Could Stonehenge Skeletons Be Its Bronze Age Builders?

By David Prudames | 21 June 2004
Shows a photograph of an archaeological trench which has revealed a grave. Inside is a large collection of bones.

Photo: are these the remains of the builders of Stonehenge? © Elaine Wakefield, Wessex Archaeology.

Archaeologists working near Stonehenge have unearthed a grave containing the remains of seven men who they believe might have helped to build Europe’s most famous prehistoric monument.

Discovered at Boscombe Down and dating back to the beginning of the Bronze Age - around 2,300 BC – the men appear to have been alive during the period when many of Stonehenge’s vast megaliths were brought from Wales.

It is this, coupled with the results of tests on the men’s teeth that show they were almost certainly born in Wales, that has led experts from Wessex Archaeology to suggest these men were engaged in building Stonehenge.

"In medieval times, people believed that the stones could only have been brought to Stonehenge by Merlin the Wizard," said Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology.

"For the first time we have found the mortal remains of one of the families who were almost certainly involved in this monumental task."

Shows a photograph of a number of flint arrowheads arranged in a circle.

Photo: because of the number of arrowheads found in the grave, archaeologists have dubbed its occupants the 'Boscombe Bowmen'. © Karen Nichols, Wessex Archaeology.

The grave’s contents include the remains of three children, a teenager and three men. The skulls of the men and the teenager are so similar that experts believe they must be related.

But it is their teeth that have been the main focus of studies. As enamel forms on children’s teeth, it locks in a chemical fingerprint of where they grew up and tests by scientists from the British Geological Survey on the strontium isotopes in the Bowmen’s teeth show they grew up in a place where the rocks are very radioactive.

This was either in the Lake District or Wales. Furthermore, the men’s teeth all have the same pattern, showing that they migrated between the ages of 3 and 13.

According to Dr Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, "this provides a remarkable picture of prehistoric migration."

Shows a photograph of a number of skulls, which have been reconstructed out of fragments and stuck together with tape.

Photo: archaeologists have painstakingly reconstructed a number of the Bowmen's skulls. © Elaine Wakefield, Wessex Archaeology.

The grave was found last year during road improvement works being carried out by QinetiQ, the science and technology company that operates the Boscombe Down airfield.

It was QinetiQ employee and archaeologist Colin Kirby who first made the discovery: "On the second day of the excavations, I noticed human in the side of a water pipe trench," said Colin.

"On investigating the spoil from the trench, fragments of beaker pottery and an arrowhead emerged. This was very exciting as it showed that the burial was probably Bronze Age and may be linked to the Amesbury Archer. I immediately informed Wessex Archaeology."

Seven pots were also found in the grave, buried alongside the dead in the traditional way. It was thought that occupants would need food and drink for the journey to the next life.

Intriguingly the pots are very similar to those found in the nearby grave of the famous Amesbury Archer, a man discovered in May 2002.

Shows a photograph of a number of artefacts including a pot that has been reconstructed from fragments, a number of flint arrowheads and a boar's tusk.

Photo: grave goods included pots, arrowheads, a boar's tusk and a bone toggle. © Tom Goskar, Wessex Archaeology.

His burial was an extremely rich one and included the earliest gold to have been found in Britain. Archaeologists have since reached the conclusion that he is the UK’s oldest known metalworker.

The Archer and the Bowmen date back to around the time of the major building works at Stonehenge. Vast stones, known as bluestones were brought from the Preseli Hills 250 km away in south-west Wales, while the huge sarsen stones were brought from the Marlborough Downs 30 km to the north.

"The Boscombe Bowmen must almost certainly be linked with the bringing of the bluestones to Stonehenge," added Dr Fitzpatrick.

"With the discovery that the Amesbury Archer came from central Europe, these finds are casting the first light on an extraordinary picture at the dawn of the metal age. Through the mists of time, we can start to see the very people who brought the building blocks of the greatest temple of its age."

Shows a painting that depicts a reconstruction of Stonehenge in the Early Bronze Age. The standing stone are in the background, while various people are milling about and a table in the foreground bears a number of pots and arrowheads.

Photo: a painting, which depicts what the Boscombe Bowmen might have looked like by Jane Brayne. © 2004 Jane Brayne.

News of the find was greeted by Don Henson of the Council For British Archaeology with a note of caution.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Don explained how although most archaeologists would agree that Stonehenge’s bluestones come from Wales, pin-pointing an exact date for the age of the bodies and matching that to when the stones were moved is no easy task.

It is, he said, a question of "how finally you can date this group of bodies and does it really coincide with the relocation of the stones."

"It is very, very difficult to prove conclusively that a find is associated with another find and it’s the same date," said Don. "All you can do is give probabilities. You end up saying it’s likely that it’s contemporary."

Without seeing the results Don said it would be impossible to say if these men helped build Stonehenge or not. But, he added, if Wessex Archaeology "are coming up with that interpretation they must have good reasons for believing that."

The finds are due to go on display at Salisbury Museum in an exhibition entitled Changing Places from Saturday July 3.

For more information about the Boscombe Bowmen, click on this link to have a look at Wessex Archaeology's specially created website.

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