Stonehenge shaman artifacts reveal complex identity of ancients

Ancient tools with traces of gold from a 4000-year-old burial mound near Stonehenge are reshaping how we see personal identity in the ancient world.

FILE PHOTO: A security officer patrols around the perimeter Stonehenge stone circle, where official Summer Solstice celebrations were cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), near Amesbury, Britain June 20, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE/FILE PHOTO)
FILE PHOTO: A security officer patrols around the perimeter Stonehenge stone circle, where official Summer Solstice celebrations were cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), near Amesbury, Britain June 20, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE/FILE PHOTO)

An ancient, 4000-year-old burial mound located in the Stonehenge area contained two bodies along with an elaborate "shaman" costume and stone metalworking tools. Researchers recently reassessed the artifacts and found traces of gold on the surface of the tools. Now, the discovery is causing scientists to reevaluate their view of how the ancients constructed identity.

The researchers who reassessed the artifacts documented their findings in a report published in the archaeology journal, Antiquity. The mound, located in Upton Lovell, a village in southern England, was originally excavated over 200 years ago. Thus far, archaeologists "have focused principally on the issue of identity," the researchers write in the report. "Who was the person wearing the elaborate costume? A shaman? A metalworker? A goldsmith?"

In a modern, Western framework, it is typical to assign simple, uncomplicated identities to ancient people. For instance, this could manifest as characterizing an individual as simply a smith or a hunter or a priest. Indeed, earlier scientists who looked at the Upton Lovell burial mound, such as British archaeologist Stuart Piggot, did just that. 

In the report, the researchers explain how Piggot "argued that the individual was... a shaman and someone of considerable prestige. As a result, the burial is often referred to as the Upton Lovell shaman." Later, however, while analyzing the stone tools from the barrow, Piggot describes the individual as a metalworker.

More recent analyses of the tools have indicated a more complex, multifaceted identity of the individual where they may have been a shaman, goldworker, metalworker, or some combination thereof. The recent study strengthens this perspective as it reveals, through the use of techniques such as "microwear analysis," more about how the tools were used.

Microwear traces on polishing stone (DZSWS:STHEAD.2a) (figure produced by C. Tsoraki; photographs courtesy of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes). (credit: C. TSORAKI)Microwear traces on polishing stone (DZSWS:STHEAD.2a) (figure produced by C. Tsoraki; photographs courtesy of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes). (credit: C. TSORAKI)

What did the examination of the tools reveal?

The tools were used in various ways to work with a variety of materials. For example, there were numerous methods and items used on sheet gold to apply or texture it. Additionally, the study pointed to how technical processes, such as working with different materials, maintaining tools, and the general manufacturing of different objects, were extremely interrelated. They required a far more broad and more developed set of skills than simple labels such as "goldworker" or "metalworker" would suggest. In short, this kind of terminology is inadequate to describe the identities of these ancient individuals.

"There is far more complexity here... than could ever be captured under the label ‘shaman’, ‘metalworker’ or ‘goldsmith’."

The study

"Grave goods disclose an intertwining set of processes. Never static, these objects changed and shifted, requiring modification, repair and reuse." The study reports. "There is far more complexity here... than could ever be captured under the label ‘shaman’, ‘metalworker’ or ‘goldsmith’."

"The ability to transform other objects by the delicate and skilled process of covering them with gold sheet may have been seen as a magical or ritual process, a secret method known only to a few people," said archaeologist Susan Greaney to Live Science. "This research shows how metalworking was closely related to magical, ritual and religious beliefs."