The most popular tourist attraction in Wiltshire, England, is without a doubt Stonehenge – the 5,000-year-old circular stone monument whose purpose, methods of stone transportation, construction techniques and more are still a mystery today. And more mysteries just keep on popping up as archeological projects continue and roads and tunnels are built near the site. The latest mysterious Stonehenge discovery is two graves from 4,000 years ago when the initial construction of the site was completed. One of those graves contained a shaman’s clothing and tools with traces of gold which suggest the shaman may have been a jewelry maker. Could this person have been making and selling rings and bracelets at Stonehenge as part of the monument’s first souvenir stand?
“There is far more complexity here, in relations, histories, gestures and processes, than could ever be captured under the label ‘shaman’, ‘metalworker’ or ‘goldsmith’. Grave goods are more than representations of a person's identity. They are more even than critical relations in the construction of identity. What these grave goods stress, when attention is paid to their stories, is quite different.”
In a new paper published in the journal Antiquity and online by Cambridge University Press, archaeologists from the University of Leicester and the University of Southampton took a new look at old artifacts recovered from a Bronze Age grave in the village of Upton Lovell in Wiltshire back in 1801 … when excavations in and around Stonehenge were less regulated by protectors of antiquities and history. The ‘grave’ was a burial mound containing the skeletal remains of two individuals – while not positively identified, they were assumed at the time to be a male and a female. Artifacts recovered at the time from the grave included flint axes, a necklace of beads of polished stone and dozens of bone points that may have once adorned a necklace or made fringe on a garment. The initial analysis of the artifacts indicated to archeologists of that time that these were goods identifying the male as a shaman or holy man. At the time, not much was said of or attributed to the female occupying the grave.
“We take a new approach to the grave goods, employing microwear analysis and scanning electron microscopy to map a history of interactions between people and materials, identifying evidence for the presence of Bronze Age gold on five artefacts, four for the first time.”
Lead author Rachel Crellin, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, explains in Live Science how her research team decided to reexamine the artifacts in the grave, which are now on display at the Wiltshire Museum in the town of Devizes, using high tech equipment not available when the graves were found. In particular, the modern microanalysis tools can show what the ancient tools might have been used for by studying the microparticles embedded in them as well as the wear patterns on their edges. The traces of gold detected on the surfaces of the stone tools indicated they were likely used as hammers or anvils for metalworking. That means the male was much more than a shaman – and may not have been one at all. Even more surprising, they indicate that the female in the grave may have also used the tools for the same purpose.
“None of the tools in the assemblage point towards gold smelting; they instead evidence the process of working gold into a sheet, embellishing it, and applying it to other objects. The assemblage therefore suggests that the process of goldworking was multiphase and perhaps consisted of phases that were carried out by different people in different places. Analysis of objects from the sheet-gold cover tradition suggests that the majority had at least a two-phase history.”
The researchers show that some of the stone tools (photos here) were used as hammers for pounding gold while others that were used as stationary surfaces for hammering – a primitive form of anvils. There was also an awl could have been used to make rib-and-furrow decorations, produce perforations or as part of the fitting process between a sheet of gold and the metal, bone or stone object it was being applied to. That makes their users goldworkers and metalworkers – which in this case made them Bronze Age jewelers working at Stonehenge.
"Both of those people are associated with a toolkit that would allow them to make incredibly fine and beautiful objects that took a great deal of skill."
And Crellin says that “them” is correct – the second individual was found above the first in a ‘sitting posture’ and initially ignored because the other one was wearing an elaborate costume initially attributing him to being a shaman. However, the new analysis suggests both were metalworkers and goldworkers, with the male potentially also being a shaman. She also describes to Live Science the variety of jewelry the pair made with materials besides gold - amber, wood, copper and jet, which is a finely grained, semi-precious form of coal. Other ornamental products found in the grave that they probably included belt-hooks and clasps covered in a thin sheet of gold. The female in the grave also wore a necklace of polished shale beads and a fine shale arm ring.
“This is a toolkit with both varied origins and histories. Alongside the complete battle axe, which was repurposed into a metalworking tool, several other stone tools were either definite or possible battle axes. Taken as a set, they display different stages of use: one had only recently become a metalworking tool; of the others, one pair is heavily worked, but they are still recognizable as battle axes, while the second pair retains only hints of their previous forms.”
Finally, the new analysis of this jewelry-making toolkit revealed something more about the history of the craft – the tools were old and had been handed down to the craftspersons, and at least one was a repurposed battleaxe. As the researchers promised, the history of the tools and jewelry broadened and enhanced the histories of the people who used them.
Were these people the first jewelers to open a souvenir shop at Stonehenge? It is entirely possible – the monument was believed to be a ceremonial gathering place for pilgrims as well as locals. It underwent a number of upgrades and revisions over the centuries which required importing workers and their families for extended periods of time – people who might want a memento of their stay in Wiltshire. The couple might have even been called on to make rings for marriages at the spiritual site.
Our history is not fixed – we must be willing to adjust it as new discoveries are made.