Before Stonehenge - did this man lord it over Wiltshire's sacred landscape?
How 21st-century science is recreating the life story of a neolithic leader - what he looked like, where he grew up and what he ate
Monday 16 December 2013
Archaeologists have just completed the most detailed study ever carried out of the life story of a prehistoric Briton.
What they have discovered sheds remarkable new light on the people who, some 5500 years ago, were building the great ritual monuments of what would become the sacred landscape of Stonehenge.
A leading forensic specialist has also used that prehistoric Briton's skull to produce the most life-like, and arguably the most accurate, reconstruction of a specific individual's face from British prehistory.
The new research gives a rare glimpse into upper class life back in the Neolithic.
Five and a half millennia ago, he was almost certainly a very prominent and powerful individual - and he is about to be thrust into the limelight once again. For his is the prehistoric face that will welcome literally millions of visitors from around the world to English Heritage's new Stonehenge visitor centre after it opens tomorrow, Wednesday. The organisation estimates that around 1.2 million tourists from dozens of countries will 'meet' him as they explore the new visitor centre over the next 12 months.
The new scientific research has revealed, to an unprecedented degree, who this 'face of prehistory' really was.
He was born around 5500 years ago, well to the west or north-west of the Stonehenge area, probably in Wales (but conceivably in Devon or Brittany)
Aged two, he was taken east, presumably by his parents, to an area of chalk geology - probably Wiltshire (around the area that would, 500 years later, become the site of early Stonehenge). However, aged 9, he then moved back to the west (potentially to the area where he had been born) - and then, aged 11, he moved back east once more (again, potentially to the Stonehenge area).
Aged 12, 14 and 15, he travelled back and forth between east and west for short durations and at increased frequency. Scientists, analysing successive layers of the enamel in his teeth, have been able to work all this out by analysing the isotopic values of the chemical elements strontium (which changed according to underlying geology) and oxygen which reflected the sources of his drinking water.
He grew into a taller than average man, reaching an adult height of 172 centimetres. In Neolithic Britain, the average height for adult males was 165 centimetres, while in Britain today it is 176. He probably weighed around 76 kilos (12 stone) and had fairly slender build. Throughout his life, he seems to have consumed a much less coarse diet than was normal at the time . His teeth show much lighter wear than many other examples from the Neolithic. He also had a much higher percentage of meat and dairy produce in his diet than would probably have been normal at the time.
By analysing nitrogen isotope levels in his teeth, a scientific team at the University of Southampton, led by archaeologist Dr Alistair Pike, have worked out that he obtained 80-90% of his protein from animals - probably mainly cattle, sheep and deer.
A detailed osteological examination of his skeleton, carried out by English Heritage scientist, Dr Simon Mays, has revealed that he probably led a relatively peaceful life. The only visible injuries showed that he had damaged a knee ligament and torn a back thigh muscle - both injuries, potentially sustained at the same time, that would have put him out of action for no more than a few weeks.
There is also no evidence of severe illness - and an examination of hypoplasia (tooth enamel deformation) levels suggest that at least his childhood was free of nutritional stress or severe disease. Hypoplasia provides a record of stress through a person's childhood and early teenage years.
But he seems to have died relatively young, probably in his late 20s or 30s. At present it is not known what caused his death.
However, he was probably given an impressive funeral - and certainly buried in a ritually very important location.
Initially his body was almost certainly covered by a turf mound but some years or decades later, this mound was massively enlarged to form a very substantial mausoleum - one of the grandest known from Neolithic Britain. He was the only individual buried there during his era - although a thousand or more years later, several more people were interred in less prominent locations within the monument.
This great mausoleum - 83 metres long and several metres high - was treated with substantial respect throughout most of prehistory - and can still be seen today some one and half miles west of Stonehenge. Fifteen hundred years after his death, his tomb became the key monument in a new cemetery for the Stonehenge elites of the early Bronze Age.
All the new evidence combines to suggest that he was a very important individual - a prominent member of the early Neolithic elite.
The research into his life has yielded a number of fascinating new revelations about that period of British prehistory.
Forensic face reconstruction expert, Oscar Nilsson, in the process of re-creating the Neolithic man's face - by using silicon to create 'flesh' over an exact replica of the skull taken from a mould of the original (English Heritage)
First of all, it hints at the degree to which society was stratified by this time in prehistory. Far from being an egalitarian society, as many have tended to think, the evidence points in the opposite direction. Most early Neolithic people were not given such grand mausolea . The type of monument which was constructed over his grave (known to archaeologists as a long barrow) was primarily a place of ritual, not just a place associated with burial. By having one erected over him, he was being given a very special honour.
Of the 350 such long barrows known in Britain, it is estimated that 50% had no burials in them at all, that a further 25% had just one person buried in them - and that most of the remaining quarter had between five and 15 buried in each of them.
Secondly, it shows, arguably for the first time, that high social status in the early Neolithic was already a matter of heredity. The isotopic tests on the man's teeth show quite clearly that his privileged high meat diet was already a key feature in his life during childhood.
Thirdly, the scientific investigation suggests that at least the elite of the period was associated with a very wide geographical area. In other words, they were not simply a local elite but, at the very least, a regional one. The fact that he seems to have moved back and forth between the west of Britain (probably Wales) and the southern chalklands (probably the Stonehenge area) every few years, at least during his childhood and teenage years, suggests that his family had important roles in both areas.
Given the ritual significance of the Stonehenge area, even at this early stage, it is possible that he and his father and other ancestors before him had been hereditary tribal or even conceivably pan-tribal priests or shamans in a possibly semi-nomadic society. It is also likely that such people also played roles in the secular governance of emerging political entities at the time.
The Neolithic man's mausoleum: the 83 metre long mid-4th millennium BC Winterbourne Stoke long barrow (English Heritage)
Most tantalizing of all, is the newly revealed likely link between Wales and the pre-Stonehenge ritual landscape. When the first phase of Stonehenge itself was finally built in around 3000 BC, the stones that were probably erected there were not, at that stage, the great sarsens which dominate the site today, but were probably the much smaller so-called 'bluestones' (some of which are still there).
Significantly, it is known from geological analysis that those bluestones originally came from south-west Wales - and were therefore almost certainly brought from there to Stonehenge by Neolithic Britons.
Indeed, as late as the 12th century AD, the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote down an ancient legend also suggesting that the stones had come from the west (albeit, in his account, from Ireland, rather than Wales). Archaeologists will now be investigating whether the Stonehenge landscape's link with Wales was in reality even older than that first phase of the monument.
In that sense it is spookily relevant that the mid-fourth millennium BC man chosen by English Heritage to be the 'face of the Neolithic' may actually have been a key part of the original cultural process which ultimately, five centuries later, led to early Stonehenge being erected.
The new visitor centre - built with steel, wood and glass in ultra-modern style - tells the story of Stonehenge and its prehistoric ritual landscape and illustrates it with 300 mainly stone and ceramic artefacts from antiquarian and archaeological excavations carried out around the great stone monument over the past two centuries.
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