October 14, 2010

Ancient Road Trip!

There has been a lot of press coverage lately of a 3,500-year-old skeleton buried near Stonehenge with a bunch of amber beads. The latest in the coverage is from National Geographic, which headlines, "Bejeweled Stonehenge Boy Came from the Mediterranean?" First, I should say that I am excited about what this skeleton can tell us about physical mobility in prehistoric Europe. But, without a proper scientific report, it is very difficult to evaluate the researchers' conclusions.

This skeleton was first uncovered in 2005, and excavators immediately deemed it important because of the cache of nearly 100 amber beads. It can take a while to find funding, take samples, and run isotope analyses, but the results of Sr/O analysis of the skeleton's teeth were just announced at the end of September (at the British Geological Society symposium, which is why there is no scientific information out yet). Jane Evans identified the skeleton as nonlocal from the O isotope signature, which indicates the person grew up in a warmer climate than is found in England. This warmer climate may very well have been the circum-Mediterranean. (I assume that the Sr in this case reflects a seawater signature of around .7092, which could put the individual anywhere along a sea coast, but of course the numbers weren't reported in the popular press.)

Interestingly, in a comment on the above-linked NatGeo article, someone suggested that Mike Parker Pearson has shown that the Stonehenge individual could have been local - so it will be quite interesting to see how this plays out as a research article. Sr/O are by no means perfect assessors of homeland - and a slightly "warmer" O than the climate would have predicted can actually be obtained from an anomalous diet. I would like to see some dietary information from this individual (they assuredly have at least the C, since it's often run along with O) to see if it too is anomalous. So while the NatGeo article highlights the anomalous nature of the burial and the individual, there may well be (I will say there is almost definitely) disagreement about the interpretation of the Sr/O(/C) data. And this is the problem/fun of isotope analysis: we have machines that measure very precisely the isotope composition of bone and teeth - but we often have no idea how to interpret those data because people are far more complex than geology.

My other complaint about the article (or symposium presentation) is the characterization of this individual as a "boy." This person, according to the osteologists, was around 14 to 15 years old at death. It's a bit young for sex assessment, but I'll buy that they felt a certain amount of robusticity suggested male. The article suggests, "Because he was so young, archaeologists suspect the boy traveled with an extended family group, perhaps doing the equivalent of a 'grand tour.'" This individual was not too young to be out on his own, or rather, to be a person (an adult) in his own right. He may well have traveled with a family group, and there may well be evidence of that archaeologically - but I wonder whether the "he was too young" was a quote from the presentation or editorializing by the NatGeo author. (One of the points I make in my dissertation is that, in the Roman Empire, we don't know why young people were coming to Rome - of course, in that context, kids could have come as slaves. This is a different context, but a teenage male 3,500 years ago was likely not "too young" for much.)

I look forward to seeing this in print - and to seeing if the isotope interpretation changes to be more conservative in its estimation of the "bejeweled boy's" homeland.

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