is around 14 to 15 years old and "he is buried with this beautiful necklace," said Professor Jane Evans, head of archaeological science for the British Geological Survey (BGS). "The position of his burial, the fact he's near Stonehenge, and the necklace all suggest he's of significant status."

"Amber necklaces are not common finds," Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick, of Wessex Archaeology, told BBC News.

"Most archaeologists would say that when you find burials like this... people who can get these rare and exotic materials are people of some importance," he said.

The findings will be discussed at a science symposium in London to mark the 175th anniversary of the BGS.


Professor Evans compared the Stonehenge in the Bronze Age to Westminster Abbey today -- a place where the "great and the good" were buried.

As tooth enamel forms in the first few years of childhood, it stores a chemical record of the environment in which the individual lives. Two of the chemical elements found in the enamel (oxygen and strontium) exist in different forms, or isotopes.

The levels of the isotopes found in enamel are informative to scientists analyzing them.

Most oxygen in teeth and bone comes from drinking water -- which is derived from rain or snow. In warmer climates, drinking water contains higher levels of heavy oxygen (O-18), compared to light oxygen (O-16) found in cold climates. So comparing the oxygen isotope ratio in teeth with that of drinking water from different regions can provide information about the climate in which a person grew up.

Strontium -- found in most rocks in small amounts -- also varies according to local geology. The isotope ratio of strontium in a person's teeth can provide information on the geological area from which an individual lived as a child.

By combining the analysis of both elements in the teeth, archaeologists can point out particular regions where a person may have been raised.


Tests on another burial known as the "Amesbury Archer" show that he was raised in a colder climate than that found in Britain. Analysis of the elements in his teeth showed that he most likely derived from the Alpine hills of Germany.

"Isotope analysis of tooth enamel from both these people shows that the two individuals provide a contrast in origin, which highlights the diversity of people who came to Stonehenge from across Europe," said Professor Evans.

The Amesbury Archer was unearthed about 3 miles from Stonehenge. His was a rich Copper Age or early Bronze Age burial, and contains some of the earliest gold and copper artifacts found in Britain. He lived about 800 years earlier than the Boscombe Down boy.

"We see the beginning of the Bronze Age as a period of great mobility across Europe. People, ideas, objects are all moving very fast for a century or two," Fitzpatrick told BBC.

"At the time when the boy with the amber necklace was buried, there are really no new technologies coming in [to Britain]... We need to turn to look at why groups of people - because this is a youngster - are making long journeys," he said.

"They may be traveling within family groups... They may be coming to visit Stonehenge because it was an incredibly famous and important place, as it is today. But we don't know the answer," Fitzpatrick speculated.

The research is being prepared for publication in a collection of research papers on Stonehenge.


Image 2: The burial site of "Ëœthe Boy with the Amber necklace' at Boscombe Down, about 5 km south-east of Stonehenge. (Photo: Wessex Archaeology).

Image 3: Come of the c. 90 small amber beads thought to have been  part of the necklace found with the burial of "Ëœthe Boy with the Amber necklace' (above). (Photo: Wessex Archaeology).


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