ARCHER, Journey to Stonehenge
I’ve been working towards writing and drawing this book for a long time. At last the story is finalised and the artwork is well under way. I hope to have it finished later this year. Aimed at children aged around 9 – 12, it’s in the comic strip genre, with speech bubbles and a fast-moving story.
In 2002 a team from Wessex Archaeology, led by Professor Andrew Fitzpatrick, excavated the burial of a prehistoric man on a hillside at Amesbury, about two miles from Stonehenge. In his grave they found copper daggers, flint arrowheads, gold hair tress rings, beaker pots and much more – around 100 objects in all. One of the man’s ribs and his left kneecap were missing. Visit http://www.wessexarch.co.uk for more info.
A day or two later I had a ‘phone call from Andrew. Wessex had put out a press release about their amazing find – it was the richest Beaker Period burial ever found in Britain and one of the earliest. Their web site was getting more hits than ever before. The world’s press was writing articles; the Sun’s headline read ‘King of Stonehenge’- unlikely…
The archaeologists were calling him the Amesbury Archer. Later, when his radio-carbon dates came back from the lab, he was found to have lived around 2300 BC – about two hundred years after the sarcen stones were erected at Stonehenge. Analysis of strontium and oxygen isotopes in his teeth suggested that he had made a long journey to Stonehenge, probably from the Alpine region. Many of the objects in his grave appeared to be of continental European origin.
An image of the man in the grave was needed – how quickly could I paint one???
I live an hour’s drive from Stonehenge and went over to look at the dig and find out what I could. Speed was of the essence so one of the diggers, who was more or less the same height and build as the man in the grave, gallantly volunteered to pose for some photos for me to use as a starting point for an illustration. (Jackie McKinley, senior osteoarchaeologist at Wessex, had just about had time to give the bones a brief examination). Up on the King Barrow Ridge, with cars and trucks rumbling along the A303 and Stonehenge below him in the valley, he pretended to fix an arrowhead to its shaft.
The Archer’s cranium
Jackie is holding the Archer’s left femur next to her own leg to show the curved shape of the bone. This was found to have been caused over a significant length of time, probably as a consequence of an injury to his left knee which resulted in the loss of his patella.
(The photographs of the finds shown here were taken by me on that first visit to Wessex Archaeology – apologies for their patchy quality…)
Within a week I had the painting ready. Looking at it with hindsight, now that an enormous amount of research has been done by a whole team of people, there are quite a few things I’d change. But that’s the way it goes in my line of work…
The area where the Amesbury Archer was found had been excavated in advance of the construction of a big housing estate. His grave and that of his ‘Companion’ (again visit http://www.wessexarch.co.uk) were located at the edge of what was to become the playing field of a school. The building was almost finished when I had a call from its soon to be head teacher. She asked me to paint my image of the Archer, life size, on the wall of the entrance hall. It was to be the Amesbury Archer Primary School.
I’ve since made two more murals for the school, the most recent depicting a Romano-British woman and child found in a cemetery of that date, now under the school’s playing field, the other of an Army test pilot from nearby Boscombe Down Air Base. My model on that occasion was Major Tim Peake, who went on to become an astronaut with the European Space Programme!
While I was working on the painting of Major Tim the children asked me all sorts of questions about the Archer. They knew a lot about him already as every classroom in the school had names related to the Beaker Period and the man himself featured in many parts of their curriculum. The imaginations of the staff and children had been fired and they in turn fired mine. Someone had to write The Archer’s story and draw pictures of his daring journey – it might as well be me…
Children at the school making their own drawings (with a bit of help from me) of two brave volunteer models.
I’d never attempted to write a book before before – let alone one which would take shape as a graphic novel… Only slightly daunted (if only I’d known what lay ahead!) I ‘phoned Andrew Fitzpatrick. My memory of that call to Andrew is that it lasted most of the morning. He was excited by my idea and instantly supportive. He began to share some of the exciting ideas which were developing out of his research (unpublished at that stage).
I put the phone down thinking – I might just be able to do this…
Andrew suggested I should talk to Professor Richard Harrison, who back in 1970s, had written what is still the only book specifically about the Beaker People – The Beaker Folk, pub. Thames & Hudson. His interest lay with the pan – European nature of the Beaker phenomenon, which first appeared (in the shape of burials with a distinctive ‘package’ of grave goods) around 2500 BC, spread rapidly to many parts of the continent and lasted around 500 to 800 years.
My photo of three of the beakers from the Archer’s grave, reconstructed and conserved by staff at Salisbury Museum
Richard and a colleague from Bristol University, Dr Volker Heyde, had recently published a paper on certain aspects of the Beaker People (elsewhere in Europe the pots are known as Bell Beakers). Their starting point was a cemetery of Bell Beaker date, excavated at Sion in the Upper Rhone Valley, where stand, or stood, a group of anthropomorphic stones, known as stelae.
The flat surface of each stone is inscribed with the stylised image of a person. Some have bows and arrows (barbed and tanged like the flint arrowheads found in Beaker graves).
My Photo of some of the Archers’ arrowheads The two on the right are unfinished blanks.
Other stelae show knives or daggers resembling the copper weapons found in Bell Beaker graves all over Europe; some just like the Archer’s.
Copies of the archers’ daggers, made by Neil Burridge –
The detail of the clothing shown on the stelae is extraordinary. All wear highly patterned garments and decorated belts. Many of the patterns are reminiscent of those on beaker pots. Some individuals have sporran-like bags hanging from their belts and many wear necklaces. Some of these are made up from round beads, some have decorated plaques (both perhaps carved from Amber, though copper beads have also been found with burials) and others take the form of lunulae – moon shapes. Were the people remembered on these stones the elite men and women of a Beaker making community?