Meet the Amesbury Archer

In May 2002 archaeological investigations were being carried out in advance of  building a housing estate at Amesbury, near Stonehenge, in Britain. An ancient grave was discovered with a fascinating collection of artefacts. There were five pots of the type known as Beaker ware, that immediately dated the grave to the early Bronze age. A skeleton was revealed wearing a stone wrist-brace, designed to protect the arm from the snap of a bowstring, and there was another such wrist-brace in the grave, along with sixteen barbed flint arrowheads. This lead to the occupant of the grave being dubbed the Amesbury Archer.

There were other objects in the grave as well. In fact, it contained the largest collection of artefacts ever found in any Bronze Age burial in Britain. They included three copper knives, two gold hair ornaments and a collection of tools for both flint knapping and metal working. The Amesbury Archer actually appears to have been a smith, and a high status one at that. Radiocarbon dating sets the burial at around 2300 B.C.E., making the gold objects the earliest ever found in Britain.

Scientific investigation of the bones and teeth revealed even more information about the Archer. He was about forty when he died and had not originated in Britain but had grown up in an Alpine region of Central Europe. Furthermore, he had suffered a serious injury to his leg which involved the loss of his kneecap. He had obviously survived some considerable time after this injury, though it may well have left him lame and possibly needing the support of a crutch to walk.  An abscess in the jaw indicated that he was suffering from a painful and dangerous bone infection, probably originating with the injury to his leg, and it may well have been this that eventually killed him.

The Amesbury Archer on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Photo  Pasicles CC0

The Amesbury Archer on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum
Photo Pasicles CC0

Excellent detailed photos of the Amesbury Archer’s grave goods are also among those on Wessex Archeology’s Flickr page.

The discovery of an actual lame smith, one of the earliest metalworkers in Britain, sent shivers down my spine when I first heard of it. It brought up again the question of the Persistence of Folk Memory and how much of folklore is actually based on memories of real events and people. Of course, it must be said that there is no obvious, immediate connection between a lame smith in Britain and the archetype of Hephaestus in the Greek Aegean. The date of 2300 B.C.E. is not particularly early in the context of the Aegean Bronze Age, which is generally agreed to begin about 3200 B.C.E.

However the Early Bronze Age is characterised as much by developing urbanisation and exchange, including trading for bronze objects, as by local metal working. Many of the metal objects associated with the Early Bronze Age in Greece and Crete are copper or copper/arsenic alloys rather than true bronzes. As I have argued in my post The Chemical Marriage, I believe that Hephaestus was very much associated with the technology of making true bronzes by deliberate alloying of copper and tin. This technology would have taken time to be fully developed. The myths of Hephaestus, the god that embodies both the tin and the technological secrets of the master bronzesmith, could well have been taking shape around 2300 B.C.E.

Then there is the much debated question of from where the tin for the bronze came. Tin is much less readily available than copper and there are no known sources in the Aegean, or indeed through much of the Near East. It is now believed that tin for the bronze made in ancient Mesopotamia was traded from Afghanistan. Some of this tin, or bronzes made from it, may have eventually reached the Mediterranean but it is generally agreed that Aegean bronzesmiths must have developed alternative supplies. Extraordinary as it may seem, given the distances involved, at least some of the tin used by smiths at Knossos or Mycenae came from Britain, from sources in Devon and Cornwall.

Long distance trade in ancient times need not have always involved individuals making long journeys. It is perfectly possible for goods to pass through a long chain of middle men, as people trade with neighbours in one direction, acquiring goods that they know will be valued by neighbours in the other. It is believed that tin came to Mesopotamia from Afghanistan along trade networks originally developed for lapis lazuli and that British tin followed, at least in part, the Amber Route to the Mediterranean. Amber and lapis however are often worn as ornaments, instant adverts that you have access to such trade goods. It is much harder to see how people in Britain would know that there was a demand for their tin in Greece – unless, at least initially, some people made long journeys in search of it.

There is one more important point about the Amesbury Archer. The injury to his knee was not the only way in which he was lame. He also suffered from a condition called calcaneonavicular coalition, in which some of the bones of the foot are fused together. This means the foot does not flex properly, and pain and inflammation can develop, making it hard to put weight on the foot. This condition is hereditary. Indeed, there is another burial close by the Amesbury Archer, a younger man, aged about twenty and also suffering from the same condition. The obvious conclusion is that he is a close relative of the Archer’s, quite possibly his son, though the younger man apparently grew up in Britain.

So, let us suppose that one of the first smiths working effectively with tin/copper bronze suffered from this condition. As a successful man, he may well have had many children, about half of whom would inherit the condition – it is caused by a dominant gene. His sons would likely also have become smiths and other smiths may have married his daughters. If, as often happens, smiths continued to intermarry with other smiths, the result may well have been a smith clan who all had a tendency to painful feet, that caused them to limp, especially when tired or as they got older.

Is that why the Smith God is lame?

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