Photograph courtesy Wessex Archaeology
Amber beads found with Bronze Age boy buried near Stonehenge. Photograph courtesy Wessex Archaeology.
Published October 13, 2010
As a major attraction for more than 3,500 years, Stonehenge has inspired many an ancient road trip.
Now, new evidence shows that Bronze Age people journeyed all the way from the Mediterranean coast (regional map)—more than 500 miles (805 kilometers) away—to see the standing stones on Britain's Salisbury Plain. (See Stonehenge pictures.)
Chemical analysis of the teeth of a 14- or 15-year-old boy—buried outside the town of Amesbury (map), about three miles (five kilometers) from Stonehenge (map)—reveal that he hailed from somewhere in the Mediterranean region, new research shows.
Discovered in 2005, the teen was buried about 3,550 years ago wearing a necklace of about 90 amber beads.
"Such exotic materials demonstrate that he was from one of the highest echelons of society," said project archaeologist Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology, a consulting firm based in Salisbury, England.
Bejeweled Boy Died on "Grand Tour"?
To determine that the teen wasn't a local, scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) measured different forms of the elements oxygen and strontium in his teeth.
The ratios of these element forms change with climate and local geology. Like tree rings, human teeth record this signature year by year and can be used to narrow down a person's native region.
"In the case of the boy with the amber necklace, he had an oxygen signature that appeared too warm for the area of Stonehenge in which he was found—but instead matched areas of the coastal Mediterranean," said the BGS's Jane Evans, who presented her findings at a BGS symposium in London on September 28.
Because he was so young, archaeologists suspect the boy traveled with an extended family group, perhaps doing the equivalent of a "grand tour."
"We think that the wealthiest people may have made these long-distance journeys in order to source rare and exotic materials, like amber. By doing these journeys, they probably also acquired great kudos," Wessex's Fitzpatrick noted.
Crossing the English Channel (map)—most likely by paddleboat—was probably one of the more challenging parts of this journey, he speculated.
Stonehenge Was High-Status Burial Ground
The boy's skeleton bears no obvious injuries, suggesting he died of infection. He was buried near Stonehenge likely because of its status and significance at the time, experts say.
The bejeweled boy is just one of a number of burials near Stonehenge that show that the monument drew visitors from far and wide. (Take a Stonehenge quiz.)
For instance, one of the earliest known Stonehenge visitors is the "Amesbury Archer," also buried about three miles (five kilometers) from the standing stones. A similar tooth analysis has shown that the archer traveled all the way from the foothills of the German Alps around 4,400 years ago.
Special Ad Section
Our new Phenomena space blogger, Nadia Drake, will be bringing you tales from beyond our home planet.
Video of the Day
During one of the worst droughts in centuries, California's top snow surveyor is sounding the alarm.